What started as a PR job quickly changed the life of Sigursteinn Masson, a man who'd never contemplated the plight of wildlife before. Masson joined the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) as a representative in 2003, and soon realized that whaling in Iceland wasn't simply an animal-protection issue; it was, as he tells it, "a symbolic problem with a country that didn't want to be told what to do, even if it meant mistreating nature."
Rather than filling brochures with statistics about the endangered nature of whales, Masson began to shape a two-pronged objective: He wanted to open people's eyes about the financial benefits of whale watching, and also launch a methodical attempt at refocusing what he calls Iceland's "primitive nationalistic attitudes."
The summer of 2014 registered a markedly low number of kills since commercial whaling began in Iceland (the government started issuing licenses in 2006), yet 22 minkes were still illegally slaughtered, their meat locked away in freezers for years to come. Overall, IFAW's latest yearly survey shows that anti-whaling sentiment continues to grow, especially among the locals. "Our polls reveal that 18% of tourists eat whale meat when they visit Iceland," Masson says, "compared to 1.7% of Icelanders." Today, Masson's most important goal in curtailing the industry is to make sure that visitors get the memo, too.
For many, the answer is likely a straightforward dose of education about the futility of harpooning these gentle beasts. "It's a matter of changing perceptions," notes Masson, a gay man who finds daily parallels in his work. "We need to change the way society thinks. At the end of the day, it's really no different from the issues gays have been fighting for forever."