Heart of Darkness: How Whale Hunting Survives in the Faroe Islands
Written by Helene Hesselager O’Barry
Helgi and Ívun Lervig seemed suspicious of us as soon as they opened their door. Their wariness likely had something to with the fact that we had rung their bell well past midnight, in the middle of a tremendous rainstorm. Also – though the couple has been renting part of their home to travelers for years – they rarely receive visitors in November. Few tourists choose the cold, dark North Atlantic winter as the time to make an excursion to Tórshavn, capital of the isolated Faroe Islands.
The following morning, standing in their living room surrounded by folk-art paintings of Faroese fjords, the Lervigs asked us why we had come. I told the truth, and confirmed their suspicions. I said I had traveled to the Faroe Islands with my husband, Ric O’Barry (the former Flipper trainer who was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove), to investigate why the Faroese continue to hunt whales despite the practice’s apparent cruelty and even though the whale meat is contaminated with mercury and other heavy metals. My answer was met with a wall of silence. For a moment I thought the couple might ask us to leave. Then Helgi, the husband, smiled and said, with what I soon learned was typical Faroese hospitality: “That’s interesting. Let’s talk about it.”
Helgi led me into their cozy kitchen and we sat down at a wood table. The walls were covered with framed photographs: family outings in the mountains, children playing on boats, Christmas mornings. The couple is in their sixties and both of them are retired. I asked if they knew about the health warnings concerning whale meat and, if so, why they still ate it. Helgi, a tall, heavyset man with bright blue eyes, was quick with a response: “Because it tastes so good!” He said he had heard about the toxins in the whale meat, then added, “But we don’t want to hear it.” He covered his ears with his hands in a pantomime of willful ignorance.
His wife Ívun chimed in: “So many foods are unhealthy today, what difference does it make? Besides, how are we supposed to turn down a free meal?”
The distribution of pilot whale meat and blubber in the Faroe Islands follows specific rules laid out in the early nineteenth century and little changed since. Anyone who participates in a hunt is entitled to a free share of the catch. Each person can claim only one share even if he has participated in more than one aspect of the hunt – the corral at sea, the actual kill, the hauling of dead pilot whales onto land, the butchering. In Tórshavn, home to about 20,000 people, those who want a share of the catch need to sign up for it, as there is not enough for everyone.
Whale hunters in the Faroes insist the hunt is noncommercial; “no one profits from it” is the common refrain. But pilot whale can be found for sale in at least one Tórshavn supermarket, and you can also buy pilot whale at a fish stand at the town’s harbor. On a Craigslist-like Faroese Facebook group called Rótikassin (which translates roughly as “jumble sale”) pilot whale is listed for sometimes-substantial amounts of money. At one point last summer, a group member offered 60 liters of pilot whale blubber for $400.
The fact that people are paying to eat whale meat and blubber seems surprising given that the European Union and Faroese health authorities have warned that consumption is dangerous to human health.
Many toxins build up in an animal’s body as you 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, they wrote: “The latest analyses show that the mercury concentration of pilot whale remains high, with an average of about 2 micrograms per gram. In the EU, the highest limit value of 1 microgram per gram is only applicable to the most contaminated species of fish. This limit is exceeded by most pilot whales.” 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 one meal of pilot whale meat and blubber per month for adults weighing 70 kilos (about 150 lbs). Special recommendations were issued for women and girls, who were told to refrain from eating blubber as long as they plan to have children and to not eat whale meat while pregnant or breastfeeding. The kidneys and liver of pilot whales should not be eaten by anyone, the agency said.
The Lervigs said they follow these recommendations and don’t plan to cease consuming whale meat. “We are at the age where it doesn’t matter much what we eat,” Helgi said. He stood up and fetched two plastic bags from the freezer. The bags contained meat and blubber from hunts in 2010. Helgi got a sharp knife from a drawer and began to cut through the raw meat. When he offered me a piece, I declined.
Helgi shrugged. “For centuries the Faroe Islands were cut off from the rest of the world due to our remote location, and we have had to become self-sufficient in order to survive,” he said. He pointed out that the Faroese raise livestock, namely mountain sheep, and both he and Ívun said they would never dream of eating meat from industrialized factory farms on the European mainland. For the Lervigs, it seemed, whale meat is the ultimate comfort food, the food they grew up with, and it appears more wholesome than other options, even if it is contaminated. Helgi said, “Hunting and eating pilot whale is part of who we are.”
This is a Faroese mantra. In May 2012, the Faroese Prime Minister’s Office, in response to consistent international pressure to halt the hunt, released a statement, saying: “Both the meat and blubber of pilot whales have long been – and continue to be – a valued part of the national diet.”
