Sinking the Icelandic Whaling Fleet
David Howitt and I spent the whole Summer of 1986 working to raise the money for our mission to infiltrate Iceland with the sole purpose of causing maximum economic sabotage to their whaling industry. I waited tables in a nightclub in London's Chelsea district during the nights, and I refinished antiques on Kings Road during the day. David went to southern England where he picked hops. Every few weeks we would meet to discuss our plans and go over intelligence we had gathered on Iceland. When our work was complete, we would make a batch of paint-filled light bulbs and ride out on our bikes to redecorate London fur shops.
Finally, the day arrived when we rode the London Underground subway to Heathrow Airport to catch our IcelandAir flight to Reykjavik. As we rode to the airport, I removed a patch from my jacket that read "Save the Whales, Save the Earth" with a picture of a fin whale. All we carried with us was our cameras, clothes and raingear, underwater flashlights, knives and a couple of maps. All the tools necessary for any action would be acquired in Iceland.
When we arrived in October, only the hardcore tourists were still around. We got beds in the local youth hostel, and one of our first tasks was to buy a pair of bolt cutters and a large adjustable wrench from a local hardware store. We wanted as much time as possible between the purchase of our tools and the action, in case anyone might remember the purchase.
On one of the first nights in the capital city of Reykjavik, we snuck out of the hostel late at night and into a scrap yard from where we could view the four, 175- foot Icelandic ships that comprised the nation's entire whaling fleet. Hvalur ("whaleship") 5, 6, 7 and 8 bobbed in the harbor, tied alongside each other like four Riders of the Apocalypse waiting to unleash their evil on the natural world. The ships' superstructures were painted white with the bridge windows and portholes dark and imposing, resembling the eye sockets of a skull.
Needless to say, we were a little intimidated. The reality of what was so simple to discuss in England but was now staring us in the face in the freezing fall weather of a Reykjavik night was more than a little daunting. But we had known it would not be easy, so we began a series of late night observations of the harbor. Within two weeks of surveillance, a definite routine began to emerge. Every Friday night, a watchman would relieve the day watch, carrying with him two bottles of Brenivin, a strong Icelandic vodka. No activity could be seen on three of the ships, the watchman staying on the fourth ship, the one furthest from the dock. A weekend night emerged as the best night for action.
In Reykjavik we saw photos from the whaling station, which was 45 miles from town. Tours were offered for the station, so David and I hitchhiked to the desolate station and were dropped off near the entrance. As we approached, not a soul was visible. The whaling season was over, and with it the demand for tours. David and I began to walk throughout the premises in broad daylight, gazing through windows at offices, machinery and workshops, and it quickly became evident to both of us that we might be able to strike the whaling station also. We knew we would have only one shot at the Icelandic whaling industry, and any risk to ourselves did not matter. Already we felt the chances were high that we would not get off the island once our sabotage was discovered.
Iceland in November 1986 was not a country that expected or even remembered the threats of a militant anti-whaling organization. Only one watchman was aboard all four ships. It was the off-season and the crews were ashore, with work on the ships restricted to daylight hours.
The week of our planned attack, the whaling ships were taken into drydock. One by one, they were pulled out of the water for repairs and cleaning, which is a major operation. David and I had planned on attempting to sink all three ships minus the one that housed the watchman. Now we were forced to sacrifice our third target. Our money was running low, and the fear of my discovery still haunted us. Maybe we were already under surveillance ourselves, and the police were waiting for us to act before they could legitimately arrest us?
Already David and I had read up on the Icelandic penal system and learned that the longest sentence given to any crime was eleven years. We also learned that Icelandic prisoners were employed making cement sidewalk blocks. From that day on, the jokes never stopped of how good we might become at building Icelandic sidewalks.
Finally surrendering our fate to the whale spirits, we decided to act. We choose the night of November 7th for our task of vengeance. We said goodbye to our European friends and told them David and I were going to rent a car for our last day to do a little sightseeing.
We drove to the airport on the morning of the 7th to pre-check our luggage for the 6 a.m. flight out of the country the following morning. It was to Luxemburg, but we did not care where it went, as long as it was not Scandinavia. Next, we drove to Iceland's only vegetarian restaurant for what might be our last supper. We had been saving our money for this last luxury but found the restaurant closed. Not to be disappointed, we bought food from a supermarket and drove to a clearing above the whaling station to eat our meal and await the early winter darkness.
While eating, we listened to the car radio and after our meal discovered we had drained the battery dead. Here our mission might have ended, had not a vanload of Icelandic youths, probably employed by the whaling station, came to our rescue. They towed our car until we could jump start it, and then we waved goodbye and drove to our prearranged hiding place for the car, as night was fast approaching.
As we approached the whaling station, we were surprised by the sight and sound of a front-end excavator that was digging a trench at the station. We dropped to the ground and spent the next hour lying in the freezing rain until the workman and his machine headed off to the local town. As the lights of the machine disappeared, we leapt into action.
After this task, we found the computer control room that kept the entire stations machinery fully automated. We smashed the computer panels until sparks flew and LEDs flashed and the beautiful music of machines dying all around us could be heard. There was no time to waste, so we moved next to the ship's store, where the spare parts for the four whaling ships were kept. Taking the most expensive pieces, we walked to the edge of the docks and tossed them into the waters.
Our first task was the sabotage of the six huge diesel generators that provided power for the station. David and I were both experienced diesel engineers, and we knew what was good for an engine, as well as what was bad. Before long we were stripping off our outer clothing and sweating profusely in our handiwork.
