Two 35-tonne fin whales are tied by their tails to one of Kristján Loftsson’s whaling ships after being caught in Hvalfjörður near Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Iceland - ‘We can carry on for ever’: meet Iceland’s last whale hunter

For Kristján Loftsson, the 80-year-old who is more or less singlehandedly keeping the fin whale hunt alive, comparisons with Moby-Dick’s obsessive hero Ahab are ‘an honour’. Will opposition to the dying industry finally catch up with him?

he courteous agreement to an interview came with a twist in its tail. “Shall we have lunch? Do you eat whale meat?” asks Kristján Loftsson, 80, the last hunter of fin whales in Europe, and a man unafraid of controversy.

For more than five decades Loftsson has stubbornly swum against the tide, whether that be public opinion, domestic regulation or an almost complete international consensus. “When they compare me to [Captain Ahab in] Moby-Dick, that’s an honour,” Loftsson says of the 19th-century tale of a seafarer’s bloody quest for revenge against a whale that had bit off his leg.

A grey-bearded man in an anorak looks squarely at the camera
Kristján Loftsson: smart and charming, an opponent calls him. Photograph: Sigga Ella/Guardian

Loftsson’s home country of Iceland is one of the only countries in the world that defies the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial whaling, along with Japan and Norway. However, in Norway, the other European outlier, they hunt the minke whale, the populations of which are considered stable.

The continued use off the Icelandic coast of grenade-tipped harpoons to kill fin whales – a species that is one of the world’s largest animals and listed as endangered by the WWF – has naturally been a cause célèbre for environmental movements for decades, a symbol to many of humanity’s cruel exploitation of nature.

At the centre of the raucous controversy has been Loftsson, depicted as an almost pantomime villain by some of his opponents. He has run Hvalur, Iceland’s only whaling company, since inheriting the business on the death of his father, Loftur, in 1974.

Memorable moments have included famous clashes on the high seas with Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior ships through the 1970s and 80s and the sinking in November 1986 of two of his whaling vessels in Hvalfjörður, a fjord north of the capital, Reykjavík, by activists from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

“Actually, we were not using those two, so they took the wrong vessels,” he recalls. “But we were insured by Lloyd’s of London; they paid for it.”

Last week Loftsson agreed to meet at the wood-panelled Þrír Frakkar restaurant, near Reykjavík’s city centre, with there being every sign that his difficult and contentious business is now becoming an impossible one. His two vessels, Hvalur 8 and Hval-ur 9, landed three whales on 30 September, bringing to a close this year’s hunting season with a final catch of 23 (another whale was killed but sank to the seabed). The Icelandic government has suggested this might be the end of it all, marking what would be a potentially historic transition and one that in August won the backing of the Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, who called for an outright ban in an Instagram post.

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