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).
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.
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 Shepherd Conservation Society sent a boat to the Faroe Islands to engage with the population and try to stop the ritual hunt (Fielding, 2010). In 2014, the society organised another boycott, Grindstop 2014 (Singleton, 2016). This campaign lasted three months over the summer, with the aim of bringing international attention to the tradition in the hope of thereby bringing it to an end. Many NGOs, such as Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, believe there is a generational divide amongst the Faroese people, with the older generation more in favour of the Grindadráp than the younger people (Bogadottìr and Olsen, 2017) (Fielding, 2013). They believe that the tradition will die out with the older generation. The founder of Sea Shepherd, Paul Watson, explains:
This atrocity will be ended, and of that I am certain because I have faith in the ability of people to evolve, and especially the young people of the Faroe Islands whose understanding of interdependence, diversity and finite resources, is on par with this same realization by young people everywhere on the planet. (2014)
However, there does not seem to be as clear-cut a distinction between the generations as these organizations would like to make out. In 2013, Russell Fielding interviewed postsecondary students from the Faroe Islands and St. Vincent about their attitudes to whaling and the consumption of associated food products. He found that, contrary to received opinion, the teenage interviewees displayed positive feelings about whaling. (Fielding, 2013)
The Faroese community has responded to criticisms by modifying several elements of the Grindadráp. The Faroe Islands became a founding member of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, and it enacted new legislation on such practicalities as the kinds of weapons that can be used so as to ensure a swift death for the whales. This has not, however, been enough to stop attempts to end the tradition. Furthermore, in 2008, the Faroe Islands Department of Public and Occupational Health found that pilot whale meat is not fit for human consumption because of such high levels of mercury, DDT derivatives, and other toxins (Fielding, 2010).
The significance of the Grindadráp as a symbol of the cultural specificity of the Faroese people cannot be understated: it is something that ties together the community, connecting it to its roots (Mamzer, 2021). Many people not involved in the practice see it as a barbaric and outdated remnant of the past. From an anthropological viewpoint, the controversy surrounding it represents a standoff between the claim of a cultural minority to its unique traditions and incessant external calls for modernisation. But, as this battle continues, a silent and arguably more dangerous threat looms in the form of the toxic contamination of our oceans. The time may come when no more whale pods pass the Faroe Islands, slain not by the islanders but by the underwater "cities" of plastic and pollution that slowly destroy everything with which they come in contact.
Bogadóttir, R., Olsen, E. S. (2017) "Making Degrowth Locally Meaningful: The Case of the Faroese Grindadrap", Journal of Political Ecology, vol 24, no. 1, pp. 504-518
Bulbeck, C., Bowdler, S. (2008) "The Faroese Grindadráp or Pilot Whale Hunting: The Importance of its ‘Traditional’ Status in Debates with Conservationalists", Australian Archeology no. 67
Fielding, R. (2010), "Environmental Change as a Threat to the Pilot Whale Hunt in the Faroe Islands", Polar Research, vol 29, no. 3, pp. 430-438
Fielding, R. (2013) "Whaling Futures: A Survey of Faroese and Vicentian Youth on the Topic of Artisanal Whaling, Society and Natural Resources", An International Journal vol. 26, no. 7, pp. 810-826
Kočí, A., Baar, V. (2021) "Greenland and the Faroe Islands: Denmark’s Autonomous Territories from Postcolonial Perspectives", Norwegian Journal of Geography. vol. 75, no. 4, pp. 189-202
Mamzer, H. M. (2021) "Ritual Slaughter: The Tradition of Pilot Whale Hunting on the Faroe Islands", Frontiers in Veterinary Science, vol. 8
Marino, L., Frohoff, T. (2011) "Towards a New Paradigm of Non-Captive Research on Cetacean Cognition", PLoS ONE, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0024121
Singleton, B. E. (2016) "Clumsiness and Elegance in Environmental Management: Applying Cultural Theory to the History of Whaling", Environmental Politics. vol. 25, no.3
Singer, P. (2002) Animal Liberation. A New Treatment for Our Treatment of Animals, HarperCollins
Watson, P. (2014) "Captain Paul Watson responds to a Pro-Whaling Faroese Editorial" Seashepherd.org (accessed January 16 2016) https://seashepherd.org/2014/08/22/captain-paul-watson-responds-to-a-pro-whaling-faroese-editorial/
Cover Image: Olmos, R. (2021), Illustration from Grindadrap, by Geert Vons and Roger Olmos, published by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Retrieved from Behance.net https://www.behance.net/gallery/87353779/GRINDADRAP-Geert-Vons-Roger-Olmos
Figure 1: (2021) 1.428 Delfini sono stati uccisi durante una Grindadrap ialle isole Faroe, [Photograph ©Sea Shepherd Conservation Society] Lifegate. https://www.lifegate.it/1428-delfini-uccisi-grindadrap-isole-faroe.3632126_960_720.jpg
Figure 2: Olmos, R. (2021) Illustration from Grindadrap, by Geert Vons and Roger Olmos, published by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Retrieved from Behance.net https://www.behance.net/gallery/87353779/GRINDADRAP-Geert-Vons-Roger-Olmos
Figure 3: (2015) Grindadráp Protest [Photograph] Tierschutz buntekuh https://www.tierschutz-buntekuh.de/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/grind-protest-672x372.jpg