Researchers’ Blog

‘A different reality’ — but for whom? Tourists, whales and Northern Norway’s Klondike industry

‘A different reality’ — but for whom? Tourists, whales and Northern Norway’s Klondike industry

During the first week of January 2014 we had three encounters with whales. The first time the whales came to us, following an old whaling ship we travelled with into the Tromsø strait. The second time we went on a mid-sized tourist vessel. We spent three hours trawling around before the whales were found hunting and feasting together, providing a great spectacle for us as well as for the tourists. The third day we met whales was on a small vessel where we ended up feeling quite uncomfortable, more hunting whales and not so much watching them.

As we started initial fieldwork on the booming whale-watching industry in Tromsø, we thought our interest would be the tourists. What makes them come to Tromsø and what do they feel as the whales break the water’s surface? Do they feel closer to nature or is it just another ‘touristy’ thing to do that the vacation destination of Tromsø offers? Going further, what is the spatial imaginary of where they are? Do they think they’re in the Arctic? We also wanted to ask if there were any linkages made between being a tourist in the Arctic and their concern with climatic change. After this first initial week our first lesson has been that the tourists are not at all the most interesting species to research—nor even the whales, even though we do enter their territory too.

We have been taking our first steps of ethnography in the waters around Kvaløya (‘Whale-island’ in Norwegian). This is a space where whales only recently came to spend their winter months. Whales and whale watching have for the last decades been taking place further south, as the whales follow the herring. There used to be extensive tourism-based whalewatching companies set up in Vesterålen as well as Tyssfjord. Still, the name of the island points to a memory of whales as important inhabitant in these waters.

From November to January for the past two winters outside Tromsø, the whales have been feeding by rounding up herring into tight balls and taking turns to break get into the middle and eat. The birds follow to get a taste, as do many large and small vessels now. The boats, often many in number, circle around them and get up very close to where the whales feast, socialize or mate.

Video: Everybody watching everybody

The first encounter with whales happened the night before New Year’s Eve. A group of friends went out with Vulkana, a rebuilt whale hunting vessel which these days is being used for Arctic cruises, waterskiing and other high-priced touring in the seas and fjords around Tromsø. We wanted to take a New Year’s dip – both as a ceremonial cleansing of soul and body, but also to be together. Doing something as a group, to recreate relations of importance. Becoming clean (and cold) and feeling brave, as well as getting a bodily rush entering the sea, which hovered around 5-6 degrees Celsius. We rushed from the sauna into the sea and back agai, making quite a lot of noise in the cold and clear afternoon darkness. At one moment we noticed that there were others around. Two of the smaller whales were swimming around and under the ship and even when we turned on the engine, setting course for Tromsø, they followed. Close. We talked about it. It was like they were sizing us up. Wondering what these people were up to, or what that vessel was all about. How could we know? But still we all loved the fact that they came to interact with us: the humans and the vessel, the noise that we made and the interest that we created. For an hour or so they followed, but then they turned away as we approached the city.

Researchers on safari
The next encounter was Britt and Berit on their first ever whale safari. We had made a reservation with one of the many companies that marketed themselves on Tromsø’s official internet page. The description was given as ‘powerful and unforgettable’ on a boat with space for up to 20 guests. We started early in the morning to get to the waters were whales had been observed, in the few hours of daylight the dark season brings about.

There were four people working on the boat. This was their first season so they were in search of ways of doing business taking out tourists on safari. For three weeks they had been engaged in the whaling business and they had not been doing too bad. Still though, they were learning how to organize it, how to do the marketing and what to offer the tourists who would join. They had to learn by doing, there was no other way around it. The owner of the boat had a company in one of the villages 12 hours (by boat) away from Tromsø. But it was hard to set up a tourist business there. You needed the capital for entrepreneurial investments. That took about two years—he knew this from previous projects. But still, if this tourism practice of whale watching by boat was growing, he wanted to be part of it. The captain of the boat had many seasons of sailing Arctic waters. The first thing he did when we entered the bridge was to show us a range of images uploaded on his computer from Svalbard and encounters he had sailing those waters. He told fascinating stories about what life on a boat going into the ice was all about. Hunting for whale, or now hunting the Northern Lights, as well as a touristic way of doing whale hunting. Then there was the Russian. That what they called him, The Russian. He was working on deck.

Video: Scanning the horizon

And there was the young woman from the Østblokk landene, the ‘Eastern bloc countries’. Strange how those words work. We used to call these nations that in Norwegian: Østblokk-landene. Formally speaking, the countries that bloc(ked) the passage towards the East. But now the ice is melting and the passage seems to open up. Well, not for Greenpeace. But still. The young women was looking for work and got a position as a cook on a ship doing seal hunting around Greenland. She also had taken a lot of photos she wanted to show us. She had been crying in the beginning, she admitted to us. When they shoot the seals out on the ice. She showed us the pictures of the kill and the skins out on the ship’s deck. But she loved it anyway. She loved the light and the coldness and the life and that’s why she came to Norway looking for work. And so she met up with these guys. She did cooking and cleaning and worked from 0700 in the morning often to midnight. With a break in between during the day — between the whalewatching and the Northern Lights hunting. But it was ok, and good money. She served us nice soup and coffee. There were four Italians on the boat that we talked to (but more on them later).

