Elissa Phillips and Anahita Babaei. Illustration: John Watson

How to stop an Icelandic whale hunt

Elissa Phillips and Anahita Babaei on chaining themselves to the crow’s nests of whaling vessels for 33 hours

In the pitch black of early morning, two women scaled the 29-metre-high masts of two ships docked in Reykjavik harbour. It was an icy September night and the narrow rope ladders they were climbing rocked back and forth with the ocean. There were no harnesses to catch them if they fell. But they had a mission: to stop the whale hunt.

Iceland is one of only three countries in the world that still allows commercial whale hunting, along with Norway and Japan. The Icelandic government imposed a temporary suspension this summer, which many believed was the beginning of the end for the practice until, in a shock move, it allowed hunting to resume at the end of August.

Storms prevented the whaling vessels from going out to sea for the first three days after the ban was lifted. When the crew arrived at their ships on the fourth day, they found British marine conservation worker Elissa Phillips and Iranian artist Anahita Babaei chained to the crow’s nests at the top of masts.

“When you’re pushed to the point of desperation, you’ll do whatever it takes,” Phillips says when we meet in a quiet Reykjavik café a few days later. They hadn’t planned it much in advance, she explains; the pair had only met days earlier at an anti-whaling protest.

“For me [I was thinking] maybe we can just stop them for a day or two and we can save two creatures,” says Babaei, who has been living in Iceland for the past year.

More daunting for her than the physical challenge was the legal risk. As an Iranian citizen living overseas, who says she cannot go back to Iran, the consequences of a criminal record could be serious. 

But she had already resolved to accept the risk. “What else am I going to do with my life? I can say that I saved at least a whale… We have one life, let’s live it in a way that is inspiring,” she says.

The women remained in the crow’s nests for 33 hours, braving bitterly cold temperatures overnight. Babaei also survived without food, water or her anaemia medicine after police snatched away her supplies within the first hour.

Down on the harbour, police cordoned off the area. A small crowd of friends and activists gathered, playing music to lift the women’s spirits and trying to get water to Babaei—at one point even employing a drone. The state broadcaster arrived to film the drama, while tour operators tried to explain the situation to a steady stream of tourists arriving for whale watching.

Phillips and Babaei were mostly oblivious to the commotion below. “We had no connection to the ground because my phone died and Anahita’s was taken,” explains Phillips. “It’s incredibly quiet up there. For us [the only] noises were ships coming in and out of the harbour, occasionally calling to each other in the wind. It was incredibly challenging on the body… Your mind just goes a bit numb.”

We have one life, let’s live it in a way that is inspiring

Eventually, they decided to come down. “We were devastated,” Phillips says, “but you can’t sleep up there, so there had to be an [endpoint].”

Soon afterwards, the boats went out and killed two endangered fin whales. Phillips and Babaei were taken into custody and charged with trespassing. Their case is ongoing.

Having known each other only a few weeks, the two say they are now “soul sisters” and plan to get matching whale tattoos. As for the whalers? There is only one company that still carries out whaling in Iceland, and its licence expires at the end of the year. An opposition party has introduced a bill in the Icelandic parliament to ban the practice. Campaigners are holding out hope that this will be Iceland’s last whaling season.