Fair enough, in a way. Each nation has its own peculiar food traditions, after all. But – as I was to learn during that November visit and a follow-up trip Ric and I made in the summer of 2012 – the Faroese tradition goes beyond just eating whales. For many people, the national self-identity is really about killing them.
The Faroe Islands form an archipelago of 18 islands located about halfway between Iceland and Norway. It’s a rugged place of deep fjords and rocky coastlines, turbulent rivers and waterfalls. The weather is unpredictable. One moment the sky is clear blue, with brilliant sunshine that makes the traditional grass-roofed houses look like they were drawn in Technicolor; the next minute the pastures and narrow sounds are swallowed in a thick fog that turns the world white. The summers are cool and often overcast, but the winters are surprisingly mild thanks to the Gulf Stream. No matter whether it’s clear or cloudy, the wind never seems to stop.
The scant 50,000 people who inhabit the islands are descended from Norwegian Vikings. They speak a kind of Old Norse that is most similar to Icelandic. The islands have been a part of the Danish kingdom since 1386 and most people also speak Danish. The Faroese gained self-governance in 1948, though Denmark continues to manage the islands’ justice system and foreign affairs. The Faroese have autonomy in all other matters and are not part of the European Union.
It is impossible to go anywhere on the islands and be more than three miles from the sea, and the Faroese culture has always revolved around fishing. Even today, fishing is the foundation of the nation’s economy, accounting for 95 percent of exports and nearly half of its GDP. Commercial fishing boats trawl the North Atlantic for cod, haddock, and pollock. The country also has developed a sizable salmon farming industry. Although the Faroese eat mostly meat, festivals and holidays are incomplete without dried fish and pilot whale.
The type of pilot whale hunted in the Faroe Islands is the long-finned species (Globicephala melas) 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. The pilot whale has a stocky body with a prominent melon-shaped head and no discernible beak. Its dorsal fin is backswept and it has long, sickle-shaped pectoral fins. The males can reach lengths of 25 feet and weigh up to 5,000 pounds; females reach 19 feet in length and weigh about 3,000 pounds.
Pilot whales live in matriarchal pods that usually include about 50 individuals. At times, pods join together to form herds of up to 1,000 animals. They are opportunistic feeders and will eat a variety of fish. Their preferred food is squid, and the animals will migrate long distances as they follow squid schools. The Faroese know this, and as summer approaches the Faroe Island hunters start to be on the lookout for the squid runs that will be accompanied by pods of pilot whales.
The Faroese have been hunting whales since Viking settlers arrived on the islands. Written accounts of the whale hunt go back as far as 1584, and the Faroese have recorded the exact number of whales killed each year since 1709. Mortan Johannsen, a retired fishing captain who still works as a fishmonger, said the killing of whales is the very symbol of Faroese-ness. “I was born and raised in the Faroe Islands and have participated in the pilot whale kill since I was 13 years old,” he told me. “Pilot whaling has shaped us into the people that we are today.”
The mechanics of the hunt have changed little over the centuries. When a pod of whales is spotted near the shore, the news spreads quickly through the islands. The Faroese have a specific word to express a pilot whale sighting – grindaboð. Writing in 1943, a British soldier named Sidney Norgate described the communal rush of energy that comes with the grindaboð: “The presence of a herd of whales near the islands sends a vibrant thrill of excitement from one village to the next. Fires are lit on the hugest peaks and the cry of ‘Grindaboð, Grindaboð’ is taken up – it reverberates through the fjords and echoes in the chasms. The women chatter excitedly – the children dance and the men push out their boats.” Today the Faroese use cell phones to spread the word of a whale sighting. But the excitement is the same. “By the sound of that word – grindaboð —we all go into a bit of frenzy,” Helgi told me.
The fishermen then gather their boats into a small armada for the hunt. Positioning their boats in a semi-circle behind the pilot whales, the fishermen start to drive them toward the shore. Stones attached to fishing lines are thrown into the water to push the whales into bays or fjords where the whales beach themselves. One pilot whale hunter, a Faroese named Jens Mortan Rasmussen, told me that the animals are in a state of utter panic the moment they strand, as they find themselves unable to swim – and thus unable to escape. “That’s when they realize they have lost all control,” he said.
Teams of men and teenage boys stationed on the beach then wade into the surf and begin to kill the animals. The slaughter also has its own word: grindadráp. The shore teams slice into the whale’s spine, severing its main artery and, in the process, sending vast amounts of blood into the water. Often, the whales do not strand as planned, and the men have to haul them into shallow water. The traditional tool for doing this is an iron hook called a sóknarongul. The hunters jam the hook into the pilot whale’s head until it is fixed in the animal’s flesh and then drag it ashore.
During a hunt every member of the herd is killed, including calves and lactating and pregnant females. The sea is stained red by the time the killing is over.
