Faroe Islands Grindadrap – here’s our take on the controversial Faroese pilot whale hunt. After our trip to the North Atlantic archipelago, and after receiving countless hate emails and messages accusing Faroese people of being ‘mercury-intoxicated barbarians’ and us of supporting cruel practices simply by BEING in the Faroe Islands, we’ve decided to put together this article, explaining what the Faroe Island Grindadrap is, highlighting myths and media misinformation about the same, and trying to present the perspective of the Faroese people.
Around May, we received an invitation to travel to the Faroe Islands. We had long wanted to visit the islands – not only for the luscious green landscapes, dramatic bird cliffs and stunning waterfalls, but also to understand the truth about the Faroe Islands Grindadrap, and how it is perceived by the local population.
Sure enough, as soon as we announced our trip on social media, we started receiving all kinds of hate messages. From a simple ‘please don’t go’, to ‘boycott Faroes, where savages slaughter sentient beings’. This blog is focused on promoting nature and sustainable tourism, and as part of our mission we’ve presented instances of successful ecotourism practices, such as our article from Danjugan Island in the Philippines, as well as highlighted controversial issues, like the environmental implications about palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia.
We’ve been accused by our readers and followers of betraying ecotourism principles by visiting the Faroe Islands. I must admit that I considered cancelling the trip for some time. Images of the hunt are published every year on media all over the world, and admittedly, they look cruel and shocking.
Fjords turn a bloody red, as the lifeless bodies of hundreds of pilot whales lie on the shore, surrounded by people. Yet, it’s easy to attribute meaning and attach feelings to shocking images. Is the Faroe Island Grindadrap actually a cruel and unnecessary practice? Or is it just that us, city dwellers leading comfortable urban lives, have been alienated from the basic mechanism of meat production?
One perspective seems to be always absent from Grindadrap-related media reports. That of the Faroese people. The media portray them as ‘mindless savages’, ‘mercury-poisoned barbarians’ and so on. Yet, instead of casting judgment and calling for boycotts, has anyone ever thought of visiting the Faroe Islands and trying to understand – albeit briefly – how life is in such a remote environment is, and how locals perceive the Grindadrap?
This is why we found ourselves on an Atlantic Airlines flight out of CPH on July 24th. We landed at the Faroe Islands airport eager to know more – but before telling you about it, let me give you a little background info on the Faroe Islands Grindadrap and about the archipelago in general.
Understanding the Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands are one of the most isolated places in the whole world. They’re located roughly halfway between the northernmost tip of Scotland and Iceland, 320 km away from the former. Weather is largely windy, rainy and cold year round – lots of pretty green grass grows on the islands, but that’s about it. There’s little agriculture – just potatoes and other root vegetables. No fresh salad, tomatoes, oranges, apples, cherries, grapes. The fruit and veg sold in supermarkets have been shipped over from Denmark – and cost about 10 times more than what you would pay in Europe.
The islands have been isolated for centuries. The first settlers were probably Irish monks in the 7th century, but the first ‘real’ settlers were the Vikings, coming from Norway about one hundred years later and establishing not only the first permanent settlements, but also a political system with their own parliament and local courts.
Over the following centuries, the Faroe Islands have been governed by the Norwegian and Danish crown. Nowadays, they exist as an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark – the Faroe Islands are NOT part of the European Union. They have their own parliament and control over most domestic matters. The Faroese people are largely in favour of total independence – in 1946, during the aftermath of WW2, a referendum for Faroese independence was held, and the independence front won, but the Danish government refused to recognise the result due to only two thirds of the population participating in the vote.
Nowadays, the Faroese are a proud, independent and resilient bunch. Throughout history, they were able to make a living on a bunch of rocky islands in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, withstanding the Black Death and other epidemics, pirate attacks and occupations by foreign powers. They are proud of their history and traditions, celebrated yearly during Ólavsøka, the Faroese national festival that we were lucky to attend at the end of July.
Having saithat, the Faroese are far from being what they’re portrayed by the media – a bunch of red-faced, inbred, mercury-poisoned hillbillies. Most young people have travelled and studied abroad. Our guide Johan first left home at 17, to live and work in an Israeli kibbutz. Since then, he’s lived in half a dozen countries, studied tourism in Barcelona and travels for extended periods of time each year.
‘Somehow, though, I’m always drawn back to the Faroe Islands’ he told us, gazing out to sea from the Mykines bird cliffs.
