By Helene Hesselager O’Barry
Of all the places I have been, the unspoiled landscape of the Faroe Islands stands out as one of the most spectacular. The 18 islands, of which 17 are inhabited, are separated by narrow sounds and fjords. The landscape, which resulted from volcanic activity millions of years ago, is rugged and rocky, with cliffs dropping down into the wild ocean. The Faroe Islands have 687 miles of coastline, and nowhere on any of the islands is more than three miles away from the sea.
Schools of long-finned pilot whales come here to forage, especially during the summer months. Pilot whales belong to the dolphin family and have been identified by scientists as highly social and intelligent animals that share close-knit family ties and have developed complex communication abilities. A pilot whale will not leave a pod member in trouble. Faroese pilot whale hunters take advantage of this trait when they drive pilot whales toward one of the islands’ 23 authorized whaling bays. When one pilot whale heads for the shore, the rest follow, so that the hunters are able to trap entire schools of pilot whales at a time. Once helplessly stranded in shallow water or on the beach, there is no escape. The pilot whales are killed with knives and other handheld tools. After the slaughter, the meat and blubber is distributed, free of charge, to those who participated in the hunt.
The pilot whale hunt, or “grind” as it is known to the Faroese, is thought to date back to the first settlement of the islands by Vikings in about 800 CE. Annual catch records of the hunt go back more than 400 years and show an average catch of about 800 pilot whales per year.
For centuries, the Faroese depended on pilot whales and fish for survival on these weather-beaten isles, but times have changed. Today, the pilot whale meat and blubber contain some of the world’s most dangerous toxins. Faroese health authorities warn that pilot whales are so contaminated with mercury and slow-degradable polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as DDE, a by-product of the insecticide DDT, that they are not fit for human consumption. Surprisingly enough, the Faroese Food and Environmental Institute, which issues guidelines regarding the consumption of pilot whale, simply recommends a limited consumption of one meal of pilot whale meat and blubber per month for adults. Special recommendations have been issued for women and girls, who should refrain from eating blubber as long as they plan to have children. Women who plan to become pregnant within the next three months or who are pregnant or breast-feeding are advised to refrain from eating pilot whale meat. The kidneys and liver of pilot whales should not be eaten by anyone, as that is where the poisons are most concentrated.
Most of the Faroese people I have talked to say they adhere to these recommendations. All of the women I have talked to say they would never eat the meat and blubber while pregnant or nursing. The mercury issue is very much on their minds. So why do the Faroese keep killing pilot whales?
A 65-year-old man who has hunted pilot whales since he was 14 explains it this way: “The ‘grind’ is part of who I am. I have been doing it all of my adult life. It makes me feel like an important part of the community. It is what has kept us alive and together for centuries.”
When I ask a whale hunter in his twenties to elaborate on this, he replies: “From the moment pilot whales are sighted out at sea until the meat and blubber is distributed fairly among us, the ‘grind’ is the result of a combined effort in which each participant plays an important role. I want to be a part of that. It makes me feel Faroese.”
But not all Faroese people support the hunt. A local cab driver puts it this way: “There was a time when the hunt was necessary. That is no longer true. I don’t hunt whales and would never feed it to my family. I worry greatly about the toxins.” A young mother tells me she won’t let her five-year-old son watch the slaughter. “I don’t want him to become desensitized to the suffering of animals,” she says.
At the popular Coffee House in Torshavn, I get into a conversation with a 32-year-old woman who sits at a table with her three-year-old daughter. I show her a copy of the diet recommendations issued by the Faroese Food and Environmental Institute. She looks over her shoulder, as if to make sure no one is listening in on our conversation, and says, “I never touch pilot whale. Why would I eat poison once a month?”
Whether they are for the hunt or opposed to it, Faroese people willingly share their thoughts with outsiders such as myself. They are an exceptionally hospitable people, which opens the doors for communication about an issue that has become about so much more than animal welfare. The Faroese are well informed about the contamination of pilot whales. There is local opposition to the hunt, and it makes me think that change is happening.