In his excellent book Pilot Whaling in the Faroe Islands, Jóan Pauli Joensen includes a vivid description of the killing scene:
The whales were in dire trouble. In water too shallow for swimming they rocked and rolled without control. Their great tail-flukes reared many feet into the air as some of them caught their heads among the rocks.… They squealed in their agony beneath the reddening waters, their cries – like plaintive, pathetic whimpers – only just audible to those watching from the quay.… Within a few minutes of the start of the kill the harbor was a scene of gory madness and carnage, and the strong smell of blood filled the air.
Today’s whale hunters might take advantage of technologies like cell phones and underwater sonar, but the communal atmosphere of the event is the same as it has always been. It is not unusual for several hundred men to participate, and for an equally large number of onlookers to watch. Sometimes schools are shut down as teachers rush to the shoreline, occasionally with their students in tow. It’s not unusual to see children playing on whale carcasses after the slaughter. When I asked pilot whale hunters why the hunt is an important part of their culture, I always received some version of the same answer: “It’s what has kept us together for centuries.”
And yet it seems to me that there is something else at work, something darker. In our conversation, Helgi Lervig confirmed my hunch that the continued excitement for the hunt is about more than tradition, a gory version of Christmas, say. Lervig no longer participates in the killing. But in his younger years he responded to the grindaboð by racing to the bay where the slaughter was to take place. His eyes lit up as he told me about hunts of the past.
“It gets the adrenalin going, and everyone rushes to the fjord to be a part of it,” he said. “I guess you could say we all go a bit mad.”
The gruesome spectacle of the grindadráp has, not surprisingly, sparked international campaigns to halt the hunt. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has targeted the practice, as has the Environmental Investigation Agency and Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project (which employs my husband). Whale lovers have launched multiple online petitions to stop the practice. So far, though, the campaigns have had little effect.
The Faroese have made one small change to their tradition by restricting use of the sóknarongul. In 2001 the local government encouraged hunters to replace the sharp hook with a blunt one that can be used to drag the whales ashore by their blowhole. In an interview posted online, Faroese veterinarian Jústines Olsen explains how the new tool is supposed to be more humane: “It can be inserted into the air sac without wounding the whale, and the whale can then be easily guided in the desired direction.”
When I asked a hunter about Olsen’s description of the blunt hook, he laughed. “These are very big and heavy animals,” the hunter said. “There is no way to easily guide them anywhere.” The man (who like many hunters was happy to talk but wouldn’t allow for me to print his name) went on to say that the blunt hook was only introduced to make the hunt look less brutal to outsiders. He said the sóknarongul is still used whenever the blunt hook can’t get the job done.
Whale hunter Jens Mortan Rasmussen confirmed this. “The blunt hook has not made the slaughter any easier, and whenever the pilot whales are in such deep water that we can’t get to them, we use the iron hooks.” I asked him if he ever considers the torment of the pilot whales as they are stranded and then sliced open. “I don’t think of it,” he said. “I just don’t put myself in their place.”
A lack of empathy toward the animals was typical among the hunters I spoke with. “I don’t view animals as being capable of feeling any emotion,” another hunter told me.
Eventually I started to think that perhaps the Faroese’ excitement for the grindadráp occurs, not in spite of the gore, but because of it. The whale hunt, it seems, is a way for the Faroese to channel the rage that some men feel – kind of like an especially bloody, Nordic version of American football.
A cab driver in Tórshavn confirmed as much when he told me: “I can be sitting with friends at my house, having a peaceful and quiet conversation about some ordinary subject. Then all of a sudden I receive a phone call: Grindaboð! That very moment, all I think of is to change my clothes as fast as possible and run down to the shore. It’s as if my roles change in a split second, from that of the civil host having an ordinary conversation to a fierce and fearless hunter.”
A sales assistant at an electronics store in Tórshavn said the same thing. “Selling computer games and electronics is not exactly what I thought I’d end up doing, but here I am,” he said. “There is nothing exciting about my job, and joining in the pilot whale kill is a way for me to make up for that. The atmosphere at the kill is incredibly intense and electrifying, and I enjoy being a part of it. For a brief moment I feel vibrant and alive.”
For many Faroese men, the thrill of the hunt is a form of escape, a dramatic interlude from the banality of modern society. The hunt transforms an ordinary day into an epic struggle between life and death. The barbaric practice persists not just because it feeds the Faroese people, but because it feeds people’s desire for something primal, something visceral.
Heðin Mortensen, the mayor of Tórshavn, took the time to explain this to me further. Mortensen takes great pride in his duty to distribute whale meat and blubber to the public after a hunt and, despite the health warnings, remains an enthusiastic proponent of the grindadráp. When I asked him to discuss the importance of the hunt, he responded with a single Faroese word: Innløgumaður. He told me that it translated into “a real man.”
