Iceland Rocks: Or, How Is Eating Whale Like Voting for President? A Guest Post

It doesn’t seem fair that one person can be so good at so many things. Nathan Myhrvold is one such person. He is probably still best known as the former chief technology officer of Microsoft.

These days, he runs an invention company and spends his free time digging up dinosaur bones, experimenting with old and new cooking methods, and taking amazing photographs of nature. It is this last pursuit that we wish to showcase here, along with Myhrvold’s writing. This post is the first in a series, which tells us a lot of interesting things about Iceland. Enjoy.

Iceland Rocks
A Guest Post
By Nathan Myhrvold

If you fly to Europe from Seattle, the great circle route takes you over both Greenland and Iceland. Every time I’ve done this I swore to visit their barren and beautiful landscapes. I finally did.

Geologically speaking, Iceland is a volcanic island created by a “hotspot” — an arctic Hawaii with a couple twists.

A hotspot, also known as a mantle plume, is a place where molten rock in the earth’s mantle comes welling up to the surface in a narrow jet, melting through the plates or continents.

In the case of Iceland the hotspot is centered on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge — the spreading center where the North American plate and European plate move apart from each other. Year by year, Iceland gets 2 centimeters bigger as the plates move away from each other.

Shooter

Hotspots produce basaltic lava, which tends to bubble from the ground producing “shield” volcanoes with relatively shallow conical sides. Like Hawaii, Iceland has shield volcanoes — in fact it has the shield volcano, Skjalbreiður (the name means broad shield). Until this trip I didn’t realize that the “shield” name was given by the Vikings!

Waterfall

In addition to erosion, glaciers affected Icelandic volcanoes in another way — most of Iceland was created by volcanoes that erupted underneath a glacier, which totally alters the shape. It also leads to unusual erosion patterns because the heat of the eruption melts an enormous amount of water, releasing floods and rapid glacier movement.

Glacier U

The place has the general feel of the frontier — an enthusiastic attitude toward the environment that one finds in places like Alaska, Wyoming, and Northern Canada.

Driftwood

I had an excellent guide on this trip, Kjartan, an electrical engineer who moonlighted as an all-around adventurer.

Kjartan wasn’t a birder so much as he was a hunter. When we would see a particularly dense bird colony he would mutter, “where is my gun?” Kjartan put all wild animals into two categories: “They’re delicious,” or “Don’t taste good.” And to him, just about everything tastes good.

Plateau

A common American view is that Europe is populated by rabid, Green party environmentalists. I’m here to tell you that Iceland isn’t. Indeed Kjartan, along with most Icelanders, would categorize Greenpeace as very much worth shooting (but not delicious).

Wave

Which brings us to Icelandic cuisine — boy do these people eat some strange things!

I’m definitely a meat eater, but even if I’m OK with an animal dying for my dinner, it is quite another thing to accept whaling. To me it has always seemed inhumane and cruel — a barbaric throwback to another age.

Yet there it was on menus. … This is a bit like the dilemma faced by voters in the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign. Each individual vote matters very little … [people] could skip voting, or even vote for the other side without it really mattering. … The paradox is that if everybody had this opt-out point of view, nobody would vote and democracy wouldn’t work.

How is that like ordering whale? Well, if I didn’t order it that one serving would go unsold. That would undermine the restaurant’s desire to order whale in the future — and my refusal would be one tiny economic vote against whaling.

On the other hand … My one incremental dinner entrée would not make any more difference than my one vote. A vote against whaling in Iceland would be a blue vote in an overwhelmingly red state.

Confounding this rational analysis is an additional fact: whaling is really about pride, not economics. There has been little if any economic reason to hunt whales for many years. Nations that still hunt whales in the 21st century do so for two reasons. First, they have a tradition of whaling that resonates culturally. Second, they have a contrarian streak: they don’t want the rest of the world to tell them what to do.

Iceland has had a tempestuous relationship with whaling for the last decade. … Some in Iceland want to continue whaling. Others think this is crazy because it endangers tourism and other Icelandic products.

Whaling, Watching

Indeed, Iceland has become a top tourist destination for whale watching! The irony is quite strong because in Reykjavik harbor, the whale watching boats use the same dock as the whaling boats. On the right side of the dock were the whale watching boats with big signs. On the left were four rather sinister-looking black boats. If Kjartan had not pointed them out, I wouldn’t have known — that was the (entire!) Icelandic whaling fleet.

