Whales and Ice: Marine-mammal subsistence use in times of famine in Iceland ca. AD 1600-1900 (ICEWHALE)

This project, funded by the American-Scandinavian Foundation (ASF considers to what extent whales stranded by sea ice off the coasts of Iceland supplemented the food supply during times of famine. Because of its northerly subarctic location, Iceland has been marginal for agriculture, with a primary economic focus on animal husbandry, and with grass and hay for the livestock forming the principal crop. 


From early times to the recent past the country has suffered numerous famines with attendant social disturbances. The variable, often harsh, climate, together with the presence of sea ice, was almost always implicated in these crisis years. The ice primarily had negative effects, preventing fishing and trading vessels from landing. The colder temperatures it brought also adversely affected the grass crop and hence winter fodder resulting in livestock deaths and subsequent famine for the human population. However, the ice also brought benefits, including ice-stranded whales that augmented the food supply. The significance of stranded or beached whales in times past in Iceland is reflected in the fact that the Icelandic term for a “windfall” is hvalreki, literally a “whale stranding”. Also of importance were seals caught on the ice and this aspect forms a secondary focus of the project.

Using primary data from documentary sources for the period ca. 1600 to 1900, the project is investigating the negative and positive impacts of varying sea-ice conditions as they affected the Icelandic population. Negative aspects were the prevention of fishing and trading activities and the lowering of temperatures on land. Positive aspects included the stranded whales that provided a crucial food source. Within this context, the project is evaluating how frequently such beaching and stranding events occurred and consider to what extent they prevented starvation in times of crisis.

The value of whales and other marine mammals was well known from early times and is emphasised in numerous medieval sources including the Sagas of Icelanders where stranded whales and the resources they provided were often the subject of bitter feuds. Although these early sources are highly interesting as background material, it is only after ca. 1600 that relevant historical sources become prolific. The main sources that will be used for this project include the records known as the later Icelandic annals, consisting of some 40 works, written in different parts of the country. They have contemporaneous coverage for the period ca. 1600 to 1800 and are all published. Descriptions of Iceland´s geography and resources are also relevant. An example is the work on Iceland's nature by the autodidact Jón Guðmundsson (1574–1658) that includes some of the earliest accurate descriptions of whales in Icelandic waters. However, the major source for the project consists of a vast repository of governmental reports covering the period ca. 1700 to ca. 1900. The context for these reports lies in the fact that Iceland was ruled by Denmark in effect from late medieval times to 1944 when Iceland became an independent republic.

The project is interdisciplinary, combining the social-ecological elements that made up the fabric of Icelandic society in order to analyse the causes and effects of famine years, but with a major focus on climate and sea ice. A stranded whale could provide significant nourishment during famine years. The ICEWHALE project is conducted by Astrid Ogilvie, Senior Scientist at the Stefansson Arctic Institute. There is research cooperation with Marianne Rasmussen, Director of the University of Iceland´s Research Centre at Húsavík in northeast Iceland ( and a leading expert in marine mammal research. Newly discovered data will be shared with the Whale Museum in Húsavík (

The map of Iceland is contained in the Ortelius´atlas of 1590. This map was almost certainly based on one drawn by the Icelandic Bishop Guðbrandur Thorláksson (c. 1542-1627). It is known that sometime before 1575 Guðbrandur had constructed a celestial globe accommodated to the latitude of Iceland. Courtesy of Attribution National and University Library of Iceland.

The photograph of a stranded whale was photographed at Skagaströnd, northern Iceland, by Evald Jakob Hemmert (1866-1943) during the severe winter of 1918. Sea ice was fast to the land but there was an opening where the whale got trapped. It is possible that this was a blue whale (pers. comm. Ragnhildur Hemmert Sigurðardóttir.)