“A fine innløgumaður is a man who gets the food on the table,” Mortensen said. “He takes pride in his responsibility as a provider and lives up to it by participating in the pilot whale kill.”
One hunter put it to me even more plainly: “Standing waist deep in the reddening water reminds me of my background, and of my value as a man.”
Given the intimate connection between Faroese identity and the pilot whale hunt, it’s not surprising that the Faroese are cautious when talking to outsiders about the tradition. Those Faroese who are opposed to the practice are willing to discuss the issue with foreigners, but they do so in hushed voices. I met one girl in her twenties, a clerk at a Tórshavn bookstore, who spoke passionately about the suffering of the whales during the killing. But as we talked she lowered her voice, and kept looking over her shoulder to make sure we were not overheard. “A lot of people react to my views by accusing me of being disloyal to Faroese culture,” she explained.
Despite the cultural prohibition against criticizing the grindadráp, local opposition to the hunt appears to be on the rise. During my second visit to the Faroe Islands, I was approached by locals who oppose pilot whaling and are not afraid to say so publicly. One of them is Ingi Sørensen, a professional diver and underwater photographer who is fiercely against the slaughter. Sørensen has created a Facebook group called Faroese Against Pilot Whale Hunting. So far, the group has about 220 members. “I wanted to create a forum where those in the Faroe Islands who oppose the pilot whale slaughter can gather and share their thoughts freely and without fear,” he told me. “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 has no validity.”
According to Sørensen and other opponents of the hunt, there is a generational divide among Faroese on the issue. Older people cannot imagine the Faroe Islands without the pilot whale hunt. Many younger people are ambivalent about the tradition; to them it seems an anachronism. “Pilot whales have kept us alive for centuries,” Sørensen, 52, said. “They have saved us from starvation. Today, their meat is so toxic our own health authorities tell us it’s too dangerous to eat.”
A woman in her twenties who wanted to remain anonymous told me: “I feel that pilot whaling is becoming a huge cultural burden on the young people here. We are told that pilot whaling is an important part of our culture, and one that we need to keep alive. But pilot whaling is not a cultural aspect that I have an interest in maintaining.”
Beyond the generational divide, there is also a gender gap when it comes to the hunt. Women, especially young mothers, are not enthusiastic about feeding their families meat known to contain dangerous toxins. Dr. Pál Weihe, coauthor of the 2008 statement about contaminants in whale meat, is convinced that the hunt will end in the not-too-distant future.
“Women make up a significant part of the family, and as soon as they limit their intake of pilot whale, things will start to happen,” Dr. Weihe told me during a conversation in his office. “Women carry the tremendous responsibility of ensuring the health of children to come and therefore filter out any arguments of history, culture, and politics. They have a lot to say about a family’s diet, and we will see a drastic reduction in the consumption of pilot whale overall.”
Aggi Ásgerð Ásgeirsdóttir is one of those women who refuse to serve pilot whale meat to her family. An artist and a mother of three, Ásgeirsdóttir lives in a classic Faroese wooden house on a hill overlooking Tórshavn – the kind of place that could be a postcard for Faroese culture. But she has no interest in participating in the tradition of the grindadráp. “We don’t depend on pilot whaling for survival any longer,” she said. “The opposite is true: To ensure our own health, and the health of generations to come, we need to stop viewing pilot whales as a food source.”
Ásgeirsdóttir told me she has many friends who share her views. “In the Faroe Islands, we often ask each other, ‘Do you eat pilot whale?’ in much the same way others might ask, ‘Do you smoke?’” She then added: “The pilot whale slaughter is not a part of my identity. Times have changed. Our habits, our culture, and how we perceive Faroese identity need to reflect that.”
Listening to Ásgeirsdóttir and other young women, it seemed that a quiet rebellion is occurring in the Faroe Islands. There is no open, organized boycott against whale meat. But an underground, unheralded dinner table revolt is happening across the archipelago as young women refuse to eat whale meat themselves or feed it to their children. This reminds me of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata. In that story the women of Greece refuse to have sex with their husbands as a way of protesting the never-ending Peloponnesian War. A similar gender-based revolt is occurring in the Faroes – only in this case it is a protest against the war on whales, and in place of a sexual revolution there is a culinary one. Once again, women hold the key to halting the killing.
Traditions are like chains: It only takes a break in one link to demolish the whole thing. This is about to happen to the whaling tradition in the Faroe Islands. During my time there, I spoke to many people – both men and women – who eat whale meat and blubber themselves but won’t feed it to their children. Eventually, then, a new generation will come of age that does not have a taste for pilot whale meat. It is to be hoped that they will lose a taste for the killing as well.
This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.
Top photo: CaptainOates/flickr