top of page

Cultural Specificity and the Grindadráp of the Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands make up an archipelago of 18 islands situated between Norway and Iceland. Beautiful but rugged, the land is unsuited to cultivation, which means that the only natural food source is from fishing and livestock. Every year, between late August and early September, an interesting cultural event takes place - the Grindadráp, which involves the herding of cetaceans (usually a pod of pilot whales, although it can also involve dolphins or bottlenose whales) into shallow water to be beached, killed, and butchered. Dating back to the 1500s, this event centres on the yearly migration of whales, which historically provided the opportunity to harvest protein-rich meat to sustain the Faroese for a whole year. Being geographically far away from both Europe and Iceland, the Faroe Islands could not depend on either for sustenance, which made the whales' yearly migration a vital source of both food and income. (Mamzer, 2021).

Figure 1: Dolphins on beach during Grindadráp

Once a pod of whales is spotted close to the shore of one of the 23 beaches on which is it legal to kill the animals, and provided the weather is right, the Faroese whalers corral the whales with their boats and drive them towards the shore. (Fielding, 2013). Once the whales approach the shore, they generally end up beaching themselves. They are then dragged onto the sand and killed quickly and painlessly with a special tool that severs their spinal cord. Then the carcasses are dismembered, the blubber is salted, and the meat is left to dry in the wind. The parts that can’t be eaten - such as the fins and the heads - are left in the fjord to naturally biodegrade (Mamzer, 2021).

Nowadays, the isolation of the Faroe Islands is no longer an issue with regard to sourcing food from Scandinavia, thanks to more air travel between the Faroe Islands and Europe. Like Greenland, the Faroe Islands are an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark, but the growing connection with Denmark has led the Faroese people to feel they are losing their cultural specificity. This may explain why many Faroese people have such a vested interest in maintaining their uniqueness by keeping their traditions alive (Bulbeck and Bowdler, 2008). The Grindadráp is a not only an annual occasion in which the community gets together to hunt whales; it is a tradition that differentiates the Faroese culture from others around the world. Also, it is seen as a more natural and humane way to acquire meat for the islanders, as compared to factory farms (Singleton, 2016). The meat is divided among the islanders, and the animals that are hunted enjoyed a full, free life. They were not abused animals that never experienced the natural light of day (Singer, 2002). Added to this, commercial whaling was banned in 1966 (Bulbeck and Bowdler, 2008), which means that whale hunting has gone back to being used for sustenance.

Figure 2: Illustration from The Grindadrap, published by Sea Shepherd

This tradition has become a matter of worldwide curiosity and controversy, with some animal rights organisations calling for it to end. Most NGOs concerned with animal rights advocate for a complete cessation of hunting, pointing to the hunting of whales and other cetaceans as particularly cruel. Whales are incredibly intelligent and social creatures (Marino and Frohoff, 2011). During the Grindadráp, the ones that manage to escape usually end up circling the beach looking for their lost pod members (Mamzer, 2021). This projects a very gruesome image of the Grindadráp, with whales swimming in water stained by the blood of their pod-mates (Mamzer, 2021).

In 1985, the Humane Society of the United States called for an end to the Grindadráp. In the same year, the Sea Sheph