Screenshot of a video filmed in 2013 during an annual long-finned pilot whale chase in the Faroe Islands. Credit: Zacharias Hammer.

The so-called “Grindadrap” technique, a controversial fishing tradition that takes place in the summer in the Faroe Islands, off the coast of Norway, consists of surrounding pilot whales and driving them toward shore in order to slit their throats. This practice has come under fire from NGOs and in particular the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which sent volunteers to the archipelago this summer in an attempt to prevent the mass slaughter. Fourteen of these volunteers, including our Observer, were arrested in late August, when a first slaughter took place.

Pilot whales, which are a type of marine mammal with large foreheads, swim near the Faroe Archipelago in the North Sea from June to October every year. When a pod of pilot whales is spotted, a group of ships sail out from shore, surrounds them, and drives them toward a bay. The panicked pilot whales rush toward the shore and become stuck in shallow water. Men waiting on the beach then slit their throats, resulting in mass slaughter, as shown in this 2013 video.

Video shot in 2013 during an annual pilot whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Credit: Zacharias Hammer.

The “Grindadrap” technique, also known as simply “the Grind”, dates back to the 16th century, if not earlier. It was used in Greenland and other areas in the northern Atlantic. It was originally both a test of manhood for young fishermen and a way to obtain meat reserves for the winter. Its opponents claim that this practice has become completely outdated in the Faroe Islands of the 21st century, given that it is an autonomous territory of Denmark, a country with one of the highest living standards in the world.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has long opposed the Grind and has previously led several operations attempting to prevent massacres from taking place. This year, over 500 volunteers of its volunteers took turns all summer participating in operation “Grindstop”. Their goal was to drive back pilot whales that came too close to the coasts and to generally cut short any attempt to carry out the Grind. Although the volunteers managed to drive back a large group of pilot whales in late July, others were unable to do so on August 29, when a Grind took place on Sandoy island. The Sea Shepherd’s ships were too far from this island to be able to intervene, and the 14 volunteers that were on the ground were arrested by the police after trying to protect 33 pilot whales, all of whom ended up being killed afterwards. Our Observer told us about her experience. The trial of the 14 volunteers that were arrested will take place on the Faroe Islands on September 25.

Photo of the capture of the first pilot whale, snapped by our Observer shortly before her arrest.

"I did not realize how gruesome it was"

Alexandra Sellet is a graphic designer who lives in Royan, France. She took part in the “Grindstop” operation and is one of the Sea Shepherd volunteers that was arrested on August 30.

I have always been passionate about marine mammals, and when I learned in mid-May that Sea Shepherd was seeking volunteers to prevent the “Grindatrap”, I didn’t hesitate. It was the first time in my life that I volunteered for an NGO, and what I witnessed has only increased my determination to protect these animals.

I left for a two-week trip and was arrested on the fifth day. In the afternoon, two members of Sea Shepherd that were patrolling a beach alerted us that ships had set sail for a Grind. I arrived on a neighbouring beach with other volunteers, six in total. We were there before the police. About 20 residents of the Faroe Islands also arrived, having been alerted by the authorities of the Grind operation. They insulted us and pushed us around.
“The pilot whales were screaming and swimming sideways frantically”

We could see the group of pilot whales heading toward the beach, driven by about 15 ships. So we got out into the water and started hitting metal bars together, the goal being to scare them and cause them to turn around. But there were too few of us. The pilot whales were clearly panicked: they were screaming and swimming at the surface of the water. Normally, they swim under the surface in a smooth trajectory.

I had the time to film the first pilot whale being caught, and then the police stopped me. They handcuffed me, and I didn’t resist, as the Sea Shepherd has asked us to behave. We were made to wait behind a dune and we were only taken away once the massacre had been completed, an hour and a half later. On the beach, I could see several pilot whales still flailing as they died. This against Faroe law, which holds that they must be killed instantaneously! I did not realise that the “Grind” was so gruesome, nor that it caused the pilot whales to suffer so severely. We spent the night in prison and we were freed the following day.

Three of the volunteers following their arrest. Photo: Sea Shepherd.

In the days preceding the incident, we had been the subject of a great deal of hostility on the part of the residents of the Faroe Islands, as could be expected. Many people, including children, insulted us or flicked their middle fingers at us while we conducted our patrols.

I returned to France and am now forbidden from returning to the Faroe Islands for three to five years. This doesn’t matter: if I can’t go back, other volunteers will go instead!

Sea Shepherd ships seized by the Faroe authorities.

“Sustenance hunting of a non-threatened species”

When contacted by FRANCE 24, the representative for the Faroe Islands to the European Union stated that the “Grind” is “a sustenance-related hunt, and that the local residents eat the killed mammals over the course of the year. Moreover, pilot whales are not a threatened species, and so this hunt does not put the species at risk. Accordingly, there is massive support among the local population for the continuation of this secular tradition.” Kate Sanderson also believes that “Sea Shepherd places whales on a pedestal and adopts a purely animal-centric approach, without taking any other considerations into account. It’s very difficult to debate with these people, as they have an extreme attitude toward anything that relates to the lives of animals”. The diplomat also claims that “all of the meat is mostly eaten over the course of the year”, which Sea Shepherd claims is false.

According to Mikå Mered, who runs Polarisk, an investment firm focused on the Arctic, “the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands, like other populations from the northern Atlantic and the Arctic, do not appreciate it when NGOs come to their countries with a quasi-neo-colonialist discourse about their cultural practices”. In his view, the Sea Shepherd’s actions could have a negative impact on the economy of the Faroe Islands by causing a decrease in tourism in 2015.

Up to 1,000 pilot whales are slaughtered every year. However, the consumption of their meat decreased in the Faroe Islands in the 2000s, as several studies have revealed the high mercury levels present in pilot whale meat. In 2011, local veterinarians counselled Faroe residents to limit their consumption of this type of meat to only once a month.