Truth and Lies about the Faroe Islands Grindadrap
As I said before, agriculture is pretty much non existent in the Faroe Islands. Nowadays all kinds of goods are shipped over and readily available, but historically the Faroese had to make do with a diet that consisted largely of fish, seabirds – and whale meat.
Enter the Grindadrap, the Faroese whale hunt. Whaling in the Faroe Islands has been recorded since the 13th century. It occurs differently from ‘traditional’ whaling, still practiced by Japan, Norway and Iceland, happening in the open ocean (i.e. out of sight) with the aid of whaling boats.
In the Faroes, pilot whales are hunted and killed on the beach. When a pod is sighted, whales are driven to the shore and beached, before being struck with a spinal lance that severs connection with the brain and kills them in a matter of seconds.
When a whale is struck with the spinal lance, its arteries are also cut, causing massive blood loss – the fjords waters turn deep red. The images you’ve all seen associated to the Faroe Islands on the media, that brought rise to a number of conclusions that – more often than not – are lies. These statements all come from messages we’ve received during our stay in the Faroes.
Whales are slaughtered for fun – meat is not even harvested
That’s a lie. Pilot whale meat harvested during the Grindadrap is distributed for free to the Faroese community, making up for approximately 25 per cent of meat consumption in the archipelago. You will rarely find ‘grind’ (Faroese for pilot whale) on restaurant menus, or in supermarkets.
The Grindadrap is a spectator sport
A reader even went as far as defining the Grindadrap a ‘spectator sport held for tourist entertainment’ – and our guide, who previously worked as in the tourist info office at Vagar airport, told us that often tourists asked him when the next Grindadrap was going to be held. The Grindadrap is, in fact, an opportunistic hunt, occurring only when a pod of whales is sighted from the coast. This only happens a handful of times a year, and some years it doesn’t happen at all – hence, it cannot be predicted.
The Faroese are driving pilot whales to extinction
Pilot whales, the main species killed during the Grindadrap, are not actually endangered. They are listed as ‘Data Deficient’ by the IUCN Red List due to the fact that it’s not clear whether there is only one pilot whale species or several. However, the IUCN Red List also states that ‘the harvesting of this species for food in the Faroes and Greenland is probably sustainable’.
The IUCN Red List website reads as follows:
‘Although this fishery has been actively pursued since the 9th century, catch levels have apparently not caused stock depletion, such as occurred off Newfoundland. Catch statistics exist from the Faroes since 1584, unbroken from 1709 to today, showing an annual average catch of 850 pilot whales (range: 0 – 4,480) with a cyclic variation according to the North-Atlantic climatic variations (Bloch and Larstein 1995). The IWC, ICES and NAMMCO have concluded, that with an estimated subpopulation size of 778 000 (CV=0.295) in the eastern North Atlantic and approximately 100 000 around the Faroes (Buckland et al. 1993; NAMMCO 1997) the Faroese catch is probably sustainable.’
Whales are cruelly hacked to death
With the introduction of the spinal lance, whales are killed in approximately one second. The lance severs the connection of the spinal cord and major blood vessels to the brain, causing immediate death. Only people in possession of a specific hunting licence are allowed to join the Grindadrap and kill the whales. To get that licence, people have to follow a course that teaches them how to operate the lance to kill whales in a fast and pain-free manner, in compliance with Faroese animal welfare legislation stating that animals should be killed as quickly and with as little suffering as possible.
Faroese brains are poisoned by mercury
In 2008, the chief medical officer of the Faroe islands warned the population against consumption of pilot whale meat, since it has been shown to contain toxic levels of mercury, PCBs, and environmental poisons. The department for public health went on tho recommend whale meat to be consumed in moderation and never by pregnant or breastfeeding women and children. This fact has been used by groups spreading Grindadrap hate to further the myth of ‘mentally-deficient, mercury-poisoned savages’. Health issues related to mercury consumption have indeed been recorded in the Faroe islands, but definitely not to the extent of causing widespread intellectual impairments.
Not to mention that the high levels of mercury and other pollutants are related to ocean pollution, which also happens as a result of our industrialised, urbanised lives – considering that the Faroese have very little industry, save for some fish-processing plants and salmon farms, their contribution to ocean pollution is marginal at best.
On top of that, it has been argued that historically, consuming whale meat (before it became contaminated) was actually beneficial for the health of Faroese islanders. Centuries of isolation produced a population with little genetic diversity, susceptible to genetic diseases like SPCD (1:1000 incidence in the Faroes vs 1:100,000 worldwide), causing a defect in the transportation of the amino acid carnitine into the plasma membrane, leading to a variety of conditions that may result in death.