Next, we moved onto the centrifuges that processed whale blubber into a high-grade lubricating oil that was used in missiles. Smashing the delicate gear, we next located what we could not find at the meatpacking plant: the Whalemeat Mountain. David had attempted to move the many crates of whale meat, housed in huge refrigeration units beneath the station, but the forklift he drove ran out of propane gas. We were forced to wedge open the refrigeration units and then sabotage the refrigeration units themselves so that hopefully the meat would thaw and spoil.
Watching World News a few days later, we would hear the station's foreman recount with shock how it appeared that the whole whaling station had been the target of an air raid.
We could have spent all night sabotaging the station, but the ships were waiting, so David and I signaled a retreat and returned tired and sweating to our car. Once there I experienced a frantic moment as I reached for the keys on the tire and found them not there. The high winds had been so strong as to blow them some feet away, where I found them with my flashlight. Now covered in grease and drenched in sweat, we drove back to Reykjavik. The weather made the roads treacherous, and often the car would start to slide when it hit ice.
I am convinced that many of my premature gray hairs were earned that night. An hour later we reached Reykjavik Harbor, where three ships lay bobbing in the water, the fourth in dry dock. Resting, David and I ate some quick energy food and stashed our confiscated record books from the whaling station in the backseat. Taking a deep breath, we opened our car doors and stepped back into the pounding rainstorm that made our ski masks and rain gear not just a disguise but a necessity. With hands in our pockets like two cold fisherman, we walked down the dead-end dock towards Hvalur 5, 6 and 7.
The tides in the harbor were such that we were level with the ships' decks; so to board, all we had to do was hop a few feet from the dock to the steel-plated decks. Moving quickly to Hvalur 5, David pulled out our bolt cutters and cut the hasp on the lock that shut the engine room hatch. Moving into the fully-lit engine rooms, David searched the ship for any sleeping watchman while I moved into the engine room and began lifting deck plates, looking for the saltwater cooling valve that regulated the seawater that cooled the ships' engines at sea. By the time I found it, David had returned to announce that the ship was indeed empty.
We began to wrestle off the sixteen or more nuts that held the valve cover in place, and when most were removed water began to shoot out from the bolt holes. I tasted it, and it was salty. When the cover was fully removed, the ocean water would flood first the engine room and then the rest of the ship's compartments, dragging it to a watery grave in Reykjavik's deep harbor. Leaving the cover partially removed, we moved to Hvalur 6, where we repeated the process, quickly locating removing that ship's salt-water cooling valves.
Finally, with all the nuts and bolts removed, we took a pry bar to the valve, and with a little persuasion the valve quickly popped free, releasing a flood of seawater that drenched both David and me. Quickly returning to Hvalur 5, we removed the last of that ship's cover bolts, and again the ocean began to rush in.
Now it was time to execute our escape. The whaling station had been demolished, and two 175-foot whaling ships were sinking. The time was just before 5 a.m., and the airport was almost an hour away. Walking away from the two sinking ships, we tossed our tools into the icy waters and pulled our ski masks off just as we reached the car. Hopping into the driver's seat, I started the car and pulled onto the road. Less than two minutes later, we were pulled over by a Reykjavik Police Car.
My first thought was, "No, they can't be that good; they can't have been watching us this whole time..." Still, there we were two ships quickly sinking and minutes ticking away before our flight to freedom would lift off, possibly leaving us for the next eleven years to fine tune our masonry skills at the local prison. And a police officer was walking to my window while David and I sat soaked in water, with grease from engines all over our clothes.
The officer asked me to get into his car. Looking at David as he sat with eyes forward, I got out of the car and into the back seat of the police cruiser. The officers ignored me and spoke to each other in Icelandic before finally turning around and asking me in plain English, "Have you drinken any alcohol tonight?"
Almost laughing, I said, "No, I do not even drink!" which was a lie, and he then asked if he could smell my breath. It was tempting to utter a joke, but hot coffee on an IcelandAir jet was calling. So I breathed on him, and he wished me a safe trip to the airport, knowing that was where we were probably headed because of the early morning departure.
That police officer is probably still cursing himself today after having the nation's only saboteur since the second World War into his police car and then letting him go. Returning to the car, David told me he had almost bolted but thought it best that he wait for another moment for some signal from me. The zoo liberation was now out of the question as we sped towards the airport to catch our 6 a.m. flight.
Pulling into the airport we grabbed our daypacks and quickly changed our clothes, dumping the grease-covered ones in the airport garbage can. We next went through Icelandic Customs without any incident, checked in and grabbed our boarding passes. The polite ticket agent told us the flight was delayed due to the harsh weather. The words were what we least wanted to hear, and David and I spent the next 30 minutes staring at the clock, imagining the chaos erupting at Reykjavik harbor just about now. Finally, our flight was called, and we quickly boarded, still not feeling safe until we landed in Luxembourg.
Hours later we did just that, David and I gazing out the window half expecting to see Interpol agents waiting for our arrival. They were not. We collected our luggage and walked out of the airport after making an anonymous call to the Sea Shepherd offices in the U.K. saying only, "We got the station, and two are on the bottom..."
We hitchhiked to Belgium, where we caught a ferry to England and then a bus to London. Getting off the bus now 36 hours after our action, I walked to a news agent and picked up a copy of the morning paper. A story on the front page said only, "SABOTUERS SINK WHALERS, photo page six..."