101 in 1001 {III}: 009 go whalewatching [completed 09.28.12]

watching for whales

though the whalewatching trip we took in iceland this september was my first, i think i can say that it was unlike what we would have experienced anywhere else. in mexico's sea of cortez, the harpoon-scarred gray whales of baja surface near boats, their babies at their sides: though we're utterly undeserving, they've forgiven the awestruck humans who come to them in peace. it's not like that in the north atlantic, not where we were. icelandic whalers ignore international regulations, and it's getting worse: in the 2010 hunt alone, 148 endangered fin whales and 60 minke whales were killed (the united states considered sanctions against iceland last year, but obama declined to invoke the pelly amendment). cognitive dissonance among icelanders outside of the whaling industry is pretty intense: while only 5% of them claim to eat whale regularly, some pollsters report that up to 75% of icelanders believe that whalers should be permitted to continue. japan imports the majority of the whalers' meat, but it's estimated that 40% of tourists in iceland eat it - which is where we came in. elding, the whalewatching company we chose, takes the "meet us don't eat us" campaign very seriously, and our golden-haired guide spent most of the trip from grindavĂ­k out to sea pleading with us on the whales' behalf. nothing abstract about that: she sounded close to tears at a few points, and there the minke whale was on the menu at dinner later that night, beside smoked puffin as part of a "taste of iceland" special. it's pronounced "minky," that whale's name. you can eat a minky whale.

that's the backstory - but the watching, now. we had planned to depart from reykjavik's old harbour, but the wind whipping into the bay wasn't interested in that; instead, we took the slowest double-decker bus in iceland (the only double-decker bus in iceland?) to a little fishing village forty minutes down the road. if the harbor at grindavĂ­k was considered placid, i shudder to think of what we left behind. i swallowed my gratis seasickness tablet like a good landlubber and have an unremarkable relationship with most vehicles, but when we left port and i went belowdecks for my industrial strength whalewatchin' onesie (the north atlantic is, unsurprisingly, colder than shit) i lost my abilities to walk in a straight line, stand upright, and speak english for a good twenty minutes or so. (extra-confusing when i rejoined joe, since the icelanders we met already thought he was a local. i think it was the beard.) that settled the issue of whether or not i would attempt creature-photography; in the absence of both fine motor skills and one of the semiautomatic, massive-barreled cameras the tourists around us were sporting (how close can you feel to a subject when there's a yard of equipment between you and your own lens, to say nothing of the distance between you and it?), i decided to document any whales we watched with, you know, my feelings.

september falls at the far reaches of whalewatching season, as most of the local baleen whale population migrates to warmer waters at summer's end, and it was clear from the way our guide was hyping dolphins that she didn't have high hopes for the afternoon. then, o then, the smallest spout at ten o'clock! at one o'clock! at one o'clock again! when it seemed the mysterious spouter was heading in a straight line, we followed it at a respectful distance, and our guide's voice rose in joy from the crow's nest: "and there's the fluke! it's a humpback!" the migration sometimes leaves younger whales behind, you see, and we found one, probably planning the whale-equivalent of a filmic eighties house party when one's parents are out of town. we followed his spouts and dives for an hour; we all knew where to look, but that joyous, lilting "and the fluke!" rang out each time he dove again. that happiness is as integral to my memory of the day as that magnificent tail.

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