Every summer, the people of the Faroe Islands get to play their favourite game: trapping and slaughtering pilot whales.This ritual is known as the grindadráp, or dráp if you’re down with the local argot. 2011's slaughtival should be any day now, but we were there last year to see what happens when man bravely battles what are essentially massive beached fish. (I know they're mammals, but come on, they're fish realy).
The whales, having failed to learn the lesson that going near the Faroe Islands could result in bad times, pass near the shore every summer. Guys like this stand on lookout all summer long. Once the whales are spotted, groups of locals go out in boats and surround them in a semi circle. Stones attached to lines are then thrown into the water and the whales are herded into the nearest harbour.
The local men charging towards the sea. The mood was boyant, it's clearly a giggle for the Islanders.
A number of safety regulations mean that the whales now have to be driven on to the shore and can only be killed using the special whale slaughtering knife, the grindaknívur. Harpoons and other such ancient, Ahaby instruments have been banned. The slaughtering takes seven minutes if the whales are lucky and about twelve if they’re not. They were lucky enogh this day, but by the end, the harbour water is coloured red. It was pretty biblical.
It was pretty horrific, actually.
To be fair, as shocking as it seemed to me, whale hunting has been a part of life on the islands for as long as there have been people there. The remnants of whale bones dating back almost 1,200 years, from when the Faroe Islands were an early Norse settlement, have been found in houses. It seems unlikely that they were domestic pets.
Records of organised whale drives go back as far as 1584. Basically, the islands are a long way from anywhere, it’s impossible to farm the land all year round because of the climate and it’s surrounded by sea. The sea has whales in it. People catch the whales and eat them.
In that way it’s very different from Japan, where eating whale was only part of the culture in a few coastal areas and where eating whale only became common after the Second World War when the devastated country needed a cheap way of feeding its citizens. Today, the whaling industry in Japan maintains a stranglehold on government and is very lucrative. This is what leads to the Japanese government buying off the governments of landlocked African countries like Mali, who then support the Japanese right to kill industrial quantities of whales. There is no multi-million dollar whaling industry in the Faroe Islands. The whales that are killed are then used to feed the islanders.
Nevertheless, environmentalists aren’t hyped on the Faroe whale slaughter. A number of doom laden, vaguely hysterical and largely factually incorrect short films have been made about the hunt. This one, featuring the dulcet tones of Sir Anthony Hopkins, is probably my favourite.
You've still got it Hannibal.
The whale meat that comes from the hunt forms part of the local diet and because of that local people have run into some problems, health wise.
Three years ago, medical officers on the island told everyone that because of all the toxins in the meat, it’d probably be better for everyone if they went easy on the whale feasts. It seems that this advice has generally been ignored.
Whale meat is fatty and very rich though, so people generally don’t want to eat it too often, however culturally significant it is.
Let’s face it, how nice what whale ever going to be?
WORDS: OSCAR RICKETT
PHOTOS: TRÓNDUR DALSGARÐ