When captains Gudmundur Haraldsson, Gunnar Johansson and Konrad Eggertsson slipped their three boats quietly out of port yesterday morning to hunt minke whales for the first time in 14 years, the forecast was for calm seas and clear skies.
But within hours the small flotilla - fitted with new, improved harpoons and with crews taught how to use them by Norwegian whalers - was the center of a force 8 gale of protest as British animal welfare groups joined international environmental organizations to condemn its actions.
Stopping short of calling for a boycott of all Icelandic goods, a move which the RSPCA said might endanger its charitable status, the eight groups with British bases urged their several million members and friends to "think carefully" before going to Iceland on holiday or buying Icelandic products - mainly fish.
"Consumers should not underestimate the power they have. I am convinced that pressure on Iceland could help reverse this terrible retrograde step," an RSPCA spokeswoman said.
Iceland's whaling commissioner, Stefan Asmundsson, yesterday tried to justify the country's decision to hunt 38 minke whales each year, saying that more data was needed to see how much fish they ate. This was dismissed by animal welfare groups.
"We believe that Iceland's plan to resume 'scientific' whaling is a cynical ploy to circumvent the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on commercial whaling and will seriously undermine conservation efforts," the eight groups said in a statement.
"Even if the meat from these first 38 whales is not exported, we believe that, as it has done in the past, Iceland will seek overseas markets for future exports as the program continues."
Greenpeace yesterday diverted its ship Rainbow Warrior from Greece to Iceland but said that it was not expecting to take direct action against whalers for the moment.
"We hope that we will be able to give many Icelanders the confidence to say no to whaling - for ever. Iceland can make more money from whale watching than whale killing and should be doing all it can to protect those whales in its seas," said Gerd Leipold, Greenpeace International's director, a veteran of the battles that the pressure group fought with Icelandic commercial whalers in the 1980s.
The groups hope that they can repeat the economic pressure which helped to force Iceland to end whaling in 1989. Strong protests in the US, Britain and Germany are thought to have had an effect on fish exports. Last week the British government led international protests, expressing "deep regret" for the "wholly unjustified" plan to resume whaling.
Iceland, with just 275,000 people, is thought to be vulnerable to consumer pressure. Up to 75% of its income is from fishing and its markets are strongest in the US, Germany and Britain, the three countries where anti-whaling sentiment is strongest. Recent polls in the US suggest more than 80% of people do not want to see whaling resume.
However, the National Federation of Fishmongers said yesterday that it knew nothing about Iceland resuming whaling or a possible boycott. Iceland exports about 12,000 tonnes of fish a year to Britain.
In Iceland, however, where 70% of people support the whaling decision, there was considerable pride that the country was bold enough to flout mainstream western public opinion, but also disquiet.
More than one in three of the country's tourists go whale-watching.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003