Iceland’s recent tourism boom has resulted in massive growth in the whale-watching industry.
More than 100,000 tourists a year flock to Húsavik on the country’s north coast to get a close-up look at these magnificent mammals. This has also meant an increase in the number of ships in Skjálfandi Bay—and in more underwater noise.
Meet Belén García Ovide, a Spanish marine biologist who has worked as a whale-watching guide in Iceland and studied the impact of underwater noise on Húsavík’s whales.
She’s sounding alarm bells over the effect the thriving whale-watching industry is having on whales in Skjálfandi Bay. And she wants to see more done to ensure the industry doesn’t harm the mammals that sustain it.
1. More boats mean more noise
When Belén García Ovide moved to Húsavík on the north coast of Iceland in 2014, there were only two whale-watching companies operating in Skjálfandi Bay. Today, there are four, with 16 whale-watching boats combing the bay from 8 a.m. to 11 at night. The whale-watching season once ran from May to September. Now it’s year-round.
These whales are now exposed to human pressure from boat noise, but we can’t forget they are already under pressure because of climate change.
- Belén García Ovide, Marine Biologist
Studying whales in a noisy world
©Belén García Ovide
©Natalie Bowes / WWF-Canada
2. What makes a boat noisy?
García Ovide used hydrophones to measure the noise levels generated by the different types of boats in the bay. She found many things contributed to noise levels, such as the type of propeller, the number of propeller blades, the length of the boat, the material the boat is made of and the number of boats in the area. But the biggest single factor is boat speed.
3. Stopping the non-stop noise for whales
It isn’t just noise from whale-watching boats that concerns García Ovide. More cruise ships are coming into the bay, and they don’t follow a specific track. “They just come into the middle of the bay, disturbing the smaller boats and the whales,” she says. There also will soon be more cargo ships entering the bay to bring materials to Húsavík’s new solar panel plant.
García Ovide wants all cruise and cargo ships to be forced to take a specific track and only be allowed into the bay at specific times. She also wants to see more whale-watching companies take steps to design boats that are quieter, more efficient and eco-friendly.
We are interested in these big ships because there are more coming every year. Some of them are generating a lot of noise in the bay, and we can actually see the whales getting crazy when they approach.
- Belén García Ovide, Marine biologist
The Arctic attracts many people who wish to experience its fantastic wildlife, pristine landscapes and local cultures. No wonder that tourism activities in the region over the last 20 years have experienced an unrivaled growth.
This predominantly Arctic species is associated with ice floes. Its movement patterns are therefore influenced by the melting and freezing of the ice. The bowhead has suffered from severe over-exploitation that has seen its range shrink considerably since the 17th century.