1986 Hvalur sinkings

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1986 Hvalur sinkings
Two moored vessels. Both have significant amounts of rust
The two vessels over 20 years after the incident
Location Hvalfjörður and Reykjavík, Iceland
Date 8 and 9 of November 1986
Target Iceland's whaling industry
Non-fatal injuries
Perpetrators Rod Coronado and David Howitt of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

The 1986 Hvalur sinkings occurred in Iceland's Reykjavík harbour in November 1986, when anti-whaling activists from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society sank the unoccupied whaling vessels, Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7, and sabotaged a whale processing station in Hvalfjörður. The ships were two of the nation's fleet of four and were eventually raised, but have not gone on a whale hunt since and were dragged onto dry land. Repairs have not yet been made to the ships. The factory was the country's only processing facility.

The incident was an attempt by animal-rights activists to disrupt Iceland's whaling industry after the country circumvented a commercial ban on the practice to conduct research. No one was injured but the attack caused $2 million worth of damage to the ships, $2 million worth of damage to the processing plant, and damage to the whale meat freezer in the processing plant spoiled $4 million worth of whale meat. The perpetrators, Rod Coronado and David Howitt, were able to escape the scene via a flight to Luxembourg.


A moratorium on commercial whaling was implemented by the International Whaling Commission in January 1986; the ban allowed for scientific whaling to continue. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society direct-action environmentalist group wished to intervene in the whaling continued by Iceland, Norway, the Soviet Union, Japan, and the Faroe Islands. The government of Iceland believed that taking 120 whales in 1986 for research was vital to its fishing industry.[1] In June 1986, the plan was formulated to sabotage Iceland's whaling industry with an emphasis on causing as much economic damage as possible with the intent to act when there was no threat to human life. The operation was delayed due to a summit in Reykjavík between the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union that October.[2] One of the perpetrators, Rod Coronado, was also allegedly involved in an attack on Faroese whalers in June.[3]


Sea Shepherd's Coronado and David Howitt flew into Reykjavík in October 1986.[4][2][5] Howitt has also been named as David Howard, Nick Taylor or Martin Braidley.[2][6] The pair stayed at a youth hostel and began covertly investigating the local whaling industry and it has been reported that they posed as tourists and took jobs at a fish factory.[3][7] On 8 November, they traveled 50 miles to the nation's only whale processing station in Hvalfjörður, where they broke in at 8:00 pm. Sledgehammers, wrenches, and other common tools were used to systematically destroy computers, power generators, machinery, and windows. The large refrigeration unit used to freeze the season's catch was destroyed beyond repair and documentation at the facility was doused with acid. The main factory and two smaller buildings were left inoperable.[3][2]

Coronado and Howitt then returned to Reykjavik during the early hours of 9 November where three of the country's four whaling vessels were moored. The saltwater cooling valves in the engine room were opened at around 5:00 am, casing the ships to flood and sink within half an hour. The third whaler, Hvalur 8, was not attacked since a watchman was aboard while the fourth was in drydock.[5] The police did not arrive at the harbor until 7:00 am, and the attackers were able to flee the country via a 7:45 am flight to Luxembourg.[3] They were subjects of a routine traffic stop en route to the airport but the police did not suspect them of any wrongdoing and let them continue on their way.[5] In November the two 430-ton whaling vessels were raised from the harbor floor by a salvaging company.[8] According to the whaling company, the attack caused $2 million worth of damage.[8]


Hvalur 6, Hvalur 7, Hvalur 8, and Hvalur 9 in 2008.

Shortly after, Watson took full responsibility for the operation, saying that he had planned it, had picked the team, and had seen that the attackers did their job.[3] Prime Minister Steingrímur Hermannsson announced that Iceland was trying to find the men and criticised the police for the initial delay that allowed them to escape.[2] Watson traveled to Iceland in 1988 to face prosecution as Sea Shepherd's leader where he was detained for 24 hours before being deported without cause.[7][9] A spokesperson for Iceland's largest whaling company told The New Yorker that Watson is persona non grata in the country.[10] With their escape, Coronado and Howitt have never been charged with any wrongdoing in Iceland. Both have admitted responsibility but the statute of limitations for the act has passed.[5]

As a result of this incident, the International Whaling Commission revoked Sea Shepherd's observer status. Most environmentalists, though critical of Iceland's stand, distanced themselves from Sea Shepherd's violent tactics.[1] An article in The New Yorker said that it was "an act of sabotage that many conservationists believe helped turn Icelandic public opinion against the cause of saving whales".[10]

The international reactions were negative.[7] The action had various descriptions such as an act of vandalism, an act of terrorism or the act of madmen.[5] At the time of the incident, Iceland,[11] Greenpeace International,[12] and some media commentators in Iceland and North America[13][14] referred to the sabotage as "terrorism" or "terrorist".[7] Coronado responded to these comparisons by arguing that the sabotage was "the farthest thing from terrorism" and that whaling itself constituted terrorism.[15] In a Canadian newspaper the incident was also cited as one of the first steps taken by Coronado in becoming "a new breed of terrorist" who went on to wage a wide-ranging battle for animal rights as a member of the Animal Liberation Front.[16] Coronado has rejected the "terrorist" label as "garbage", because beginning with the Hvalur sinkings, "he says he has always taken care that no one is physically hurt by his acts of sabotage".[16]


  1. ^ a b "That Sinking Feeling". Time. 24 November 1986. Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "2 suspected of attacking whale boats". The Register-Guard. Eugene, OR. Associated Press. 11 November 1986. p. 7A. Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Lyman, Rick (15 November 1986). "Iceland adventure 'easy' for whaling 'terrorists'". The Ledger. Lakeland, FL. KNT News Service. p. A8. Retrieved 13 May 2010. 
  4. ^ "Sinking the Icelandic Whaling Fleet", No Compromise (28), 2005, archived from the original on 2014-03-07 .
  5. ^ a b c d e Björnsson, Sveinn Birkir Whaler Down: Looking back at the sinking of the whaleboats in 1986 The Reykjavik Grapevine, 3 November 2006. Retrieved 15 May 2010.
  6. ^ "Bruder Wal", Der Spiegel, 17 November 1986, retrieved 15 May 2010 
  7. ^ a b c d Derr, Patrick George; McNamar, Edward M. Case Studies in Environmental Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003) p. 28. Retrieved 15 May 2010.
  8. ^ a b "Whaling Ships Refloated in Iceland", The New York Times, 20 November 1986 .
  9. ^ Klemens, Watson the victor: Does terrorism pay off in Iceland? The Reykjavik Grapevine. 11 February 2005. Retrieved 15 May 2010.
  10. ^ a b Raffi Khatchadourian, "Neptune's Navy: Paul Watson’s wild crusade to save the oceans", The New Yorker, 5 November 2007.
  11. ^ "Iceland Calls Saboteurs Terrorists, Lexington Herald-Leader, 12 November 1986, p. A5. Retrieved 15 May 2010.
  12. ^ David Israelson, "Killing goes on despite whaling ban", Toronto Star, 15 November 1986, p. A2.
  13. ^ Frank Jones, "No cause can justify terrorist acts", Toronto Star, 13 November 1986, p. H1.
  14. ^ "Dockside Terror" (editorial), San Francisco Chronicle, 12 November 1986, p. 48.
  15. ^ "Whaling Is Terrorism, Says Environmentalist Accused of Sinkings", Associated Press, 13 November 1986.
  16. ^ a b Marcus Gee, "A new breed of terrorist fights for the animals: Meet Rodney Coronado: articulate, vegan and violent", The Globe and Mail, 5 December 1986, p. A1.