The German doctor and scientist Ulrike Steurwald, who has done SPCD research in the Faroe Islands for several years, has argued that the meat-rich Faroese diet (including sheep meat and whale meat which contain high amounts of carnitine), may have protected many Faroese people from a sudden death at a young age from SPCD. The scientist found evidence of elderly people surviving the disease without taking carnitine supplements – evidence that their diet is what helped.
Children are exposed to cruelty – The Faroese should be tried for child abuse
Children are not allowed to join the Grindadrap – as I said before, only adults in possession of a valid hunting license can access the beaches where the hunt occurs. Images of children posing next to the whales have been published by media in the past, leading people to believe that innocent Faroese children are coerced by their cruel parents kill.
Just stay with me for a minute. Imagine a child growing up in an Italian farm and witnessing the annual pig slaughter. Or an American child going deer hunting with his father. Would you refer to these two instances as ‘child abuse’? Some may argue that children should be kept away from all this, whereas others may say that it’s good for children to learn where their food comes from.
This is just an example of double standards and hypocrisy, result of disinformation and online hate. The IUCN defined the Grindadrap is a sustainable practice. Whales live free up until the moment when they are killed, which happens in a quick and pain-free manner, regulated by the authorities. When I questioned people sending me hate messages, asking them why so much hate, their sole answer seemed to send me graphic pictures and a litany of ‘nastybastardssavageskillersassholes’.
And when I asked these people why they didn’t think visit the Faroe Islands to see the truth with their own eyes, NOT A SINGLE PERSON said yes, actually, that’s what should be done before casting judgement. Clearly sitting in an air-conditioned apartment, eating industrially-farmed meat, fruit and veg flown from the opposite side of the globe, consuming tonnes of plastic then jumping in a car to drive 1 kilometer is ok, but living like the Faroese is not.
And they’re savages, so they don’t deserve a say.
The Faroese people, Nature and Sustainability
Now let me tell you two shocking things I discovered during our 6 days in the Faroes.
First – the Faroese do their best to live in harmony with nature. Driving around the islands you won’t see many people, but plenty of sheep and geese, grazing and wandering around freely. A far cry from the packed industrial farms where most meat in the rest of Europe and the US come from. These animals live under the wide Atlantic skies, eating pollutant-free grass and plants, with ample space to move about – and they’re finally killed in a fast and humane manner, not herded in a line and kept in cages for hours on end.
Seabirds are still hunted, but their numbers are monitored closely. For instance, I mentioned to one of our guides on the bird island of Mykines that when we visited Iceland 10 years ago, puffin was often found on menus.
‘We don’t eat puffin anymore’ our guide replied. ‘We noticed puffin numbers declining, 7 or 8 years back, and hunting was banned’.
You’ll be hard pressed to even find a single piece of litter around the islands – rubbish is carefully sorted for recycling, and ferries carry the excess rubbish from smaller outlying islands to Tórshavn where it’s disposed of.
Second discovery – there are Faroese that disapprove of the Grindadrap, simply because it’s no longer necessary for survival. On the other hand, some agree with it, considering an important part of their heritage and culture. Others – probably the majority of people – don’t have a strong opinion one way or another.
During Ólavsøka celebrations in Tórshavn on our last night in the Faroe Islands I asked half a dozen people what they thought about the Grindadrap.
‘For some people it is important, but it’s not important for me’ said a man that – accidentally – was eating whale blubber.
‘So why do you eat it’, I asked.
‘Why shouldn’t I eat this, and eat chickens raised in a cage in Denmark?’ he replied.
Another man said ‘there are people that strongly advocate in favour of the Grindadrap, and many locals that are against, and the two groups often clash. Most people are somewhat in the middle. Extremes are never good – neither one way nor the other. What we need is dialogue’.
However, most Faroese seem to have one thing in common – anger, for the way they are being demonised by the media, and for how marine conservation groups are carrying on their struggle against the Grindadrap.
Volunteers from Sea Shepherd and other organisations arrive in the Faroes without making an effort to learn about Faroese culture, ready to cast judgement, post graphic images and insult locals on social media rather than trying to sit at a table and engage in beneficial talks.
I met a guy who hosted Sea Shepherd volunteers at his home for six months, until he had enough of them talking about ‘bloody fjords’, ‘savages’ and ‘killing beaches’ every day.
‘I was all in favour of what they stood for – he said – but I couldn’t take them disrespecting my people and my country, day after day’.
Hypocrisy and Media Sensationalism
What’s this warmongering attitude going to achieve? Nothing – if anything, it’s counterproductive.
