So Björgvinsson, 45, the godfather of Iceland's whale-watching industry and a pioneer of European ecotourism, is bringing new business to the table. Whale-watching is Iceland's fastest-growing tourism sector, pumping $8 million into the economy last year. A trifling sum? Not to coastal towns like Húsavik (pop. 2,500), which have been losing young people for lack of jobs. And not when you consider that's twice the annual revenue whaling generated in the 1980s, before a moratorium was imposed under global pressure.
When Björgvinsson arrived in Húsavik, on Iceland's north coast, in 1997, "I was a laughingstock," he says. He painted a 33-m-long blue whale on the pavement outside the local hotel. Few were around to notice; Húsavik was a place where "people only stopped to take a picture of the church," he says. Last year, 25,000 came to whale-watch; 70 people owe their jobs to the boom.
Bjorgvinsson, founder of the Húsavik Whale Center, the country's only cetacean educational facility, has trying to bridge the wide gap between Icelandic tradition and conservationism, usually seen as the province of meddling outsiders like Greenpeace, which he says "is still considered like a terrorist group in Iceland." Last fall, Iceland rejoined the International Whaling Commission, a first step toward resumption of whaling. Pro-whaling forces argue that a cull of minke whales is needed to rescue collapsing fish stocks. Björgvinsson disagrees, challenging them to make a better case than his: that whales are worth more to Iceland alive than they are dead.