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Reports from Vacationland: Whale. It’s what’s for dinner.

  • (FELICE BELMAN/ Monitor staff)

    (FELICE BELMAN/ Monitor staff)

  • (FELICE BELMAN/ Monitor staff)

    (FELICE BELMAN/ Monitor staff)

  • Iceland June, 2013.<br/><br/>(FELICE BELMAN / Monitor staff)

    Iceland June, 2013.

    (FELICE BELMAN / Monitor staff)

  • (FELICE BELMAN/ Monitor staff)
  • (FELICE BELMAN/ Monitor staff)
  • Iceland June, 2013.<br/><br/>(FELICE BELMAN / Monitor staff)

Would you eat a whale?

It’s not a question you hear too often, but last month, in a swanky restaurant in Reykjavik, I found myself face-to-face with this item on an otherwise enticing menu: warm whale steak with turnip purée. It cost a cool 2,890 Icelandic krona (about $23).

And so the inevitable question: Would you eat a whale?

This is the sort of dilemma that makes travel so wonderful. After all, what is the proper mind-set for a tourist? Do you apply your own (American) sensibilities to the world or do you try to put yourself in the shoes of an Icelander – in this case, an Icelander with cash to burn and a taste for rare seafood? Do you suspend your prejudices and preconceived notions, or do you draw the line?

Eating unusual local foods is among the best parts of travel, but what if it offends your politics? And if you’ve never really thought too deeply about whale hunting – to say nothing of whale eating – what’s your responsibility to learn about it quickly? Is it okay to engage the waiter? The chef? Wikipedia? If you pass up the whale, will you live to regret it? If you eat it, will there be remorse?

Having the chance to wrestle with such a problem is a privilege indeed!

I had read a bit about whales and whaling the day before. The Reykjavik harbor bustles with charter boats of all varieties taking tourists to see whales and Atlantic puffins (which some Icelanders also consider dinner, I learned), and it’s hard not to get sucked into the scene.

Commercial whaling had been banned for 20 years in Iceland, but in 2006 it made a return: The government allowed limited hunting of minke whale, one of the smallest and most numerous of the main whale species. Then last month, Icelandic whalers resumed their hunt for the endangered fin whale, the second-largest marine mammal after the blue whale. A poll conducted while I was visiting determined that 60 percent of Icelanders are in favor of the hunt.

Not surprisingly, the move has outraged environmentalists across the globe. The Natural Resources Defense Council, for instance, is circulating a petition urging the U.S. government to impose economic sanctions on Iceland in response to the hunt.

The group has a website devoted to stopping the whale hunt, where commenters use language like “slaughter” and even “genocide.”

And an organization called Whale and Dolphin Conservation put the onus on tourists to help stop what it considers a vicious industry. “Much of the whale meat within Iceland is eaten by curious tourists rather than locals. Tourists mistakenly believe that whale meat is just another ‘traditional’ Icelandic dish but instead, are helping to keep this cruel industry alive,” the group said in a statement in June.

Icelandic whale researchers, however, argue that the new hunt won’t seriously threaten the whale’s vitality. Although the fin whale has

been considered endangered since 2010, they argue that while the Southern Hemisphere fin whale population suffered greatly from 20th-century hunting, the North Atlantic population has grown in recent decades. They think it’s nonsensical and unfair to lump the local whale populations in with those elsewhere in the world.

Traveling by myself, I didn’t have a crowd of people to hash this out with, and so, the next best thing: a query on Facebook. Many friends found the idea distasteful. One encouraged me to seize such a weird and rare opportunity. One made it seem like a journalistic imperative. (Hey! This was a vacation!) One said she’d actually tried whale meat in Japan and liked it.

So, here’s what I did: Under the guise of a trip to the rest room, I meandered slowly through the beautiful restaurant, trying to get a gander at the other diners’ plates. Was anyone eating whale? Were they enjoying it? My mission was unsuccessful: I wouldn’t have recognized a warm whale steak with turnip purée even if one were staring me in the face.

I also tried to read about whale cuisine. After all, if I finally took the plunge, would I even like it? Restaurant reviewers describe whale as similar to beef – or even moose meat, weirdly enough – but sometimes tough to chew.

Well, that sealed it. For the same 2,890 krona, I could also order five beautiful grilled lobster tails artfully displayed like the petals of an orchid, swimming in cream of lobster soup. Who wouldn’t like that?

Faced with a moral dilemma, I cheated. I went for the delicious. I hate to think of myself as a chicken – and there were other risks to be taken in Iceland and I seized them: a hike on a glacier, a walk through the backside of a roaring waterfall, a bout of queasiness on a puffin boat, undressing in a communal locker room at a geothermal lagoon.

But when it came to a pricey dinner, I figured, I might as well order something wonderful. And it was.

(Felice Belman can be reached at fbelman@cmonitor.com or 369-3370.)

Legacy Comments2

You made the right decision, Felice. If you want some moose meat, I can get you some!

Dear Felice You made the right choice. It's not just that people may not like the thought of eating whale meat, but Iceland is hunting whales despite an international ban on whaling. Every time a tourist or enquiring journalist eats whale meat, it simply helps undermine international law, as well as perpetuating a hunt that brings huge suffering to a sentient creature. Whaling is not part of Icelandic culture, but is a relatively modern constructed culture that now serves a few individuals. As you mention WDC has been campaigning to educate tourists as to the reality of this hunt. I am glad you didn't fall for the sales pitch in the end. Iceland is a great place to visit and one of my favourite places in the world. It's just a shame that some of the Icelanders still think whaling is how to define themselves in the 21st century Www.whales.org

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