Once beyond Reykjavík and its adjacent overspill town, Mosfellsbær, the Ringroad weaves northwards around the towering form of Mount Esja to Hvalfjörður (whale fjord), the biggest in southwest Iceland, named after the large number of whales seen here by the original settlers. During World War II, the fjord’s deep anchorages made it one of the most important bases in the North Atlantic, when British and American naval vessels were stationed here, providing a port and safe haven for supply ships travelling between Europe and North America. As the fjord kinks some 30km inland, however, it was something of an obstacle to road travel, until the opening of an impressive 6km submarine tunnel in 1998. It was completed despite concerns from the people of Akranes that the shorter distance to the capital (49km through the tunnel compared with a massive 108km round the fjord) would kill off their local shops and services – fortunately their fears have proved unfounded. Twenty-four-hour toll booths are in place at both ends charging 1000kr per car, which is well worth the expense to save a tedious detour.
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Hvalfjörður and whaling
Hvalfjörður and whaling
At the head of Hvalfjörður, the disused open-air whaling station is a poignant reminder of Iceland’s days as a whaling nation and of the key role Hvalfjörður played in the industry. Right up until the late 1980s, tourist buses from Reykjavík would even wiggle their way round the fjord to allow visitors to watch the grisly spectacle of a whale being sliced up alfresco.
Commercial whaling out of Hvalfjörður operated from 1948 until 1989, when specially equipped ships harpooned fin, sei and sperm whales in the deep waters off the west coast of Iceland and towed them back to the Hvalfjörður whaling station. Minke whales were also caught from ordinary fishing boats. In latter years, however, there was immense international opposition to the slaughter from various quarters, not least a boycott of Icelandic seafood instigated by Greenpeace, and direct action, when a Canadian craft sank two Icelandic whaling vessels and destroyed the whaling station here in November 1986.
With its economy declining as a result of the boycott, Iceland withdrew from the International Whaling Commission in 1992, claiming the organization set up to manage whaling had become one devoted solely to preventing all hunts. As an island nation, the Icelanders passionately believe in the right to harvest all living marine resources, and opinion polls at the time showed around eighty percent of the population in favour of whaling. Matters came to a head in March 1999 when, after much debate, the Icelandic parliament voted by a huge majority to resume whaling and called on the government to begin preparations. However, since Iceland’s most important markets for fish are in Britain, France, Germany and the US, where opposition to whaling is strongest, ministers trod carefully, aware that a country where three-quarters of all exports are fish-related simply cannot risk another boycott. In October 2002 Iceland was readmitted to the IWC, the first step towards the resumption of Icelandic commercial whaling within the jurisdiction of the Commission, and since 2003 has been harvesting minke whales again, although the number of whales currently being caught is bigger than the Japanese market can absorb. Japan is Iceland’s main export market for whale meat.