Conservation

Spekingur

The following story is a glimpse of the untold tale of one of Iceland's ex-whalers and hunters who turned his life around to protect and conserve his surroundings. By using rock art, sculptures and the skeletons and fossils of endangered animals, he educates people on why it’s more valuable to protect these species, rather than kill them.

Words and photographs by Willem van den Heever

There’s no website for Freevilli and the Facebook page is outdated, so either you stumble upon the old red Nordic house turned into a workshop and museum, or perhaps you’ve read the TripAdvisor posts. Or, like in my case, you got recommended by a previous traveller who dwelled off far enough from the main ring road in Iceland and ended up in the one-horse town of Djúpivogur in the east fjords. Much like the artist himself and founder and creator of Freevilli, the place is an enigma, an epic tale filled with wisdom more valuable than ever in our current uncertain times. Like a mysterious iceberg, on the outskirts of the town and off the beaten path, you’ll only get to see the nucleus of this almost lost and forgotten saga of Iceland once you spend enough time with Villi and he makes you see what lies hidden beneath the surface and the tip of his art.

Vilmundur, or better known as Villi by the locals, is an infamous, yet elusive, unsung hero from Iceland, that for most tourists gazing from a distance and briefly passing through Djúpivogur before getting back to their cruise ship, might look like just another crazy old Icelandic fisherman or sheep farmer.

Many travellers and tourists navigating through the East Fjords of Iceland might know about the Freevilli museum in the small fishing town of Djúpivogur, but few know about Vilmundur’s past life and who he was or where he came from. This embodiment of mythos and allegory is one of those rare cases where someone turned their dark and bloody past into one of hope and light – and not using his age, culture or ego as an excuse to embrace positive change and a new lifestyle. For the average hasty Western tourist looking at Iceland from a surface level, Vilmundur comes forth as a half-mad hippie with one of the biggest private whalebone collections in the world. But it’s only once you sit down with him and start digging into his past that you’ll find and appreciate the incredible wisdom the man who once was a whaler and hunter now holds.

It’s a quiet morning in the cluttered workshop part of the little museum in Iceland, where Villi was busy carving away at something before I walked in through the dwarf-like door. I introduce myself, tell him I was advised by a friend from South Africa to come and look for him who Villi still remembers, and briefly mention the anti-whaling campaign I just worked on the past month. I see Villi’s eyes lighting up with stories and he quickly pulls over a chair for me to sit on. Without further ado, Villi opens up like a book to me and starts telling me about his past.

Vilmundur comes from a time where his life, like many other Icelandic men from the countryside, evolved around hunting mostly at sea as a commercial whaler working for the world’s most notorious whaler, Kristján Loftsson (who is still hunting whales today). “A lot of those bones and skeletons you see around here actually came from him. Some he even gave to me as gifts, now, of course, he wants nothing to do with me. Doesn’t even want to speak to me anymore,” Vilmundur tells me tongue in cheek – face smiling, but sorrow-filled forlorn eyes that never fully heal telling a different story.

When the nightmares started taunting him day in and day out, Vilmundur started feeling a negative presence following him like an evil force through life – a bad omen, like karma resting upon his shoulders forming a burden he couldn’t seem to escape from. As he started investigating this omen, it opened his eyes and brought a new perspective to his life. He started questioning the origin of this darkness and anxiety he couldn’t seem to rid himself of and so started realising what he was busy with.

Vilmundur was born in a country that some consider the most beautiful place on earth – one of the last untouched natural wonders this planet has to offer with nature in abundance and in harmony all around. But due to old customs and traditions, he was playing a big part in destruction of it. And it wasn’t bringing anyone any good. With our planet on the brink of ecological collapse, climate change threatening all corners of the globe all the more with each passing year, and the very same species he grew up around and fell in love with disappearing, he realised it’s never too late to face and acknowledge one’s own wrongdoings and turn things around – despite your culture, religion or customs.

Vilmundur couldn’t stand the weight of this negative energy pressing down on him anymore. Soon after he gave up the hunting life and whaling industry for good, he became a conservationist, naturalist and activist, fighting for the protection and preservation of all wild lands and species in Iceland, both in the water and on land. Combined with his knowledge from days spent in the wilderness or at sea, he now uses his art and his impressive private collection of whale and vertebrate skeletons and fossils to educate visitors on the importance of these magnificent species. Passing on the message of why these species are more valuable for the future of humanity and our planet, alive, than dead. The wooden carved Arctic fox ring on his finger testifies to his favourite animal, which on numerous occasions he had to stand up for and be a voice to in front of arms-bearing farmers. To such an extent that he has even been arrested in the past for trying to protect their lives. “I mean, it’s the only predatory mammal we have on the island, this intelligent animal acting as a keystone species here. And all because the farmers can’t put up fences and control their sheep! It’s just ridiculous,” he says. 

