Off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) slices through krill-filled water in a seemingly effortless arc, its distended throat pouch evidence of the sea’s bounty. The massive whale is lunge-feeding, and its tiny prey have congregated close enough to the surface to allow biologist and photographer Mark Carwardine to capture an ethereal image of this feeding strategy from the air.
Here in Mexican waters, as is the case throughout much of their range today, fin whales are relatively safe, facing predation pressure only from orcas (Orcinus orca). Elsewhere, however, another mammalian predator still poses a threat to healthy fin whale populations: humans. The fastest of the great baleen whales (probably an adaptation that helped them evade orcas), fin whales were not often targeted by 19th century whalers. However, with the advent of modern technology in the 20th century, fin whale populations began to be depleted worldwide. After the International Whaling Commission imposed a ban on commercial whaling in 1986, their numbers began to recover, but fin whales are still listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
While most countries have adhered to the commercial whaling ban, Iceland, Norway, and Japan have long been exceptions. In Iceland, a country that resumed commercial whaling operations in 2002, fin whales have been a primary target—partly to feed local demand for whale meat and partly to supply the much larger Japanese market. Over the past few years, however, things have started to change. In 2019, for the first time in nearly two decades, Icelandic whalers suspended operations, even though their government had approved their permits.
Conservation biologist Joe Roman, who recently spent a year in Iceland studying both whale ecology and the country’s whaling practices, says the shift—while partly driven by global policy changes—can largely be credited to dwindling demand for whale meat. In 2014, many European countries began refusing to allow the transport of whale meat harvested in Iceland across their borders on the way to commercial markets in Japan, prompting Japan to increase whaling efforts in its own coastal waters. Around the same time, says Roman, attitudes about whaling among both Icelanders and Icelandic tourists began to change. It was once common for tourists to head out on a whale watching excursion and then return to shore to dine on grilled whale meat. But in recent years, thanks in large part to the “Meet Us Don’t Eat Us” campaign launched by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the percentage of tourists who eat whale meat has declined from 40 percent to just 11. And while many Icelanders still eat whale meat once or twice a year, a recent Gallup poll reveals that the practice is dying out among younger generations.
“During my time in Iceland, I occasionally saw whale meat in supermarkets and on restaurant menus, where they were advertised to tourists,” says Roman. “But demand for whale meat is drying up,” he says, in part because of a growing recognition of the ecological and economic value that whales bring to the region. Roman has spent the past decade documenting the role that whales play as ecosystem engineers, and the high rates of extinction we would likely see among fish and marine invertebrates if whales disappeared. Along with a team of Icelandic colleagues, he has also recently compiled data proving that whale-watching income in Iceland far outweighs the revenue from hunting fin and minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata).
This year, the Icelandic government has once again approved permits for Icelandic whalers to hunt fin whales off its coast. But Roman’s contacts in the country think it’s unlikely a hunt will happen at all. “Although few would have predicted it,” says Roman, “whaling may end in Iceland not through denial of a permit but from lack of interest.” The trend makes Roman hopeful that commercial whaling programs in Norway and Japan may meet a similar end—and that fin whales may soon be lunge-feeding in relative safety across their entire range.
Sea of Cortez, Mexico
Mark Carwardine is a zoologist, conservationist, wildlife photographer, writer, and TV and radio presenter. He presented the popular six-part BBC-TV series Last Chance to See, with actor and comedian Stephen Fry, in which the unlikely duo travelled the world in search of a motley collection of endangered species (following in the footsteps of a similar journey he had made with Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 20 years earlier). He also co-presented the BBC-TV series Museum of Life and, for many years, presented the weekly half-hour program Nature on BBC Radio 4. Carwardine has written more than 50 books on a variety of wildlife, travel, and conservation subjects. He was Chairman of the Judging Panel of the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, for seven years (2005-2011) and was selected as one of "The World's 40 Most Influential Nature Photographers" in Outdoor Photography magazine.