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Iceland Mag

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This day in history: The sinking of whaling vessels in Reykjavík harbour was "Iceland's 9/11"

By Staff

  • The front page of local newspaper DV on Nov 10 1986 Icelanders viewed the action as an attack upon Iceland, rallying around the whaling industry. Photo/DV

On November 9 in 1986 two activists from the radical environmental group Sea Shepherd flew to Iceland to carry out the only action which has been characterized as a successful terrorists act in Iceland, the sinking of two whaling vessels in Reykjavík harbour. The action has been described as the "9/11 of Iceland".

The comparison is even more apt because in Europe the day of the month is listed ahead of the month: November 9, when the attack was carried out, is written 9.11 in Iceland. 

A targeted attack
On the evening of November 8 the two activists broke into the whale processing station of Hvalur hf in Hvalfjörður fjord, north of Reykjavík vandalizing machinery, computers and power generators, leaving the factory inoperable. Shortly after midnight on November 9 they snuck into two of the whaling boats of Hvalur hf in the old harbour in downtown Reykjavík, opening their cooling valves, causing the ships to sink.

The two environmental activists made it to Keflavík Airport and out of Iceland before the authorities realized what had happened or who they should be looking for.

The attack caused significant property damage, but nobody was hurt. The two boats, Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7 were later raised from the bottom of the harbour, but were never used for whale hunting again. For several years the two boats have been resting on dry land in Hvalfjörður, just east of the whale processing plant.

Attack entrenched the support for whaling
The action was carried out in protest of Iceland‘s defiance of the moratorium on whaling which had been implemented by the International Whaling Commission in January of 1986. 

Read more: Whaling is not an Icelandic tradition

At the time Icelanders were still engaged in relatively large-scale commercial whaling which enjoyed the support of the vast majority of the population. Environmental concern had were still relegated to the fringes of public discourse, and the sinking of the whale boats did nothing to change that. In fact it could be argued that it did just the opposite.

Most Icelanders viewed the action as a foreign terrorist attack upon Iceland and the Icelandic way of life and rallied around the whaling industry. For a long time the right to hunt whales was seen by many as fundamental to the very foundation of Icelandic sovereignty. Other environmental groups, like Greenpeace, which fought against whaling were also seen as suspect. 

The argument that whale watching was an alternative to the whaling industry were met with derision and laughter.

Iceland continued commercial whaling
Despite the moratorium on whaling Iceland continued to hunt whales until 1989. This whaling was said to be for "scientific" reasons, although environmentalists and conservationists disputed this characterization. The international whaling moratorium excempted the killing of whales for scientific studies. 

No whales were hunted in Iceland from 1990 until 2002 when limited scientific hunting began again. Between 2003 and 2007 Icelandic whalers hunted 207 minke whales. In 2008, however, commercial whaling began again. 

Shrinking public support
Public opinion polls showed a solid majority in support of whaling until quite recently. As late as 2013 a poll showed that only 18% of Icelanders were opposed to commercial whaling, with 60% supporting the practice. The pendulum has swung extremely rapidly in recent years, not least because whale watching has grown to become a far larger and more important industry than whaling.

Read more: Support for whaling continues to drop in Iceland

The most recent poll shows less than half of Icelanders support whaling.

This year Icelandic whalers killed only 17 minke whales. No great whales were hunted this year.

Younger generations see no point in whaling
Aside from the economic importance of whale watching a major reason for the change in public attitude is a generational shift: People who remember the 1986 attack are middle aged or older, and younger generations do not have the emotional connection to whaling as their parents.

Changing consumption patterns also play a role as whale meat has disappeared from the menu of most Icelanders. Today more than half of all whale meat sold in Iceland is consumed by foreign visitors. Ironically, whaling would probably disappear completely if it were not for demand from curious tourists.

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