Iceland is small. As such, most of its economy is geared towards tourism.
They see what other countries do with their adventure-marketing, and they blow it out of the water like a land-mine strapped to a shark. Who has also rented a quadbike. On the side of an active volcano.
Of that tourism, a decent chunk is targeted towards whale watching. I’m pretty fond of whales. They’re large, chilled out and share my passion for seafood. So, I thought, obviously I’m going to enjoy whale watching. After all, who can resist the wonder of glimpsing a rare creature in its natural environment? Moving alongside its majestic body, hearing its delightful and chilling song. Namaste. Taekwondo. #blessed.
What I actually experienced was Brenda from the Isle of Mann loudly shouting to David, her long term partner, that “if you don’t move your fat head out of the way I won’t be able to get a picture to show Allison. You know how much she likes whales, David!”
I sympathised with David. If Allison liked whales so much I’m sure she would be doing something more productive than asking an office co-worker to take sodden, blurred images of distant lumps on the horizon. Similar conversations it transpired were also taking place in varying different languages across the deck of the boat. They were interspersed by a clearly unenthusiastic deckhand who was tasked with shouting the current location of the whales in a clock format. Only, his coordinates didn’t marry up with where the whales actually were.
Or you know, the grey lumps that I had assumed to be whales. Maybe they were rocks, or giant floating marshmallows, who knew.
In response to the deck-hand’s shouting, the entire boatload of tourists would charge at the newest location with formula one-like reaction speeds, hoping to see a different type of grey thing, in an environment made up of 99% grey things. And so, after much jostling amid the eager throng of tourists, I decided that I was going to sod off and sit below deck*. It was warm, had chairs, and more importantly still had windows to be able to see however much grey I wanted.
Below deck I encountered David sulkily staring into the depths of a cup of coffee. I assumed that he was having some sort of whale-watching epiphany, and so I left him to it. But, at least I didn’t seem to be the only one having entirely mixed feelings about the experience, I mused to myself. I wondered how many whale-watching instagram hashtags I could think of until the boat made it back to the docks***.
Later on that evening I still hadn’t been able to pull apart my feelings about the whales and so I went for a walk around the harbour**. Sitting by the water in Reykjavik harbour, I shit you not, a small pod of whales glided by in pursuit of a school of fish. I stared after them disbelievingly for a while, and then glanced about me.
But, no-one else was around. Not even Brenda with her 6th sense for grey lumpy objects.
I want to tell you that it was magical and awe-inspiring… but it wasn’t. It was some creatures doing the everyday things that they do, unaware of anything else going on in this vast world. It was ordinary. And it made me feel a bit sad that our expectations for encountering and engaging with wildlife were extraordinary and ungenuine, even without the giant stick-up-the arse that is tourist-marketing.
Later on, as I was walking back to my hotel, I came across some folk campaigning against whale hunting. An enthusiastic man called Bjorn approached me and explained his sales pitch. I wanted to tell Bjorn about the experience that I had just had. But, as I looked at his pile of cartoon whale stickers and his thoughtfully chosen green-brand shirt, I realised that I didn’t have the words. Instead, I responded with “I tried to whale watch earlier…”
He looked at me quizzically, probably trying to work out whether I was having language problems or was simply an idiot.
I followed up with, “No, I mean. I like whales.”
His expression was quickly shifting towards the “simply an idiot” explanation. I hastily signed, pocketed a cartoon sticker, and pootled off as fast as my sea-legs would take me. That was the last I thought of the encounter until I returned back home to England and I put the sticker on my world map. I crossed out the speech bubble that said “Please don’t eat me!” and wrote on it in sharpy “I tried!”. I also drew a stick figure of Brenda with a camera in the background, but that kind of ruined the sombre tone of my mis-adventure, and why I wanted to keep the sticker on my wall.
It wasn’t until much, much later on that I even realised what I wanted to tell Bjorn, man of whales, back in Iceland. On the one hand I wanted to support the whales. By throwing my money at the tourism industry, so long as it was protecting local ecosystems, I was playing a small part in maintaining endangered species. On the other hand I wanted to tell people to sod off. And, ideally, to stop being quite as much of an asshole. Not just when it comes to marine life, but in almost every aspect of daily life.
I didn’t really know what to do about that conundrum, so I decided to design some PRO and CON whale shirts. I simultaneously wanted people to experience David’s grumpy whale epiphany AND Brenda’s inane MDMA excitement. Both are needed. And so I concluded in my head to Bjorn – man of whales – that humans, being a part of the natural world as well as being a shaping force of it, have a responsibility to learn before acting. To be aware of issues, and to tell ourselves that ‘it does matter’ in the grand scheme of things.
Fucking obvious, right?
I’m a little disappointed that it took so long for that conclusion to really hit home for me in an explainable moment, but nevertheless “better late than never” or [insert some other cliche here]. It marked the beginning of my wanderlust and the beginning of my being more aware: where this travel diary really begins.
So, welcome to this blog about all of my mis-adventures. I like to think of them as a shitty, majestically uninformed guidebook featuring an almost spectacular lack of narrative. I’m sure you will come to think of them in the same light, too.
Eventually I emailed Bjorn some of my shirt designs but he never replied. Asshole.
*Even at the best of times I dislike crowds, and loud one’s at that. I might just dislike most people in general, really.
**There were a lot. I even got a little bit carried away with the puns. #overwhaleming.
***I told myself it was for exercise, but probably it was to get some instagrammable pictures of #sunsetporn.