In the end I figured that my one vote — to order the whale or not — would not tip the balance, so I ordered it. I am a bit ashamed to say that it is delicious. Not so delicious that I have become a convert to the cause, however.

Hanging Shark

That brings us to the ultimate Icelandic gastronomic specialty: rotten shark. It is rather problematic as a food source: the flesh has large concentrations of urea. [It] reeks of urine. If that wasn’t enough, it also contains a neurotoxin called trimethylamine. So you just can’t eat it. Unless, of course, you rot it first!

Some rather desperate Icelander discovered the following process:

Take the shark, cut it up, and then bury the pieces in the ground for 2 to 3 months (these days, they use large plastic bins to hold the shark). Then dig up the rotting shark meat and hang it up in an open-air hut, allow it to dry slightly, and continue the internal rotting for another 4 to 6 months. Kjartan took me to one of these huts. The stench was unbelievable, a combination of rancid urine and rotting fish.

To serve, the mahogany exterior is cut away and the white flesh is cut into little cubes and distributed to every grocery store in Iceland. Even the minimarts attached to gas stations carry it.

Eat Shark

After the big build-up and the visit to the disgusting shark-hanging hut I had my doubts. … So I went to my shark tasting with a bit of trepidation, but in reality it is not half-bad. The texture is like very firm sashimi. I expected it to be slimy and falling apart but it isn’t. I would not call it delicious, but I did have second and, yes, even third helpings.


Andrew

Minke Whales: the rabbits of the sea

BIrgir

no.1 Skjalbreiður is spelled Skjaldbreiður or it would mean file broad.

no.2 that whaling fleet was the entire fleet of the fin whale boats then there are more boats who whale Minke whale wich is more whaled and is much better in taste, and its cheaper then fish.

Karl

"A common American view is that Europe is populated by rabid, Green party environmentalists."

But after those photos why would anyone not be? Why would you want to ruin it?

Bjarni Rúnar

I've not heard the claims that the U.S. kills more whales than Iceland does before.

Can someone please provide a reference for that statement? I'm not saying I don't believe you, but it would be nice to have something more than an "I say so" in a comment thread.

And yes, I'm Icelandic and yes whale is quite tasty if cooked properly.

As long as the species isn't endangered I have fewer moral qualms about eating an animal that got to lead a free, natural life than I do about eating (for example) meat or eggs or dairy from an animal caged for it's entire life in a space so small it can't even turn around. A brief, explosive harpoon ending just doesn't compare with an entire life of suffering, if you ask me.

I realize others may disagree, but the fact is that almost any meat you eat is likely to be highly questionable from an animal-rights point of view.

Whales just have better PR than pigs and chickens.

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Iris

When someone is involved in a vast array of undertakings, does no one wonder how it is that the minutiae of their lives get taken care of? Of course there are many other people taking care of the details, leaving the individual free to do all of these things. It always helps to have lots of money, or in less exalted cases, a wife.

Gunnar

Whales around Iceland are eating up the same food as our fish eats, they're getting dangerously many and the last 5 years have been catastrophic for the fishing industry as the whales populate, the fish around Iceland dies out.. Whaling in Iceland not just for the meat, it's for our lives! Icelanders rely on the fish around the country as you rely on air..

Caglar

Whales are not endangered, at least not the whales Icelanders are whaling. USA kills more whales every day than Iceland does in a year.

Nick

"A common American view is that Europe is populated by rabid, Green party environmentalists. I'm here to tell you that Iceland isn't."

Nor is the rest of Europe. I wouldn't even say Europe is Green or Green-minded. Not really. Perhaps it is simply that Americans are the worst of the bunch in terms of environmental awareness if that's the view they hold.

hildigunnur

Everybody say after me: Minke Whales Are Not In Danger Of Extinction.

stupid Americans! Who don't realize the United States kill more whales than all the whaling nations combined

(to all you clueful Americans out there, sorry)

Björg

Would like to add that we here on Iceland kill only 20 whales a year, that?s the limit. And I would also like to say that it?s funny how you can say that we are the bad one in this while you "USA" kill more whale than us in a year. Well it?s for the good of science, but in Iceland we eat it. Isn?t that right. I can not see the difference in killing a whale (who eats tonns a fish a day) and killing a sheep. As long as you are killing it for dinner, then it?s ok with me. Start fixing things in your own backyard before you criticise us for the same things you are doing.

