The lady behind the counter at Sægreifinn (Sea Baron) pointed me to the cold display case, where skewers of raw Icelandic fish were chilling, ready to be cooked to order. But I wasn’t here for fish. I was on the hunt for the blood-red meat of the minke whale.
Ten minutes later, I received a plate of grilled whale meat, crimson juices still flowing from its deep burgundy cleaves. I was fully prepared for something fishy and awful, but then I remembered that whales are mammals; the meat was dense and tender, like a great beef steak cooked medium rare. Not an inch of fat could be found. It was juicy, melted in my mouth, and was naturally delicious.
Lunching on whale is the kind of conflicting experience travelers find themselves in when visiting a country whose world perspective and standard of morals differ from their own.
While most Icelanders don’t have a problem with whale meat, many outsiders find the country’s whale-hunting practices are barbaric.
On numerous occasions, after admitting to eating whale, I heard some version of the response, “I’ll never visit Iceland so long as they kill innocent whales.” It’s usually followed by facts and figures about various species. Some people have even tweeted articles at me, haranguing the photos of my meals posted online.
It got me curious – why would a country like Iceland – which prides itself on ecological protection and environmental sustainability – be so lax about whale hunting? Why be one of only 3 countries in the entire world to continue hunting whales when nearly everywhere else on earth has called for the practice to end? In search of answers, I went to seek out “the Ahab of Iceland” himself, Kristján Loftsson.
Less than 450 meters away from Reyjkavik’s Hallgrimskirkja church, sits Þrír frakkar (“The Three Coats”), a family-owned-and-operated restaurant nestled next to homes that look straight out of an IKEA catalog. The building is unassuming for the most part, almost entirely blending into the residential area surrounding it, save for one eye-catching structure – a giant whale tail made of wood, sinking into the ground.
The restaurant’s interior is no more subtle about what’s on the menu – whale paintings and sculptures are proudly on display in every corner. The graphic on the front of the menu is an illustrated whale’s tail, and there are at least three different whale meat items on offer, including a whale sashimi appetizer.
It’s here I sit down with Loftsson. The squirrely man wearing a simple sweater, dress shirt, and casual slacks is the current owner of Hvalur HF, the largest of Iceland’s whaling companies exclusively hunting fin whales. He’s been in the family business since 1956; his first job was scouting on his father’s boats at the age of 13.
Meanwhile, Stefan Úlfarsson, the second-generation chef of The Three Coats (his father opened the restaurant, and his son is now part of the kitchen staff), explains that currently, only two types of whales are legally hunted in Iceland: fin and minke. They taste similar, and there doesn’t seem to be a preference for serving one over the other at restaurants.
To preserve freshness, Loftsson sets a limit on how many whales can be brought back to shore each day. Surprisingly, that total is only one or two, based on how many animals are in the area of the whaling boats.
“The whale begins to decay very rapidly once it’s been killed,” Loftsson says. “So you need to bring it back to shore quickly.”
Quotas are enforced to ensure that these animals are not over-hunted; at the time of my discussion with Loftsson, the number of fin whales he was allowed to hunt annually was 150. This past summer, he didn’t hunt them at all.
“If there is no demand for the meat, we don’t hunt it,” he told me. He also cited heavy bureaucratic issues between Iceland and Japan – which buys a lot of Iceland’s whale meat – as a leading cause for his whale hunting “sabbatical.” Japan recently issued a new set of standards for testing contaminants in the meat. Loftsson abides by their requests and does his own testing, but the results never seem to match up.
“They keep changing the levels of how much mercury is permitted,” he added. “We do our tests here, the levels are fine, we send it to them, they do their own tests. They tell us our levels are too high, and they send the meat back to us. Now that’s meat we can’t use and has been wasted.”
Loftsson’s quotations often shock the press and animal rights activists, who question his hunting practices and constantly petition for him to cease the hunting of whales. But to Loftsson, whale hunting is just another job, and whales, “…just another fish for me, an abundant marine resource, nothing else.”
Loftsson was blunt about his business, and he was out to make a profit, so to really understand Iceland’s attitude toward whale meat, I had to talk to Icelanders. If this was a local delicacy, or something they ate regularly, thoroughly enjoyed, and truly tied back to their own culture, maybe I’d feel better about consuming it myself.
Almost every Icelander I talked to rolled their eyes or groaned when I brought up the subject – not because they were vehemently against whale meat and whale hunting, but because it’s a question they are constantly asked by outsiders.
“Nobody eats it,” Ólafur Grímsson, a bartender at Bravo said. “It’s purely for tourists.”
“And whatever the tourists don’t eat gets sent to Japan and is turned into dog food,” a barback added. These claims are no exaggeration – exported whale meat that eventually becomes pet food is public knowledge, and may even be the main reason whale hunting continues at all.
Records of whale hunting in Iceland go back as far as the 12th century, when its main purpose was a local food and fuel source; in the early 20th century, the country began hunting commercially. It was only in 1986 that Iceland complied with the International Whaling Commission’s plea to cease whale hunting.
Iceland continued to conduct scientific research on a small amount of whales each year until 2006, when, after a 20-year prohibition on whale hunting, they decided to forgo their agreement and resume commercial whaling once more.
Icelandic disinterest in whale meat may have less to do with sentiment and environmental reasons than many assume. Most Icelanders agreed that yes, sure, killing animals is bad, but none were bothered enough to take a stand against it, or try to sway people from eating it.
“Even my mother wouldn’t eat it,” Ólafur says with a grimace. “It’s old fashioned, it reminds us of poorer times.”
The one thing Loftsson and most other Icelanders agree on is that the decline in local consumption of whale meat is heavily due to the fact that there are so many alternative meal choices to be had in Reykjavik. Eating whale is not the necessity it once was.
“Growing up, we didn’t have chicken,” Loftson reminisces. “Now we have pizza, pasta, whatever we want.”
A 2016 Gallup poll cited that only 19% of Icelanders had purchased whale meat in the past 12 months, compared to an estimated 12% of tourists who admitted to trying the food the summer of that same year. Considering Iceland had 10 times more tourists (1.8 million) than locals (just over 123,000), it’s clear that tourists eat way more whale than Icelanders.
Yet, a separate Gallup poll revealed that 51% of Icelanders were in support of minke whale hunting and 31% had no opinion about it. Only 20% were totally against the practice.
There is a way for the world to control Iceland’s whale-hunting practices. The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Meet Us Don’t Eat Us campaign urges tourists to educate themselves on the subject and put an end to the industry by boycotting whale meat served in restaurants.
Saving the whales in this way will prove difficult however. The number of visitors is predicted to push well past 2 million in 2018. The country isn’t exactly known for its cuisine, and the exoticism of whale meat is enough to encourage foreigners to pay upwards of 5,690 krona (approximately $54) for the chance to say they’ve eaten whales.
And for those looking for a ‘local experience in a country whose only flaw is arguably selling whale meat to tourists, I guess that means being as indifferent about dining on whale as the locals are.