Horrified environmentalists have voiced their fury after sickening pictures emerged appearing to show a rare protected whale slaughtered "by accident" by hunters.
Experts believe the huge fish, seen dead at an Icelandic whaling station, is either a critically endangered blue whale or an extremely rare blue whale hybrid.
It was killed by workers during a hunt branded "barbaric" by activists , and in defiance of an worldwide whaling ban.
The boss of the whaling company said the animal was killed after being mistaken for a fin whale, and defiantly hit back at animal rights groups – telling Mirror Online his critics are "against everything".
The latest killing comes just days after the first casualty of the "barbaric" annual hunt was pictured by observers, who now say 22 whales have been killed since it started on June 22.
Earlier this year Iceland’s government controversially granted whaling company Hvalur permission to kill up to 238 fin whales this summer.
This is in spite of an international ban on commercial whaling.
It is the first time in three years that Hvalur has carried out a hunt after 151 fin whales were killed in 2015.
Blue whales are protected by international law after commercial whaling wiped out 90% of the worldwide population.
The heartbreaking images show the huge animal’s carcass lying on its side surrounded by workers at the depot, where meat is harvested for export to Japan.
Activists have called for DNA tests to be carried out to prove it isn’t a blue whale.
It is estimated that there are just 10,000 to 25,000 blue whales in the world, and just five hybrids have been identified in Iceland since 1986.
Hunted whales are impaled with a grenade-tipped harpoon and towed to the shore with a rope so they can be butchered.
Critics have branded the slaughter "barbaric" and called for sanctions against Iceland.
Vanessa Williams-Grey, policy manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), said: “It’s disgraceful that a blue whale – the largest creature ever to have lived on our planet – may have been taken by Icelandic fin whalers.
"We’ve asked for DNA testing as even if not a ‘true blue’ then it is a blue/fin hybrid. Either way, this was likely an horrifically long drawn-out death as it takes a lot to kill an animal that big."
The charity has contacted Icelandic authorities and called for genetic testing of the carcass.
Arne Feuerhahn, chief executive of conservation group Hard to Port – who took the pictures – said: "This is an unacceptable tragedy that leaves people around the world speechless.
"It is very unfortunate that the reckless and irresponsible actions of a single individual stain the reputation of this progressive and beautiful country."
Dr Marianne Rasmussen, from the University of Húsavík, said after seeing the pictures: “Based on the physical appearance and colouration of the lower jaw and baleen plates, it cannot be a fin whale. "
She said its colour "points toward a blue whale", but said DNA testing could confirm this.
Charity ORCA, which works to protect whales and dolphins, has also blasted the whalers.
Head of science and conservation, Lucy Babey, said: "What has happened here is almost inconceivable – mistaking a fin whale for a blue whale – but it can never be allowed to happen again.”
And she continued: "Subjecting them to this indescribable pain and suffering can only be defined as sickening inhumanity; it is quite simply heart-breaking. "
The whale was killed shortly before midnight on Saturday and taken to a whaling station at at Hvalfjörður in Iceland.
Kristján Loftsson, chief executive of Hvalur, confirmed to Mirror Online that it had been killed in error.
But he denied that his workers had illegally killed a blue whale, saying: "This is a hybrid.
"For experienced whalers, they do not make a mistake like this."
He said the animal was harpooned after being spotted by hunters working for the company.
"You cannot tell, this looks like a fin whale when it’s in the ocean," he said.
"We see a lot of blue whales and they’re so distinctive, we leave them alone. We didn’t realise this was a hybrid."
He hit out at activists who opposed whaling in Iceland, stating: "They are anti-everything, they’re against everything."
Mr Loftsson said studies had shown that in 84% of cases whales are killed instantly by the first harpoon – but admitted it could often be several minutes before a second is fired if they survive.
He said: "It can take some minutes sometimes, that then we shoot another harpoon."
Asked how he justifies the suffering, he said: "It’s a job for people and an income, that’s how I look at it."
He said that whale blubber can be used to create treatments for people with iron deficiencies.
In 1986 the International Whaling Commission issued a memorandum banning whale hunting.
Just two countries – Iceland and Norway – defy this, with whaling having been reintroduced in Iceland in 2006.
In the past the US and the EU have both threatened economic sanctions against Iceland calling for the practice to be scrapped.
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