Vilmundur goes on to tell me how a very rich businessman and private whalebone collector once phoned him and offered him a huge sum of money for his complete orca skeleton, “I just laughed and put the phone down. I don’t care about money anymore. I care about the future of this beautiful planet.”

Despite the interest from some journalists and filmmakers, mostly due to his numerous run-ins with the law from his direct-action activism in the past, Vilmundur has never openly discussed his full story in front of a camera before. Yet, during most of the year, you’ll find Vilmundur at his shabby little bright red corrugated-metal workshop and museum where he’ll give you a personal tour of the place followed by a 30-minute lecture on ecology, marine biology and conservation. “If you want to buy some of my art, I first have to explain to you the reason behind it and where it came from.”

Despite a steep decline in the demand for whale meat and support for whaling in Iceland, Kristján Loftsson continues his whaling business each year, permitted by the government of Iceland to hunt up to 161 fin whales per season. Due to the lack of demand locally (a 2018 survey revealed that only 2% of the population regularly purchases whale meat) most of the whale meat gets sold and exported to Japan. After a recent investigation into Kristján’s financial records, his books showed that not even the Japanese market is that interested in whale meat anymore and he is busy making a loss. Kristján Lofson and his men have now slaughtered more than 1,800 whales since the ban on commercial whaling was instated in 1986. Iceland refuses to recognise the ban and currently allocates its whalers a quota to kill both endangered fin whales, as well as minke whales.

In May 2023 a report was released from the evidence gathered from both inspectors who were onboard these whaling ships as well as conservation and activist groups. The reports showed staggering and heartbreaking results; evidence such as a whale that was shot and wounded by multiple harpoons and struggled to breathe for over two hours. It took six attempts with steel explosive-tipped harpoons to finally kill the innocent whale. On the 20th of September 2022, the crew on Kristján Loftsson’s harpoon ship Hval 8 fired six harpoons at a female whale. In total four of the harpoons hit and penetrated the whale. The first three didn’t kill her as she fought for her life for two hours before dying from her injuries. Records from the ocean conservation group Sea Shepherd U.K. confirms that on the 21st of September 2022, Hval 8 returned to the whaling station with two female fin whales. One was lactating and showed signs of pregnancy, which means a very young fin whale calf lost its mother that day and any calf still reliant on its mothers will eventually starve to death.

This is an illegal act under the letter of law, which is very clear: no whale with a calf may be killed. I myself witnessed pregnant female fin whales being brought into the station, dissected and unborn calves being taken out, quickly disposed of into an industrial grinder and ground up to be sold as part of livestock feed. Out of the 148 whales killed during the 2022 season – 36 of them were shot more than once. The government of Iceland have yet again renewed Lofson’s whaling permits for the 2023 season. In a move welcomed by conservationists worldwide, Iceland’s government recently announced that it will suspend the annual hunting of fin whales until 31 August this year because of a report stating that the whales took longer to die than allowed by Iceland’s animal welfare law.

Our oceans are a major carbon sink, absorbing about 22% of the planet’s Co2 emissions and providing half of our oxygen. Oceanic animals such as whales, among the largest and longest-living marine creatures, can not only store large amounts of carbon in their bodies but indirectly help the ocean’s carbon intake in other ways as well. Their faecal matter is rich in nutrients that feed the growth of phytoplankton. Similar to trees, phytoplankton take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as their source of food. It is estimated that the world’s phytoplankton absorb 10 to 20 billion tonnes of Co2 each year. By virtue of being the largest and some of the longest-living creatures on our planet, whales naturally store carbon in their bodies, called biomass carbon. Whales can weigh up to 150 tons and species like blue and fin whales, are among the largest creatures to have ever existed. Whales can also live between 50 and 90 years, though most of them outlive humans, storing carbon all that time. When whales die, their carcasses sink to the deep sea floor, continuing to store that carbon for thousands of years. It is estimated that one of these large whales can sequester 33 tons of Co2 in its entire lifetime.

Now, more than ever, we need people like Vilmundur, not just to educate the masses on the importance of conservation and what these incredible sentient species mean for us, but to be an example of and show, your past does not define you. It is possible to let go of the ego and anyone of any age has the potential to change and to bring change to this world. In the words of profound author Nishan Panwar: “I failed many times in my life and I have done things in the past that I’m not proud of. My past is a part of me, but it doesn’t define me.”

The hopeful notes and melody of the song Gobbedigook by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, starts crackling from the small radio speaker in the corner of the dimly lit yet cosy workshop and we both fall silent for a moment, in respect and appreciation for the music, and the serendipity.

 

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