Sea of red: the Faroe Islands’ controversial whale-killing tradition

A selection of screenshots from a Facebook Live filmed by a Sea Shepherd activist. Source: Sea Shepherd Faroe Islands Campaign
A selection of screenshots from a Facebook Live filmed by a Sea Shepherd activist. Source: Sea Shepherd Faroe Islands Campaign

People stand in the waves, surrounded by the hulks of dead whales, as the sea swirls blood-red around their legs. Animal rights and environmental activists posted these grisly images on social media, fanning the flames of a global outcry against the ritual slaughter of whales in the Faroe Islands. Our Faroese Observer explains, however, that the tradition is not a blood sport: the whales are a source of food for the islanders.

CONTENT WARNING: The images below may be upsetting for some readers.

The Faroe Islands, an archipelago in the North Atlantic, has a population of only 50,000 people. But every year the small cluster of volcanic islands comes under global scrutiny for a bloody whaling tradition called grindadráp, known locally as the grind.

It’s a practice that occurs whenever a pod of pilot whales is spotted off the coast of one of the islands: locals sail out and drive the pod towards the shore, eventually beaching them on the sand. Then villagers descend onto the beach and kill the whales en masse, using special tools.

Activists from global marine conservation movement Sea Shepherd have conducted annual campaigns against the practice since the 1980s. Faroese authorities arrested activists in 2014 and 2015, and banned the organisation from sailing ships in Faroese waters.

This year, two Sea Shepherd volunteer activists documented a grind in the city of Sandavágur on 30 July. Our Observer was one of the activists who streamed what they saw live on Facebook. They asked to remain anonymous.

“I was in the middle of a sea of blood”

We heard a grind was going to be happening, and we went there immediately. We walked casually towards the beach, pretending to be just tourists. We saw the pod coming closer - they had already been driven for about two hours.

This is drone footage of the grind that took place in Sandavágur on the 30th July, published on Faroese media local.fo.

Families and people who had come to watch were sitting on the rocks by the beach, while the hunters were gathered on the sand. I got my phone out and started to livestream it, before going down to the sand. I could see the waves starting to turn red.

This is a screenshot from our Observer’s Facebook Live. It shows the whales being pushed up the beach, before they have begun to be killed.

This is a screenshot from our Observer’s Facebook Live. It shows the water starting to turn red.

When I got on to the beach, everything was red. The water was thick, not like water anymore. It was covered in scum. Waves of blood were washing over my legs.

‘Everyone was enjoying themselves’

As soon as a whale was beached, people would yell and run towards it to hook it.

There were lots of children and families there. They were all having fun, like they were at a football match. It shocked me how much they were enjoying it. I saw children with blood spatters on their lips.

On the left: a large number of people come out to see the grind. On the right, a baby cretacean with its neck cut. From a Facebook Live posted on the Sea Shepherd Faroe Islands Campaign Facebook page.

We found the harbour where they were bringing them in. They were lining them up, gutting them, then piling them up in a corner. It was completely heartless. There were even some baby pilot whales with birthmarks on them, which means they were born just a few weeks ago.

Sea Shepherd estimates that 399 pilot whales and 33 Atlantic white-sided dolphins have been killed through grindadráp in 2018.

The whales are killed for their meat, which is shared amongst the participants and villagers, as our Faroese Observer explains.

“It’s not a sport – we don’t do it for fun”

Silas Olofson lives in Hvannasund, a village in the northern islands of the archipelago. He grew up in the Faroe Islands and has participated in grindadráp himself.

I have done it many times. If you are in the boat, it can be quite difficult to make the whales swim the right way and drive them on to the beach. That’s the main challenge; then as soon as they hit the beach it’s just a matter of seconds or minutes before they are killed. They used to be killed with knives or harpoons, but now it has been changed to be as humane and as fast as possible.

Screenshots from Facebook Lives on the Sea Shepherd Facebook page.

Now we use a special hook that has a round end that you put into the blowhole, and you use that to pull it up when it has almost beached itself. You have a special blade on a long stick that you put into the whale about a hands-width behind the blowhole, and you cut the spinal cord, which kills it instantly. It takes seconds.

It looks more dramatic than it really is [with the seawater coloured red]. There is no difference to slaughtering sheep or cattle: the only difference is that you are on a beach, not in a slaughterhouse.

A whale that has not yet been gutted. A screenshot from a Sea Shepherd Facebook Live by our Observer.

