On the 7th of September 2013 something out of the ordinary happened on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West-Iceland. There was a storm and really bad weather and 50-70 pilot whales swam into the harbour of the village Rif on the northern side of Snæfellsnes. Many of the poor whales got stuck on the beaches in the neighbourhood and died there :(
We tried to rescue them, but they were too many and the weather was too bad. We don't know why this happened as we rarely see pilot whales in Iceland.
The pilot whales are much more common in the Faroe Islands, where pilot whale meat is very popular. We come across stranded whales here in Iceland from time to time, but the only whale I have seen myself ashore was up in the Westfjords. It was a 2-year-old carcass of a whale on Rauðasandur - Red Sands. It was rotting there and there was still oil leaking from it.
I really wanted to see the pilot-whales and we drove for 2,5 hours from Reykjavík to Snæfellsnes to have a closer look.
When we reached our destination I was amazed, the dead pilot-whales were spread all over the beach. I touched the first one I saw and it was so soft and so cute really as they look a lot like dolphins. I felt sorry for it having to end its life here on the beach of Iceland, but there must be a logical or illogical reason for this to happen...
Why does this happen? I guess nobody knows, it is just nature at work. So the most sensible thing to do is to make the best of this sad situation and use the whale meat for human consumption. So the word spread that people were free to cut meat from the dead whales for personal use to prevent the whales from rotting on the beach.
A lot of people in the neighbouring villages and from Reykjavík went there to save the meat. In the olden days when whales stranded it was considered a godsend and I am sure it made living on this cold island a whole lot easier when a whale stranded in remote inhabited regions. The Icelandic term for a stranded whale is hvalreki which also means a godsend.
We did get our share of meat and gave it to friends and family and had a whale dinner that night with the family. I was vegan for 26 years and don't eat red meat, so I found it kind of disturbing seeing the cut up whales on the beach, but I do understand that the meat has to be used for human consumption. Otherwise it would have been a waste of the lives of the stranded dead whales.
Most of us Icelanders had no idea how to cut the meat from the dead pilot whales and got a lesson from the Faroese Consul General to Iceland, who had driven from Reykjavík with his wife to get some meat.
Not all of the pilot-whales got stranded on the beach, a lot of them ended their lives on the bottom of the ocean in the harbour.
There is one theory as to why the whales swim ashore like this. It is believed that they rely on the earth's magnetic field to find their way in the ocean. So if there is a disturbance in the magnetic field they might get disoriented and swim ashore. And it is difficult to rescue them as they tend to swim ashore again.
A similar thing happened in this same area in 1982 when ca 380 pilot whales lost their way, as it were. A lot of them were rescued back then. Pilot whales swim in very large groups and when the first part of the group gets disoriented the whole group follows them - often to their death :(
There is another excellent theory about earthquakes causing the whales to strand. You can read up on this theory on the Deafwhale Society webpage by Capt. David Williams.
There are many whale watching tours in my country and I have joined two of them. Do join them if you want to see these beautiful big creatures up close. It is an amazing experience and I have written 2 blogs on my experience on a whale watching tour.