The red sea of the Faroe Islands

8 Mins read

The atmosphere is tense. The men on the beach are in deep concentration. Adrenaline is running high and the whale killers are in a trance state of mind.Emotions are heightened. Someone whispers a silent prayer; a prayer for it to be over as quickly as possible.

On the horizon the boats are coming closer, narrowing in a school of Pilot whales. The whale killers are waiting, in seconds the shores of the Faroe Islands will turn red once again.

What follows next is a social media frenzy. All over Facebook and Twitter misleading headlines read ‘Stop the dolphin massacre in Denmark’ and ‘The annual blood festival in the Faroe Islands’.

This ‘blood festival’ is reported as a ‘rite of passage’ for the islanders. Rumors spread of the killers being ‘young teenagers’, with the whale corpses supposedly left on the beach to rot. And so in people’s minds, these myth becomes a fact.

Back on the beach, the school of whales have been killed and are ready for butchering. Soon they will be distributed throughout the community. The whale killers are happy. Once again they have provided food for their families. Just like their ancestors have done for centuries before them.

©Bjartur Vest

Blow-hole hooks laid ready on the beach

Bloody and dramatic photographs of the hunt leave the international community horrified. And it’s understandable.

Modern society is not used to seeing animals killed so openly. Now they see ‘normal looking’ people slaughtering these majestic animals. They’re covered in blood, with their wives and children watching. It’s hard not to classify this as barbaric.

The Internet fills with photographs of children sitting on whale carcasses and people performing their national dance, expressing joy. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when you don’t understand the context of these photos.

The Faroe Islands, a self-governed nation within the Kingdom of Denmark, are situated in the North Atlantic, halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Settled by Vikings in the ninth century, the country is made up of 18 islands.

This small archipelago is home to a population of around 48,000 people that are outnumbered by sheep (Faroe Islands translates to Sheep Islands in old Norse). The weather still pretty much sets the agenda for this small group of islands.

The harsh and shifting weather conditions often makes it difficult to plan any outdoor activities in advance, and the country has often been named “the land of maybe” by travellers trying to plan their trips on the islands.

But what most people might have heard about the Faroe Islands is their tradition of killing Pilot whales; known locally as Grindadráp or more commonly as ‘The Grind’. It’s a dramatic scene by its very nature, as the killing of any animal is.

Despite this, the Faroese whale hunt is different from other methods of slaughter, because of its honesty. Contrary to the modern ‘civilised’ production of meat (which is hidden away in slaughter houses and neatly packaged for urban society to buy at the supermarket), this is, and has to be done, in the open, so everyone can see men with big knives, a bloody ocean and large beautiful animals, and it speaks to our strongest emotions.

[pullquote align=”right”]This drastic scenery pictures men with big knives, a bloody ocean and large beautiful animals, and speaks to our strongest emotions.[/pullquote]It’s because of these dramatic images that international organisations have rushed to the islands to interfere with these cruel acts. Many of them arrive ill-equipped and with no willingness to understand the culture.

The most visible organisation fighting to save the whales of the Faroe Islands has been the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS). Since the 80s, the SSCS have been actively trying to stop this practice which they describe as “a mass slaughter” and “the Taiji of the North”.

SSCS’s view is that the whales don’t belong to the Faroe Islands: “They do not belong to any nation. The Pilot whales and other cetaceans slaughtered in the Grind hunts are wild, migrating animals who are simply swimming past the deadly killing shores of the Faroese when they are driven in with boats and hauled onto the beach.”

Last summer they launched their biggest campaign yet: Operation Grindstop, following on from their earlier Operation Ferocious Isles  in 2011. Hundreds of activists patrolled the islands by air, land and sea with the agenda of stopping any Grind killings taking place.

This also resulted in 14 arrests for breaking whaling regulations after a Grind took place on the island of Sandur in August. The organisation is non-profitable and heavily rely on donations for their campaigns.

SSCS are known to use direct action to protect marine life, which has made them unpopular in many circles and are often referred to as ‘eco-terrorists’. Yet, they seem to be quite popular in the celebrity world: Operation Grindstop is supported by celebrities like Charlie Sheen, Pamela Anderson and Brigitte Bardot.

Contrary to popular belief, Pilot whales are not hunted by blood-thirsty men going out with their boats to satisfy their greed. In fact, Pilot whales and other species swim in Faroese waters all year round. The Pilot whale drive only takes place when a school is sighted close to land and when it’s in accordance with Faroese whaling regulations.

Annual records of drives and counts of Pilot whales and other small cetaceans date back to 1598. These statistics provide over 400 years of documentation, making it one of the most thorough records of wildlife exploitation in the world.

The Grind is strongly regulated with rules of when a drive is allowed, including who can participate and the methods of killing and butchering. The drive of the whales is regulated by national authorities under the Ministry of Fishery and national whaling association Grindamannafelagið. Along with the district administrator, they have authority over the drive. Four whaling foremen are elected for each bay used.

The district administrator will decide after a sighting whether or not the legal requirements for a drive are being met. These include; weather conditions, if there’s enough participants both on boat and on land for an efficient drive and kill, and if a shore or shallow of a bay is near that is authorised for the drive. There are 23 whaling bays in the Faroe Islands which meet the requirements – no other location may be used.