"There is no way to make the process not stressful for the animals"

The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke to Dr Isabella Clegg, a cetacean expert, to confirm some of our Observers’ information. She said that overall, she thinks that the hunts are inhumane.

“There is no way to make the process not stressful for the animals. Being driven is incredibly stressful for them, and their skin is really delicate, so dragging them onto the shore hurts them. They breathe through their blowholes so of course it is uncomfortable to have a tool stuck in there.

A screenshot from one of the videos that shows the scratches and damage on a whale’s skin after it was dragged up the beach.

If the people are very experienced with sticking the blade in [to cut the spinal cord], they can have an immediate death. But these animals are so big; if they are struggling and writhing around on the beach, then that will throw the blade off the mark. I really do think that the hunts are inhumane, considering the logistics of getting so many huge, heavy whales up the beach at once and immobilised so that they can make an accurate cut.

It’s not just like a slaughterhouse where you put cows into a barn and stun them – there’s a lot of pain prior to that.”

“It’s regulated by the authorities”

Olofson, however, says that the hunts are as humane as possible, and that the authorities plan them carefully.

I have a small permission card that allows me to take part in the grind. Only those who have followed a training are allowed to kill the whales. The course teaches you things like how to identify different whales, the whale anatomy, and how to use the different tools on the whale.

This is a picture of Silas Olofson’s license that authorises him to take part in the grind.

All of the meat is eaten and the blubber is eaten. In the Faroe Islands it’s virtually impossible to grow vegetables apart from potatoes, and our locally produced meats are fish, sheep and whale. Of course, we import meat from other countries like Iceland, but that’s much worse for the environment because of the transport.

It annoys us when we have these Sea Shepherd activists coming in and telling us we shouldn’t kill them. We don’t feel bad about it. These animals weren’t living in a cage before, they’ve had a good life. We’ve been doing this for thousands of years. When I was a kid we were hunting a lot more. Whale meat was an important part of the Faroese household and still is to this very day, even though the economic situation here has vastly improved since and we import more food.

‘It’s not pleasant. Would you slaughter sheep for fun?’

It’s not a sport. It’s not exactly pleasant to be a part of. Would you slaughter sheep for fun? But of course, you’re happy when it’s done, and you can chop off the nice whale beef and make a nice dinner, and you may have 20 kilos of meat in your freezer so you have food for the winter. But it’s never a nice experience to put a knife into an animal and kill it.

Screengrabs from our activist Observer's Facebook Lives, published on the Sea Shepherd's Facebook page.

It’s not commercialised. The person who spotted the whale pod is rewarded with either the biggest whale or the two smallest ones, and they get to choose which they want. If only a small number of whales are killed, the meat is shared between those who participated in the killing. If there is more, the meat is given to the elderly and to hospitals, and if there is even more it is distributed in the village where the grind happened, and everyone who wants some can come and get their share.

If there’s more than that, then other villages around on the island can get their share too. Last year, we had seven whale killings in this village, which meant that the meat was distributed all over the Faroe Islands, even to the southernmost island, which hasn’t had killings in 10 years or so.

Unfortunately, I think that whale hunting will decrease. All of the trash in the ocean is damaging the whales. It’s tragic that we as human beings have contaminated this product and the sea so much that we are not even able to live off it.

The whales being gutted. Screengrab from a video posted on the Sea Shepherd's Facebook page.

‘It’s part of our culture’

All of my three children have seen whale killings. My second oldest daughter’s favourite dish is whale meat. In Europe, killing an animal has become so unfamiliar to people. They are used to eating meat coming out of plastic in a shop. It’s very convenient for them – they don’t need to think about the reality of slaughterhouses. But in the Faroe Islands we live in the middle of nowhere and we need to get a huge part of our meat ourselves. It’s part of our culture and the way we get our food.

The dead whales lying in the harbour, before being cut up for meat. Screengrab from a video posted on the Sea Shepherd's Facebook page.

The islands’ Fisheries Minister Hogni Hoydal says that the practice is ‘ecological’ and ‘respectful’ – and a better alternative to importing other types of meat, like beef or chicken.  

But the tradition may be at risk anyway, after studies have shown that whale meat can contain poisonous levels of mercury. A public health recommendation issued in 2008 told the Faroese people to limit their consumption of whale meat -- or stop eating it altogether.

Studies show that many locals have done exactly that, particularly women, who are keen to safeguard future generations. Between the ire of activists and the health implications of eating whale, the Faroese could eventually see this cultural tradition dying out.

This article was written by FRANCE 24 journalist Catherine Bennett.