Around May, my wife and I received an invitation to travel to the Faroe Islands. We had long wanted to visit the Islands — not only for the landscapes, bird cliffs and waterfalls, but also to understand the truth about the Grindadrap, the controversial Faroese whale hunt, 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. Some of our readers claimed that just by visiting the Faroes, we’d be betraying ecotourism principles. I considered canceling the trip for some time — images of the hunt are published every year by media all over the world, and admittedly, they look cruel and shocking.
Yet, it’s easy to attribute meaning and attach feelings to shocking images. Is the Faroe Island Grindadrap actually as cruel and unnecessary a practice as it seems? Or is it just that we city dwellers, leading comfortable urban lives, have been alienated from the basic mechanism of meat production?
One perspective seems to be always absent from these Grindadrap-related media reports: that of the Faroese people. The Grindadrap has been called a ‘brutal slaughter’ of ‘innocent whales,’ where locals ‘leap into the water with glee to stab them to death.’ Coverage like this has prompted a number of hate-filled comments and boycotts of the Islands all together have been called. After going back and forth, my wife and I decided to continue on with our trip. Because instead of casting judgment, this seemed like a unique opportunity for us to see for ourselves — albeit briefly — what life in such a remote environment was actually like. And we’d be able to ask some locals what they thought of this continuing tradition.
First, we have to understand the Faroe Islands.
The Faroe Islands are one of the most isolated places in the whole world. Weather is windy, rainy and cold year round. There’s pretty much no agriculture, save for a few potatoes. The fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets have been shipped over from Denmark and cost about 10 times more than elsewhere in Europe.
The islands have been isolated for centuries. Nowadays, they exist as an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark and they are NOT a part of the European Union. They have their own parliament and control over most domestic matters. The Faroese people are largely in favor of total independence — a referendum for Faroese independence was held in 1946, and the independence front won, but the Danish government refused to recognize the result.
To us, the Faroese seemed 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, pirate attacks and occupations by foreign powers. They seemed proud of their history and traditions, which are celebrated yearly during Ólavsøka, the Faroese national festival at the end of July.
We have to decipher between truth and lies about the 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, sea birds 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 killed on the beach. When a pod is sighted, whales are driven to the shore and 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.
According to the IUCN Red List, the Grindadrap is a sustainable practice. Pilot whales are not endangered. They live free up until the moment when they are killed, which happens in a quick and pain-free manner, regulated by authorities — only licensed hunters are able to access the beaches during the hunt.
When I questioned the people sending me negative messages, asking them: Why so much hate? Their sole answer seemed to be graphic pictures and a litany of insults.
When I asked them if they had ever thought to visit the Faroe Islands in order to learn the Faroese perspective, not a single person said yes.
They’re savages, so they don’t deserve a say.
We have to understand the Faroese people and acknowledge their connection to nature and sustainability.
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. While driving around the Islands you won’t see many people, but you will see plenty of sheep and geese, grazing and wandering around freely. These animals live under the wide Atlantic skies, they eat pollutant-free grass and plants, and they have ample space to move. When they’re finally killed, it’s in a fast and humane manner, they’re not herded into a line or kept in cages for hours on end.
Seabirds are also hunted in the Faroe Islands, 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 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.’
Our second discovery: there are Faroese who disapprove of the Grindadrap — believing it’s no longer necessary for survival. Other Faroese consider it to be an important part of their heritage and culture and believe that the tradition should be protected. But many others, don’t have a strong opinion one way or another.
During Ólavsøka celebrations in Torshavn, I asked half a dozen people what they thought about the Grindadrap.
One man told me, ‘For some people it is important, but it’s not important for me.’
He incidentally was eating whale blubber at that exact moment.
‘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 told me, ‘There are people strongly in favor 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.’
Most Faroese seemed to have one thing in common, no matter their opinion on the Grindadrap, they were angry. They are angry about the way they are being demonized by the media, and for how marine conservation groups are carrying on their struggle against their tradition.
Volunteers arrive in the country without making any effort to learn about Faroese culture, ready to cast judgment, 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 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 favor of what they stood for,’ He said. ‘But I couldn’t take them disrespecting my people and my country, day after day.’
There has been a lot of hypocrisy and media sensationalism surrounding the Grindadrap.
This warmongering attitude toward the Grindadrap is going to achieve nothing, and if anything, it’s counterproductive. Last year, the Faroese banned Sea Shepherd activists from entering the country. And the tradition-loving Faroese have become even more attached to their heritage that they are even more willing to continue the Grindadrap.
Activists call locals ‘savages’ because killing whales is ‘morally wrong.’ They post graphic pictures, which are picked up and shared by mainstream and social media — often without sharing the details or facts. People reason with their guts, attributing meaning only to what they see.
This leads to the Faroese people being demonized for their practice that is considered sustainable and humane — simply because it’s 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. (The hunt won’t take place this summer 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 asked the people sending me hate messages, if they did the same for the people in Japan, Norway and Iceland, no one was able to give me a conclusive answer.
I believe that there isn’t enough attention on the hunts in those countries because they kill whales far out at sea. Out of sight, out of mind.
What does the future of the Faroe Islands and its Grindadrap look like?
Reading this article, you may think that I’m in favor of the Grindadrap. And as a matter of fact, I’m not. It’s no longer vital for the survival of the Faroese people. And the meat isn’t even 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 demonized by media worldwide and have been targeted by endless, unjustified hate.
The man in Torshavn is right: ‘What we need is a dialogue.’
Promoting ecotourism could be the answer — a positive campaign, organized 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, who used to be hunted, are now viewed with fascination.
Dialogue, education and listening to one another are the best ways to change perspectives. Go and visit the Faroe Islands, talk to the Faroese people, get to know their point of view. Or, at the very least, think twice before sharing that bloody Grindadrap picture on your Facebook wall.