Elk jaar kleuren de baaien rond de Faeröer Eilanden rood van het walvissenbloed bij het oergezellige grindadráp-festival.
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 really.)
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.
Whale hunting has been a part of life on the Islands for as long as there have been people there. There are remnants of whale bones dating back almost 1,200 years and records of organised whale drives that happened in 1584. This is in stark contrast to Japan, where for the most part people only started eating whale after the Second World War, when the devastated country needed a cheap and easy way of providing its citizens with meat that wasn't contaminated with bits of atomic bomb.
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.
Ironically, given the way whaling started in Japan, medical officers on the Faroes have started telling people not to eat whale meat as it contains pollutants like mercury and other toxins that can make you really, really sick. No one's been listening, though, and as such what happens on the beaches of the Faroe Islands every year has become part of the international debate on whale hunting. A number of doom-laden short films have been made about the hunt. The one where the islanders play manic, isolated savages driven wild with delight by the crying of the defenceless beasts and Sir Anthony Hopkins plays a sadistic environmentalist daddy at bedtime is probably my favourite. In all seriousness, there are people who would like the Faroe Islanders to take doctor's advice. Sea Shepherd are an anti-whaling group who've been trying to stop the annual slaughter, which is fair enough, but the way they've gone about it makes the Faroese think they're a bunch of meddling, hippy dicks, as local photographer Tróndur Dalsgarð told me when I called him for a chat.
VICE: Hey Tróndur, can you tell me what kind of mood are people in when they are on the beach killing the whales?
Tróndur Dalsgarð: People, or the men, are very excited. Yelling, running around. And then there are the people watching. Right before the whales hit the beach, you can cut the air with a whaling knife. Is that how you say it? Cut the air?
Yes, kind of. You can cut the tension with a knife? It’s tense, like, before a football match?
Yeah… a lot of tension. I don't know about Faroese football. But yeah, as I would imagine a match in the UK. Maybe like, just before a big concert.
That’s a better analogy. Can anyone participate in the killing?
Yep. But there are always whaling "foremen" or supervisors who guide the people attending the killing. Anyone who participates gets a part of the grind [whale meat].
But some people prefer to just watch?
Old people, women and children, and other people who don't eat whale meat. But a lot of people gather. It's a big thing in a dull place.
Does anyone get too excited or too violent?
Yeah, a lot of first-timers. But that’s why the supervisors, who are skilled whalers, are there. People are usually pretty good at team work. But there are times when it takes too long to kill the whales because people get too excited. Everything has to be done as fast as possible, so the whales don't suffer.
Now, it all happens very quickly doesn't it? A whale pod is spotted and a team goes out to bring them into shore. How easy was it for you to find out that a hunt was going on and get down there in time to take these photos?
Ok, say you're out on a boat and spot a pod, you call the head supervisor, and he passes the message on. Then people can sign their boat up for the hunt. Just by word of mouth. There are 15,000 people in the biggest city here, so the word spreads fast. But yeah, the killing is super fast. The one I photographed lasted around eight minutes. My dad called me and said they'd spotted a pod, so I grabbed my camera and ran to the beach, about 20 minutes later everything was over.
Fast work. What does it smell like on the beach?
Sea and blood. This was my first killing that I can remember, so it was a big thing. Hearing the pod breathing, coming into shore, smelling the blood… You can just hear the whales breathing. They don’t scream or anything like you see in videos and stuff.
So they don't scream. Those damn anti-whale slaughter propagandists. How long does it take for the water to turn red?
One or two minutes after the first whale is killed you can smell and see the blood mixing in with the water.
Did you kill one yourself?
Haha, that would be a great shot! Taking pictures and killing. No, I don't even eat the whales.
Are people suspicious of photographers? Do they think the press from outside Faroe Islands is out to get them?
It's extreme at the moment. Sea Shepherd has tried to create a "jasmine revolution" against the Islands, so everyone is suspicious of photographers speaking another language. I was out shooting with a friend from London. He’s been here about once a year since 2008 working on a project, and now every single person was asking him if the pictures were going to be up on the Sea Shepherd website. Like, pictures of buildings, nature, people…
So, it is specifically Sea Shepherd? What do you think of them?
Yeah, it’s specifically them. There was another organisation here, with former Sea Shepherd members, and they just wanted to talk to the Faroese people, clean the beaches and stuff. I gotta hand it to South Park, that"Whale Whores" episode was spot on [whole episode]. The only thing Sea Shepherd was trying to do is make TV. I was trying to get on their boat, because I wanted to do a sort of pro/anti story on the whaling subject, but not a chance – just a quick tour of the boat and that was it. And the blog posts they did when they were in the Faroe Islands… they were lame. I'm amazed that people will believe anything. They asked a whale supervisor if he could show them his whaling knife and tell them about it, take a picture and stuff, so he did. Next day they write about this mad man threatening them with a knife, telling them not to come between him and his whales.
Really? So they just totally set it up?
Yeah. I mean, I know the killings are brutal – big animals, lots of blood. I understand people who are against it and it’s a good thing that there are people out there trying to help animals, but Sea Shepherd are just lame.
Do you think the killings are too extreme?
No. They can't be any less extreme. Well, maybe if you sedate the whales and then kill them, then it won't look as bad. But the whales are killed in one cut to the vertebrae so they die instantly.
Are people in the Faroe Islands angry about their culture being messed with?
Yes. But, then again, there are lame people on both sides. I'm really not the one who should be talking about if people should or shouldn't kill whales. I understand that people are angry, because it’s a big part of the Faroese culture. But I don't kill or eat whales because they're so polluted, so I really don't see any reason to continue the killings, if it’s not good for you.
You don't think it's an important thing, culturally?
Not when I have a hook pointed at me. I just get the feeling that people aren't proud of it any more. They just want to do the killing, and have no media attention. It's just such a big political thing. It kind of does more bad than good. A long time ago, when people lived with nature, and needed the killings, it was okay. Now, people don't live with nature anymore, they pollute, and they don't need to kill.
What kind of things do the people who are really into the killings do and say?
They don't really DO anything. They just write on Facebook about how often they eat the meat, how good it tastes and how all that stuff about it being bad for you is rubbish.
Haha. That doesn't stop them eating it, though?
No, they pull out the "living will kill you" card.
What does whale meat taste like? Quite fatty right?
No, that’s the blubber. It’s a bit dry and stringy. Really rough.
Who is the family in the pictures of the dinner? When you were with them eating the meat, what was the mood like? Did it feel like a celebration?
Just a regular Faroese family. The pictures were taken on a national holiday and the one guy was pretty hung over, so the mood was very relaxed. But sure, there hasn't been that much grind around this year, so people were happy.
And most people quite like the meat even though it is bad for them?
People tend to like it more, now they know how bad it is for you.
Isn’t that always the way? OK, thanks Tróndur!
WORDS: OSCAR RICKETT PHOTOS: TRÓNDUR DALSGARÐ