On May 7th, more than 60 pilot whales were captured and butchered in this year’s first pilot whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Ingi Sørensen, a Faroese diver, author, and underwater photographer who is fiercely against the practice documented the slaughter, known as grindadráp in Faroese. His video recording shows several motorized boats driving the pilot whales towards the selected whaling beach in the islands’ capital of Torshavn. Images reveal the devastating scene of pilot whales thrashing in blood-filled water as hunters converge on them with their killing tools.
They hunt the long-finned species of pilot whales that inhabits the North Atlantic. It is a wide-ranging, toothed whale that belongs to the dolphin family and which, among dolphins, is second in size only to the orca. Pilot whales live in matriarchal pods with an exceptionally strong social structure. They are one of the most frequently reported whale species in events of mass strandings and are known to stay together as a group, even in a crisis. This makes it easy for hunters to drive entire pods of them ashore. And once the pod is helplessly stranded, men and women—mostly men—begin the process of killing every single member, including pregnant and lactating mothers and their offspring. When the carnage is over, calves that were cut from their mothers’ wombs can be seen lying next to their dead mothers, umbilical cords still attached.
For centuries, the people of the isolated Faroe Islands survived by hunting whales, and during times of famine, pilot whales became their rescue. But times have changed, and pilot whale meat and blubber are no longer considered everyday food in the Faroe Islands. Many toxins build up in animals’ bodies as they ascend the food chain. This bioaccumulation reaches dangerous levels in top predators, such as pilot whales. In 2008, the chief physician for the Faroese Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health, Pál Weihe, and the islands’ chief medical officer, Høgni Debes Joensen, warned that pilot whales are contaminated with dangerously high levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as DDE, a breakdown product of the insecticide DDT. In a press statement issued in 2008, the physicians noted that mercury and PCB exposure contribute to Parkinson’s disease in adults, impaired immunity in children, and compromised fetal development. “It is recommended that pilot whale is no longer used for human consumption,” they warned.
The Faroese government chose not to follow the doctors’ recommendations. In June 2011, however, the Faroese Food and Veterinary Agency urged limited consumption of pilot whale meat and blubber. They issued special recommendations for women and girls: refrain from eating blubber while they plan to have children, and do not eat whale meat while pregnant or breastfeeding. No one should eat the kidneys and liver of pilot whales, the agency said.
As a result of the government’s hazardous decision to downplay the risks of consumption, the pilot whale hunt continues to this day. I have heard whalers boast that they can kill a pilot whale in a few seconds. What they don’t consider is the lengthy time it often takes to drive the pod ashore. And, apparently, they also don’t think about the distress that these ocean-going marine mammals experience when forced to strand in shallow water with no possibility of escape. Once stranded, the pilot whales are subjected to complete chaos, commotion, and yelling as hunters start the practice of dragging them ashore. They do this by injecting a rounded stainless-steel hook into a whale’s blowhole. The hook is attached to a long piece of rope, and several men drag the struggling whale ashore. A pilot whale can weigh more than 5000 pounds, and it is easy to imagine how terrifying and painful it must be to be dragged out of the water in this manner. Once the whale is fully beached, a hunter finishes it off by jamming a spinal lance into its spinal canal, thereby severing the spinal cord, and cutting the blood vessels supplying blood to the brain.
While hunters are killing some of the pilot whales with spinal lances, other whales are still fighting for their lives in shallow water. They can see and hear their family members being mutilated and destroyed just a few feet away from them during their desperate struggles. Swimming in the blood of their dying pod members, all they can do is await their turn. I am sure they are fully aware that their pod, which has taken several generations to build, is being demolished. Their torment, to me, is undeniable, and it is impossible for me to fathom how anyone can participate in it, especially now that the meat and blubber contain some of world’s most dangerous toxins and should not be considered food.
On a positive note, not all Faroese people agree that the pilot whale hunt should continue. Ingi Sørensen puts it this way: “There is no justification to wipe out entire schools of pilot whales, and the much-used argument of maintaining the hunt as a Faroese tradition that must be carried into future generations has no validity.” He adds: “Throughout centuries, pilot whales have saved us from starvation. Today, their meat is so toxic, our own health authorities warn us it’s too dangerous to eat. The destruction of these incredible beings needs to stop, once and for all. Now it’s our turn to save them, by leaving them be and focusing our attention on saving their habitats.”
The lack of empathy is not a Faroese phenomenon. It is a human phenomenon, and people carry out animal cruelty daily in every single country of the world. Please refrain from posting derogative comments based on negative stereotyping against all Faroese people, as they shut down all possibilities of dialog.
Featured image: Once helplessly stranded, the whales are subjected to complete chaos, commotion, and yelling as hunters start the practice of dragging them ashore. Imagine the terror these highly social and complex beings go through as the entire pod is being demonished in a tremendous bloodbath. Credit: Ingi Sørensen