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 – grindabođ. Writing in 1943, a British soldier named Sidney Norgate described the communal rush of energy that comes with the grindabođ: “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 ‘Grindabođ, Grindabođ’ 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 – grindabođ —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 grindabođ 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.”
Top photo: CaptainOates/flickr
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