Tourists in Tromsø, Norway, try to capture a once-in-a-lifetime experience: watching whales above the Arctic Circle in winter. Photo by Espen Bergersen via Nature Picture Library/Alamy.

In Norway, Whale Watchers Churn a ‘Soup of Chaos’

It’s amazing no one has died.

Norbert Bus, a Hungarian skipper of a whale watching boat, wants to know what happens if his ship sails over a human in the Arctic Ocean. What the legal consequences of such a tragedy would be, more precisely.

“Who will be held responsible? Will I be held responsible?” he asks at a meeting in Skjervøy, a remote town of fewer than 2,500 in northern Norway. Whale watching is relatively new to Skjervøy, growing from no industry operators to, this afternoon, a packed town hall of people — tour operators, guides, police, coast guard, municipal officials and the mayor. The regional director for tourism, Georg Sichelschmidt, greets everyone in English to reach non-Norwegian companies and crew members. He utters his surprise as he looks across the room: “I didn’t know this many companies would show up.”

The scene begs to be described with the phrase “like canned sardines,” since that kind of small silvery fish was precisely behind the chaos that prompted this gathering: a few years ago, herring emigrated to Skjervøy waters, whales followed and then humans followed both species, for different purposes.

The story begins some 100 kilometres, as a seabird flies, to the southwest of this meeting place, in Tromsø, the largest city in northern Norway. In 2011, the herring arrived in Tromsø waters, with hundreds of humpbacks and killer whales on their heels. This, too, came as a surprise to tourism officials. Despite having a coastline of twisting land that stretches the equivalent of 70 per cent of Earth’s circumference, Norway had just one whale watching destination at the time and few rules holding back the luxury yachts, catamarans, old fishing vessels, kayaks, foreign schooners, research boats, speedy rigid inflatable boats and even swimmers heading toward the whales on any given day.

The town hall meeting is an effort to change the whale watching culture in Norway. Skipper Bus, who drives a rigid inflatable boat, doesn’t get a clear-cut answer to his question about legal consequences. He’s also not asked to clarify why he is concerned about sailing over someone at latitude 70 degrees north — 386 kilometres above the Arctic Circle — where too much boat traffic, let alone random sea swimmers, is rarely a problem. But every other boat skipper in attendance probably has the same concern.

A week earlier, at the beginning of the 2021 whale watching season, an alarming Facebook post of around 120 tourists mobbing 70 to 80 killer whales and a lone humpback galvanized the community: some of the tourists were snorkeling, and boats — cutting in front of whales and other boats — were competing for views and access to the spectacular site of whales feeding on herring. But no one was officially chastised that day.

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