Iceland: Whales

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I have always had a love for cetaceans so the idea of seeing wild Orcas and Humpbacks drove me to take part in this trip to Iceland, although with all wildlife nothing is certain. More is known about the moon surface then the sea and its inhabitants, whales are surrounded with mystery and common throughout history whilst Iceland provides both of these and some of the best interactions in the world with over twenty three types of cetaceans in the surrounding water due to the abundance of food. With two free days to photograph anything I took the opportunity to attend two whale watching sessions one in a pair and the other as a team, setting off into the Atlantic ocean in the southern part of Faxaflói, just off Reykjavík at midday, it was cold and treacherous but the harsh wind and snowfall brought outstanding sightings with two different White beak dolphin pods which then lead us to three Humpback whales.

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White beak dolphins Lagenorhynchus albirostris are the most common dolphin in Icelandic waters all year round and is one of the few places to appreciate them as they only live in the North Atlantic Ocean, North Sea and Barents Sea. To see these graceful and beautiful sea zebras gliding through the water was something I cannot translate, unfortunately I did not manage to capture an image of these amazing creatures but watching them breach through the waves is something I will never forget. Humpback whales Megaptera novaeanglia were spotted interacting as a group and with the dolphins, a wonderful sight along with spy hopping; slow, vertical head rise out of the water and fluke slaps which are a type of kick feeding behavior where a turbulence is created at the surface by slapping the water with its tail which did bring many others and myself to tears. As one of the longest migratory mammals theHumpback whale is famous for it’s eccentric nature with many interactions and its famous whale song to find a mate.

ImageThis amount of activity provided me with the chance to capture my winning image of our ‘First Icelandic Photographic Fish off’ through a collaborative vote combined with one of my best friends Jack Breadmore and his winning Landscape image, which we celebrated with our winning beverages.

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As I enjoyed this trip so much I wanted to make the most of the opportunity and attend another, the second trip; the following day brought better weather both photographically and physically, with visibility to the mountains I set out to capture cetaceans within their habitat but the softer waves reduced the likelihood of activity. After forty minutes driving out to sea we got a report from another boat ofa lone Humpback so turned around and headed back into shore and found it in an ideal location for my ideas; right in front of the mountains. There is a variety of surface behaviors that can be witness from the boats whilst I witnessed various distinctive performances such as ‘Spouts’ which is a mighty surface exhalation that can be up to 20 feet high, ‘Lobtailling’ which has not been witnessed in Iceland for many months, this is where the whales head is down and raises its tail and slaps it on the water along with many ‘Fluking dives’ which with an arch of the back the flukes are raised resulting in a dive whilst deeper dives were approached without the raise of the fluke. Although there was far less activity and sightings this trip provided me with a completely different experience and photographic opportunities, wildlife is unpredictable with the location unknown and every encounter is unique but makes it special. My main goal when photographing the whales was to get my GoPro into the water but due to the season bigger boats were used, which made this plan unrealistic, but I plan to come back and succeed next time.

ImageIceland is known for its whaling traditions which the stations were planted by the Norwegians in the 19th Century in the North west and East of Iceland which continued into the 20th, until they were not profitable any more, to this day only 2% of Icelanders eat whale with the majority of demand from tourists. Continuous change between protection and whaling limits have happened over the years due to pressure from anti-whaling activists which at this time commercial whaling still commences with small quotas a year issued with this years number being which after speaking to a local insists these have no damage on the whale population. With the whaling industry being funded by tourism many whale watching boats including Elding work hard to educate its customers on avoiding buying meat or eating in any restaurant that provides it which personally I fully support. After talking to an Icelandic local about commercial whaling I gained an insight into why whale meat was such a big part of their culture, early hunts were mainly for oil then with many food and materials being imported and a poor, starving culture what one of us would not resort to any means, how does it differ from me a Brit eating cow meat? It does not. Now with many other produces affordable and easy to come by whale meats requirement has declined dramatically whilst whaling impacts the Icelandic economy dramatically as there is an excessive rivalry for fish.

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References

http://www.whalewatching.is/whale-watching/whales/humpback-whale.aspx

http://whalewatch.com/research/behaviors.php

http://us.whales.org/issues/whaling-in-iceland

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