(CNN)One of Iceland's richest men has hit back against claims his whaling company illegally killed a protected blue whale.
Icelandic whaler defends 'blue whale' kill, says animal was a hybrid
"We have never caught a blue whale in our waters since they were protected," Kristján Loftsson, managing director of Hvalur hf, told CNN. "We see them in the ocean. When you approach a blue whale, it's so distinct that you leave it alone."
Anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd claimed Wednesday that Loftsson's company had killed and butchered a blue whale in Hvalfjordur, Iceland. Volunteers monitoring the whaling site photographed orange-clad crews examining the massive carcass.
The largest animals in existence, blue whales are a protected species and have not been deliberately captured since 1978, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Loftsson claimed that the whale in question was either a fin whale, or a hybrid species, not protected under Icelandic law. He said if it was a blue whale the kill was purely accidental.
The difference between these and blue whales is "easy to see," Loftsson said.
Conservationists disagreed however. Adam A. Pack, researcher and professor of biology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said the photos appeared to show a blue whale.
"(Look at) the way the dorsal fin is hooked, the pointed pectoral fins, and the size of the animal," he said.
Pack also noted the lack of a white lip, characteristic in fin whales, and the mottling on the whale's flank, an identifier that acts like fingerprints, as more evidence the animal in question was likely a blue whale.
Authorities in Iceland will now conduct genetic testing to determine the whale's species, which may take months to complete.
In a statement, the government said the "matter was (being) taken seriously by the government and the relevant authorities are investigating this issue."
Initial information "suggests the animal caught is not likely to be a blue whale but rather a hybrid of a fin whale and a blue whale," it added.
Sea Shepherd's photos sparked instant outrage within the conservation community.
While the fight against whaling is not a new one, this case has attracted greater attention and outrage due to the blue whale's rarity and protected status.
Reaching 30 meters long and weighing up to 200 tonnes, blue whales have been protected worldwide by the International Whaling Commission since the 1960s, after decades of what Pack calls "unchecked exploitation."
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), blue whales were nearly wiped out by whaling fleets before regulations were created. A staggering 360,000 blue whales were killed in the 20th century in Antarctic waters alone, before the IWC effectively banned commercial whaling in 1986.
Iceland regularly continues to hunt on its own terms, despite being a member of the IWC. The hunt of blue whales