“The chaos of killing large groups of these intelligent, social whales inevitably results in shocking cruelty. A highly modern community killing over 1,100 whales in this way is completely unacceptable.” Joanna Toole, Marine Mammals Programmes Manager for the World Society for the Protection of Animals
The sea is stained red with blood – the blood of hundreds of pilot whales, flowing into the waters off the Faroe Islands as the sea creatures are slaughtered. The small-toothed whales have been rounded up and beached in shallow waters, and now the whalers wield knives while children play close-by. Later, the meat will be divided amongst the people, either to be frozen or preserved by more traditional means – salting or air-drying. First, though, there is the butchery to deal with.
Known as the ‘grinds’, or grindadráp, the whaling hunts that take place each year in the Faroe Islands have drawn the attention of animal rights activists and ordinary citizens worldwide. The hunt is a communal rather than commercial activity, with the whale meat and blubber shared among families in the whaling districts that participate. There is very little waste, according to one of the hunters, who claimed over 90% of each animal is consumed.
Records of these hunts in the Faroes – a Danish territory in the North Atlantic – date back to 1584. It is part of the islands’ social culture – a centuries-old tradition, and a rite of passage for boys on the islands, whose paths to manhood are marked by participating in the bloodshed when they are teens. Yet, hundreds of years of history notwithstanding, many today consider it nothing more than a cruel bloodsport.
There are a number of elements to the hunt. It starts with the sighting. Unlike other hunts, there is no deliberate attempt to go and find the whales, which are out at sea; rather the people wait until schools of the animals are spotted swimming in close proximity to the shore. When the whales are sighted, messages are sent to other islanders (there are 17 inhabited islands in the Faroes) and the word is relayed to neighboring islands. Next, the islanders take to the sea in boats, preparing to drive the whales into the mouth of the nearest bay or fjord.
A large number of boats are needed to drive the whales ashore, ready for the kill. The hunters drop stones attached to lines into the water behind the whales and fan out their boats in a semicircle, blocking the animals’ passage to the ocean and sending them in the desired direction. Once near the authorized location, the whales are beached. An instrument called a blunt gaff is also used to drag some of the whales ashore by their blowholes if they don't beach of their own accord – a method considered cruel, but an improvement on the sharp hooks of the gaffs favored in the past.
The whales are not killed using spears and harpoons – which have been banned – but with a special whaling knife known as a grindaknívur. The men use this to cut into the dorsal area of the whales and sever their spinal cords and arteries – hence the sea turning red with the blood of the creatures. Unfortunately, although some of the animals are killed within a few seconds, others take minutes to die; 30 seconds is said to be the average length of time it takes for them to perish.
Under Faroese law, the killing of certain dolphin species in the same fashion is also permitted, among them the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), Atlantic white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris), Atlantic white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus) and harbour porpoise (Phocaena phocaena).
Traditionally, whale meat has been a staple part of the diet of Faroe Islanders. The lack of arable land on the isolated archipelago meant the meat was important – particularly before goods could be easily flown in or brought by boat. Even today, the whale flesh makes up 30% of local meat production. However, as conservationists point out, the standard of living on the Faroes is much higher now. Fish is a major export, and imported fruits, vegetables and other meats help supplement the diets of the islanders.
Ironically, the slaughter of these magnificent mammals may be causing health issues for the Faroese. High levels of mercury, PCBs and other toxins have been detected in the whale meat and blubber. So, by law, whale meat can only be eaten once a month, and pregnant or breast-feeding women are advised not to eat it at all. If the pollution that is causing this effect is not dealt with – or the butchery is not stopped altogether – there could be a serious health threat. Sadly, 2010 was the largest slaughter of all – and indeed the biggest kill of any whale species in the world – with a total of 1,115 whales killed.
The threat to the whale populations themselves is naturally of more concern for animal rights activists. "The Faroese are wiping out entire pods and family groups," notes Paul Watson, the founder and executive director of Sea Shepherd International. "The number of North Atlantic long-finned pilot whales is unknown and they are listed as 'strictly protected' by the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. Aside from the barbarism and pointlessness of the act, such a practice is a direct threat to genetic diversity. They are removing building blocks from the gene pool of the species and damaging the web of life in the North Atlantic and the North Sea."
The Faroese believe the hunting drive is sustainable. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission suggest that the 1992 count of 778,000 living pilot whales is a conservative estimate; however, others who oppose the hunt, like the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, say quite the opposite – that the figure is inflated. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reckon that Faroese catches of around 850 whales a year are likely sustainable – but many conservationists remain unconvinced.
Inhabitants of the Faroe Islands hold that the whaling drive is an important cultural tradition that provides them with a source of meat, but large numbers of outsiders see it as unnecessary at best – especially upon seeing images that literally show a blood bath.