When the administrator has decided to proceed, he and the local whaling foremen determine which bay is suitable to drive the whales ashore. The boats then slowly and quietly drive the whales to the allocated beach in a big semicircle, where they become stranded.

If the whales can’t be beached they are driven out again, according to regulations. A swift mobilisation of manpower is required on the beach to conduct the killing of this group of large animals. A blow-hole hook is used to secure the whale and a spinal lance is used to sever the spinal cord. This severs the major blood supply to the brain and ensures both loss of consciousness and death within seconds. The spinal lance has improved accuracy and safety in the kill and is arguably the most humane way to kill these big animals.

©Bjartur Vest

The slaughter of the Pilot whales is carried out in the open

The catch is then divided between the participants and local residents, in accordance with the traditional community sharing system. These catches are shared without an exchange of money. They’re a few exceptions – some small parts might be sold for the purpose of cleaning and for compensation of damages made in the Grind.

Since 1994, members of the Faroese national whale association, Grindamannafelagið, have been the representatives to the outside world. Hans Jakob Hermasen, a member of their committee, explains that “Grindamannafelagið has two main aims: to improve the slaughter or make the changes necessary for it to be as humane as possible, and to inform about the Grind as we see it.”

Hermasen, like many others in the Faroe Islands, believes that the media hype around the dramatic and spectacular sights are contributing to the aggressive campaigns aiming to stop it.

He understands the pictures are not easy to watch: “There’s a big difference between when I watch something on the TV screen, and when I’m a part of it. I like less what I see on the TV, but my job is to kill the whale as quickly as possible. And this is what’s being served into people’s homes by the media.”

Many of the locals feel angry with what they perceive is a misrepresentation to the outside world. They feel they are being denied the opportunity to narrate their side of the story.

SSCS has been accused of deleting Faroese comments on social media when trying to show a different perspective. Some of those who do comment say there are myths surrounding the subject that many people believe to be solid facts, but debating in a public forum has proven useless.

People will rather believe an incredible lie than a simple truth,” Hermansen says; he believes the deep emotions that people have for whales are blinding them.

Nearly wiped out by the whaling industry in the last few centuries, these creatures have gained an almost sacred status in modern society. Yet the Faroese aren’t just blindly killing every Pilot whale that comes near the islands.

[pullquote align=”right”]“People will rather believe an incredible lie than a simple truth”[/pullquote]“According to the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) the Pilot whale population around Iceland and the Faroe Islands is estimated to be around 128,000.

Based on documented catch figures from the islands, the annual average number of whales killed is around 800, though these widely range from 0 to 1,107 in the catch figures of 2000-2014, representing less than one per cent of the total estimated Pilot whale stock.

“It’s a question about [the] environment and how to live where you are. We have adapted by taking what we need from the nature to live of; from what grows and what lives here. On the islands, our duty is to make sure that it’s not an endangered population that is being hunted. The method of slaughter needs to be humane and taken for food consumption – so that nothing dies unnecessary,” says Hermansen.

But the presence and interference of the many activists has taken a toll on the locals, who otherwise are known for their tolerance and hospitality. Hermansen believes this to be the most damaging result of Operation Grindstop.

A Gallup poll from earlier this year showed that 77 per cent of the Faroese population, especially young people, believe that the Grind should continue, while 12 per cent wants it to stop.

Hermansen believes the 77 per cent aren’t necessarily in favour of the practice but they’re against the ignorant, aggressive campaigns. “People from London, Paris, New York etc. are deciding how we are supposed to live here in the Faroe Islands”.

“We are the only society in the world where there’s a connection between modern society and remains of the old. The new civilisation doesn’t have that connection. There are slaughterhouses where professional people slaughter and you don’t see what’s going on and you accept that. But then don’t accept other people living this way.”

Many people in the Faroe Islands like to be a part of the whole food process. A Faroese fulmar hunter told Vice‘s Munchies that he liked the honesty behind getting your own food, because then he knew how it lived and how it was killed.

[pullquote align=”right”]”There are slaughterhouses where professional people slaughter and you don’t see what’s going on and you accept that.”[/pullquote]However, there’s another reason why the Grind tradition is at risk. Studies have shown that Pilot whale meat and blubber contains high levels of heavy metals and PCBs.

The Faroese Food and Veterinary Authority has advised the islanders to stop eating Grind meat or to at least limit the intake. Many believe that these evidence-based reports are more likely to end the tradition of Grind, as opposed to the pressure that comes from foreign cultures.

Some organisations, like Earthrace Conservation have started an open dialogue about the risk of eating whale, instead of using aggressive campaigning.

The hunting culture in the Faroe Islands isn’t a “rite of passage” for the people, or to quench their thirst for blood. In spite of being a highly modern society, the Faroese mainly rely on food to be imported as vegetation on the island is sparse.

The liberty to provide their own fare from the limited resources available in a sustainable way is what’s important to the inhabitants. They live close to nature because in a place like the Faroe Islands you can’t escape it.

The respect the Faroese have for the animals around them is great, and yet they also know that in order for one animal to eat, another has to die. The Grind means a lot to the Faorese. They sing ballads about the Grind, wear jewellery that symbolise the Grind, and are truly grateful for the food provided by this great animal.

Grindamannafelagið recognises the Grind will probably stop in the near future, if young people lose interest in the practice, but they say that could take time: “The question remaining is if it should be by evolution or revolution.” 


Photography by Bjartur Vest & J. Helgi

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