A Whaling Fleet Without Harpoons...Sure Hauls In The TouristsAriane Sains
From the crow's nest comes the cry: "Whale, 800 meters!" Passengers on the deck of the Penomi scramble starboard. Within minutes, the ship is idling alongside a sperm whale, its massive black shape rippling the water.
This may not be the sort of hunt envisioned by the Norwegian whalers who once ruled this stretch of the Arctic Ocean just off the Continental Shelf. But in tiny Andenes, population 3,600, whale-watching safaris have become the modern way to meet Moby Dick.
GETTING SCARCE. On a bleak, rainy day with fog blanketing its fjord, Andenes seems like the end of the world. The county seat of Andoy Island, Andenes was a whaling village until 1987. The tradition goes back to the 1500s, and in its heyday, roughly from 1948-71, Norwegian whalers took as many as 4,000 cetaceans a year. But with world opinion turning against whaling and prey getting scarce, the local government decided to shut the industry down. In 1988, with financial help from the county, Whale Safari took its first passengers out on a made-over whaling boat.
From one boat that carried a total of 339 passengers in the first year, the company has grown to two that carried close to 10,000 this season. Even at a fee of almost $100 a person, the safaris are popular enough to often warrant three trips daily. But bad weather idles the boats, so profits are thin.
And old traditions die hard. The local butcher shop still offers fresh whale steak, a product of Norway's annual whale hunt, which continues despite intense international pressure to end it. Andenes' three main restaurants all have whale on the menu, and even tourists who have spent the day pointing cameras are often ready to take knife and fork to a juicy leviathan steak at night.
"Personally, I am against whale hunting," says Dag Lund, owner of Sorvesten, a restaurant whose specially prepared Bloody Watson whale steak (spiced and cooked in its own juices) is a popular choice. "But if they're going to hunt them, someone has to use the meat. And most of the tourists like to try it." Employees of the whale center, headquarters for the safaris as well as a museum and a research operation, are carefully neutral about such offerings. "It all depends how you want to experience things," says Remie Bakker, a safari boat guide. "We can't tell people what to do."
Many of the tourists, of course, come from European Union nations and the U.S., which are lobbying Norway to give up its hunt and threatening sanctions if whale products are exported to their countries. It's now illegal to hunt all but minke whales, and the quota this year was for just 425 animals, up slightly from the previous year. Privately, Norwegian whalers admit the hunt is not very profitable. The sanction threat means buyers of meat and blubber are mostly limited to Japan. Transport and outfitting costs are high. Whalers also have no choice but to accept the price set for their catch by the meat buyers' cartel.
But the independent Norwegians, who have long lived off the sea, refuse to bow to the pressure. For every community like Andenes that tries to be politically correct, there's another like nearby Lofoten that asserts its right to hunt whales. Given that spirit, it may be a long time before harpoons completely give way to cameras.
Regardless of the politics of whaling versus watching, there's no doubt that new-wave whaling has brought an economic boost to Andenes. A survey done for Andoy municipality shows that 50% of all hotel rooms are taken by whale safari participants. Hotels and restaurants take in almost $800,000 a year from travelers, who spend about that much again in stores and museums. And a new ferry line has opened up to carry tourists from Andenes to the next island.
Dag Lund estimates that without the tourists, his restaurant might take in around $800 daily, instead of the almost $4,000 he now gets in season. In 1994, Lund spent close to $1 million to renovate Sorvesten and his hotel Gronnbua, an investment he expects will pay off in seven years. So while Whale Safari itself may be struggling to make a profit, the rest of the town is grateful that the mighty mammals are still cruising the icy waters.