The third encounter was with a smaller boat and we were 12 people. We had to stay outside and it became quite cold even though we were given storm suits to keep us warm and safe. We went out in open waters, and kind of very close to one of the bigger group of whales (up to 30 tons) for a three hour tour. With a group of about 12 people from different countries. Some from around the area. Some loners, shy people who didn’t talk much. A couple from Australia who had come for the Northern Lights. They had seen the Joanna Lumley Northern Lights adventures. “You have a lot to thank her for” they said. They planned to stay in the North for a week. Three days outside of Tromsø, and the coastline to Lofoten, and some more days there. They used to travel a lot. So the North was another empty spot on the map to be filled in.

How do we enter the space/territories of the whales?
We are a bit overwhelmed by the shift from the tourists to what might be an “Arctic Klondike”. Our curiosity at present lies with how the actors in the industry enter the space of the whales. Our first impression from taking part in two commercial whale safaris is that the whales are not left alone as they eat or curl up with partners. We are thus interested in exploring the wide range of actors and practices at present, including those that have been established further south, which seem to be characterized by a knowledge-based approach towards the whales themselves.

This relates to another reflection that is worth mentioning early during our encounters with this industry – something that can be described as an ambiguous practice. It is ambiguous because on the one hand it opens up new ways of making money off seeing the whales, instead of hunting, shooting and eating their flesh. In other words, there is probably much more money to be made to show them off, than there is shooting them and selling their meat. On the other hand, it is a new industrial basis that is characterized by various actors trying out if/what can work (out) for them: how to practice, get better and make money off whale safaris. Or as one skipper said, ‘Is it possible to do entrepreneurship and set up a small business for oneself?’ He loved to go fishing. That had been an important part of his vocational life. Northern Norway provided the possibility of catch after catch and endless amounts of different species. On deck in his boat was a bucket of cod. It’s that season in January. From the cold Arctic Ocean they come back “home” to the waters where there were spawned. So remembering is part of the practice even for these species. But in the foreign registered boat they were laid to rot, with only the finest filets being cut off.

It is true that there are strict regulations when it comes to transporting passengers in Norway. These are dangerous waters; many lives have been lost at sea. All families still tell of these stories. But these regulations do not apply to boats registered outside of Norway. So what about inside/outside, strange/familiar? This was important to talk about, too. Does it work differently in a ‘Klondike’ moment?

They are operating within a field that has few regulations (so far). Or, as we witnessed on our last encounter, there are rules that are not being followed when it comes to issues relating to preparedness and safety. The few established rules and practices are in the making as they establish themselves. Or what can be described as ‘the other side of the coin entrepreneurship’, since there seems to be a number of wild cards in the industry, ’cowboys’, or ’uvørne’ seamen, probably even people who haven’t worked on boats before. There is thus a lack of certification, directives, and policies that are a response towards the challenges that whalewatching might call for. This relates, for example, to boats (at present) registered in other countries (the boat we travelled on was purchased for fishing in the UK), safety and security for passengers, and the welfare and territorial ‘rights’ of the animals. Relating this to Arctic seascapes, one thing we can explore in further fieldwork is whether we can see this as irresponsible innovation.

The tourist
According to those who arranged the trip – we can probably find some other numbers from bigger actors that offer whale safari – the tourists come from all over the world. Most of them (maybe 80-90%) come to see the Northern Lights, some of them have not heard about the whales in Tromsø before they came there, or had heard just before arrival. The whales, as such, are a ‘bonus’, another attractive activity.

Video: Arctic critters

A couple of things we discussed after the interview on our first commercial trip that we found fascinating and an issue we want to follow up with the tourists: One of the first things one Italian described to us about coming to Tromsø was that “it’s like entering a different reality”. He grounded this perspective in terms of (lack of) light and various aspects of intense nature – which is just not easy to deal with. This was also reflected in a subsequent discussion when he raised the issue of “what is sustainability”. In this context, he mentioned that there were some brown spots on the mountains around Tromsø, which made him ponder whether he saw changes in nature (that the snow had disappeared). Another thing that his girlfriend/wife got “hung up on” was that when they visited Polaria (a research based Arctic aquarium and knowledge-based exhibits branded as “an Arctic experience”), she became aware of the melting of the Arctic ice sheet. It struck her right then and there – but when we asked whether they had talked about it amongst themselves after the experience, they said something along the lines of “No – we are tourists”, suggesting that they weren’t here to learn or “stress” about global environmental change. They expressed that (environmental) changes were much more visible here in Norway, whereas in their large Southern European city, such change is much less observable and thus less something to which they can relate emotionally.

Britt Kramvig and Berit Kristoffersen


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