Have a nice day.

Sidharth

Sigur Ros are one of the best bands in the world. Now i know where they get their inspiration from!

frankenduf

i think the initial confounding factor in the animal rights debate here comes from Myrhvold- "I'm OK with an animal dying for my dinner, it's quite another thing to accept whaling (for his subsequent dinner!?)"- presumably, Myrhvold uses some sort of yardstick of sentience to sort out which animals are OK to eat- but then, who the heck is gonna differentiate the cow's mojo from the whale's?- i'm with Ben Franklin: cut open a big fish's stomach, and you'll find smaller fish flopping around- so nature intends for bigger fish to eat smaller- anyone worshipping at the altar of mother nature and turning up their nose at meat eating misapprehends mother nature's nature

hildigunnur

People from parts of India think we are barbaric, eating beef...

Matt

Comparing whales to cows is ludicrous, cows are not endangered and were not hunted to the edge of extinction. Nations do not lie and bribe other nations to get them to vote on legally hunting cows. Hopefully Iceland falls into the ocean one day soon, good riddance.

Thorunn Sleight

The problem with these friends of the whale is that they operate on pure sentimentality and buy into a lot of hysterical and misleading half-truths.

Certainly several different types of whales are endangered, however the types which are hunted by the Icelanders and Faroese are plentiful. I can't say for sure about Japanese whaling, but I suspect that the same is true there.

Certainly whales, just like any other animal, including us, should ideally live in peace, but the fact is that man is, by and large, a meat-eating species, and is not about to give that up. What makes the whale any more sacred than any other animal that we eat? If you believe in the Bible, humans were charged by God to be stewards of the earth; that is, use the bounty of the earth judiciously and thoughtfully, striving to make it a better place. This, because of ubiquitousness of short-term thinking, we are not particularly successful in doing.

As Bjarni Rúnar pointed out, whales and other wild game at least spend the time given to them on this earth living a life worth living, unlike the pitiful battery-raised domestic meat animals that we mostly live off of. In reality, if someone wanted to eat totally ethically, without becoming a vegetarian, they would insist on eating nothing but roadkill and animals caught ravaging vegetable gardens, all of which instead get tossed away. At the very least it should be obvious that a person of integrity would only eat animals that he or his people had killed themselves-but most of us don't measure up as far as living according to principle and logic, I'm afraid.

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LL

In the spirit of conservation, I hope you will all sign my petition to save the Verminous Cockroach. It lives only in the deepest depths of the Mariana Trench and reproduces by way of traumatic insemination. It is being slowly wiped out by our use of oxygen and clothing.
You can support the cause by joining a naturist colony and limiting your respiration to exhaling only.
It is only through your actions that this wonderful creature can survive. Can i count on your collective support?

Danny Yee

I enjoyed my trip to Iceland in 2003 - http://danny.oz.au/travel/iceland/ - but I'm not going back while they're whaling. That seems a more substantial way of providing "feedback" than simply not eating whale.

On the "but what about sharks" issue, I classify whales in a similar way to great apes - I think they are sufficiently close to humans to deserve additional rights. See the Great Ape Project http://www.greatapeproject.org/ for background on this.

nancy

well, the melanie i knew signed on with various names. You could be her. I don't know if we left on good terms or bad terms if you are.

Either way, I know it's a copout, but i don't worry too much about whales because they aren't much in my back yard. And getting to Iceland? I don't think that's in my near future. I have other dreams and travel destinations that are going to take lots of scrimping and saving. Iceland woould be nice, though and then i guess firsthand info would probably be different than limited internet opinion.

Now wal-nuts those are right next door to me if you ever wanted or needed any.

Simone Brunozzi

Great post!
I'm going to Iceland on July 28th and 29th, if some readers is from Iceland and want to connect, email me (just google my name to find my email).
Thanks!

Bryan

In Defense of Whaling
http://naturallyinteresting.com/2008/04/17/in-defense-of-whaling/