The Faroese authorities have discussed banning Sea Shepherd from entering the country. Tradition-loving Faroese become even more strongly attached to their heritage and willing to continue the Grindadrap. Activists call locals ‘savages’ because killing whales is ‘morally wrong’ – locals tell activists that they should mind their own good business and not tell them what to do on sovereign territory.
Activists post graphic pictures that are picked up and shared by mainstream media, often without sharing details or facts. People reason with their guts, attributing meaning to what they see – like in the case of this picture.
A man stands post-Grindadrap, smiling, his shirt, arms and t-shirt covered in blood.
Here are some of the comments (sic):
- THAT would slaughter a human just as gleefully > I have No doubt. It is sociopathic as are its’ tribe mates.
- These ppl are sick we shud hack there heads off????????
- Just look at these people, they are mentally deranged!
- Lol looks like a pedophile
Let’s just stop and think for a second. How can one assume that he is smiling because he actually enjoys the act of killing? Maybe his friend out of the frame called out, or somebody told him a joke, or whatever. In any case, calling people ‘sick’, ‘sociopath’, ‘mentally-deranged’ and even a pedophile (beats me), or calling for their death, does nothing but perpetrating the circle of hate and disinformation about the Grindadrap.
However, the circle of hate and sensationalism works very well for both media and marine conservation groups. The latter share highly emotional material with the former, used to boast circulation and engagement. In turn, donations (necessary to support up to 500 activists every summer in the Faroes) pour in – a win-win situation, right?
This leads to the Faroe islands being demonised for a practice considered to be sustainable and humane, simply because it is bloody, and happens in plain sight.
At the same time, Japan still practices commercial whale hunting under the disguise of ‘scientific research’. Iceland hunted endangered fin whales until this year – this summer the hunt won’t take place, but it hasn’t yet been banned altogether. In Norway, whales are also routinely hunted – yet, demand for whale meat is so low that it is fed to animals on fur farms.
When I questioned people sending us hate messages why they didn’t do the same with people in Japan, Norway or Iceland, no one seemed to be able to give us a conclusive answer.
I’ll tell you the reason why – because these countries kill whales far out at sea – out of sight and out of mind, as the saying goes.
Conclusions – Faroe Island Grindadrap and the Future
Reading this article, you may think that I’m in favour of the Grindadrap. As a matter of fact, I am not, because it is no longer vital for the survival of Faroese people. The meat is no longer suitable for human consumption, making whale kills totally unnecessary.
However, after having met and spoken with the Faroese people, I see their point. They’ve been ridiculed and demonised by media worldwide, portrayed as mindless savages and targeted by endless, unjustified hate.
One of the people I spoke with in Torshavn said ‘what we need is dialogue’ – I totally agree, and believe dialogue and education are the answer.
A proud people like the Faroese will not take kindly to hundreds of activists descending on their country with an aggressive attitude – but trust me when I say that the Faroese are not brain-damaged by mercury consumption, but they’re kind and hospitable people, who will go out of their way to make you feel at home in their country.
Yet, the Grindadrap will not stop because of Sea Shepherd or other activist groups. Their attitude is counterproductive – in this Op-Ed: From the Faroese Perspective article, a former Grindadrap hunter reports that ‘when he reads defamatory, degrading, hurtful and misleading comments, he sometimes wants to show solidarity with the whalers and go hunting again.’
The same article reports a quote by a Canadian whale and dolphin advocate, Leah Lemieux. ‘If you want the hunters to make friends with the whales you first need to make friends with the hunters.’
The Grindadrap will end when the Faroese people will want it to – pure and simple.
Promoting ecotourism could be the answer – a positive campaign, organised by the whale-watching industry and International Fund for Animal Welfare has had success in shifting local attitudes about whaling in Iceland, and in the Faroes themselves killer whales once also used to be hunted, but are now viewed with fascination, as a possible tourist attraction.
Tourism still makes up for a small percentage of economy in the Faroes. Calling for tourism boycotts simply won’t make a difference. Educating locals about using whales to create jobs and new sources of revenue might.
We strongly urge people to stop and think before sharing yet another bloody Grindadrap picture on their social media and insulting the entirety of Faroese people with unjustified hate. This attitude won’t change anything – it will only further more hate.
Changing perspectives doesn’t happen overnight, especially when talking about a country that has been isolated for centuries and is strongly rooted to their millenary traditions.
Dialogue, education and listening to one another does. This is why we strongly urge our readers to go and visit the Faroe Islands, to talk to the Faroese people and get to know their point of view. And also because it’s one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen.
Pin it for later?