whale hunting in the faroe islands: a retrospective

Photographs and articles on Facebook have been re-circulating recently about the “inhumane” and “sickening” Faroe Islands whale hunts. After re-posting my original blog post written the day after my own experience in the Faroe Islands, I started thinking about my time in those small islands and realized I hadn’t revisited my photos in a long time.

A man carries a wheelbarrow full of meat across the beach after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

A man carries a wheelbarrow full of meat across the beach after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

I visited the Faroe Islands in May of 2011 for a photo story I planned to do about the whale hunt. Because hunts are not planned, I decided to do a larger focus on the culture of the Faroe Islands. The thesis of my project was centered around a nickname for the Faroes, “The Land of Maybe.” The nickname comes from the difficulty of traveling and planning between the islands, as weather conditions are often harsh — the Faroes are located between Ireland and Iceland — and can leave plans a little up in the air, as you’ll never get anywhere quite on time.

Two men stand near wheelbarrows to haul whale meat after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

Two men stand near wheelbarrows to haul whale meat after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

When I went to the Faroes, I stayed in two places — Torshavn, the largest city in the Faroe Islands, and Klasvik, the second-largest city. “Largest” is a generous term — Torshavn is made up of 13,000 people and Klasvik is home to less than 5,000. This is not surprising, as the entire country, a nation under the kingdom of Denmark, houses around 50,000 people total across its 18 major islands.

A whale's skin is marked with a number, assigning it to a person who will receive its meat, after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

A whale’s skin is marked with a number, assigning it to a person who will receive its meat, after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

And the Faroe Islands are a magical place and perhaps one of the most beautiful places on earth. The islands — massive, lush green mounds — jut out of the North Atlantic Ocean, hidden under constant fog. The houses that dot the seaside are colorful and simple — similar to Cape Cod style houses, in bright reds, yellows and greens. And even though the Faroe Islands are beautiful, its weather is not for the faint of heart. It is cold there almost year-round and sees constant misty rain, leading to a lack of tenable livestock and not much room for agriculture. Sheep are the only livestock that can manage the climate, and rhubarb and potatoes are about the only plants hearty enough for the country. One of the biggest industries in the Faroe Islands is salmon farming.

A man greets a baby among whale carcasses after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

A man greets a baby among whale carcasses after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

Which leads us to the whale hunting tradition itself. Whale hunting was borne out of a necessity — the Faroese find their sustenance in the water. Whales are not hunted in season as there is no cap on the amount of pilot whales that can be hunted. It is not a planned event, either — a local townsperson will spot a pod of traveling whales close to shore, and alert the grindaformenn, who assembles the usual trained team of people who go out on the “grindadrap” — the whale hunt.

People gather in a parking lot filled with whale carcasses to cut and distribute meat after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. A child surveys whale carcasses laying on the beach in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

People gather in a parking lot filled with whale carcasses to cut and distribute meat after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. A child surveys whale carcasses laying on the beach in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

The men herd the pilot whales into hunting-approved beaches in boats. The beaches must be shallow enough for this step, otherwise it can be difficult to slaughter the whales easily and humanely. If this cannot be done, the hunt is abandoned. Once the whales are herded, the hunters use a tool to slice the spinal cord of the whale through the blow hole, which takes less than 20 seconds. It kills the whale within seconds, and causes little pain.

Frihild Holmsund makes cuts of leftover meat after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

Frihild Holmsund makes cuts of leftover meat after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

The actual hunt takes less than 20 minutes, and this is why I did not actually see the hunting process myself. I saw all the aftermath — the sorting of the meat and the clean-up. I thought this was the most interesting part, as it really showcases the large act of the community that comes together for this hunt. Townsfolk are often allowed to leave work early to go help with the hunt, and kids are encouraged to take part to learn the tradition.

However, the hunt is not a “rite of passage” for young boys. This is often said and is untrue. People of all ages and genders take part in the hunt and it is not some tradition of manhood — it’s mostly just about food and community and resourcefulness.

The Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

The Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

Although this hunt was two years ago, it continues to be one of my favorite stories, one of the favorite places I’ve ever visited, and one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of. It was beautiful watching a community come together to help feed each other in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

And even though it’s been two years, this continues to be a very passionate topic to me — not just whale hunting, but all meat consumption. I feel that much of the outrage over the photographs seen of the whale hunt, with no context, comes from a lack of knowing how meat gets to your table. I’ve been to large-scale beef factories, watch people kill turkeys and chickens with their bare hands, witnessed the process of dressing a deer. I feel that most people are so removed from their food that when they see bloody, red water, they don’t think that that’s just a part of death, and don’t realize the life of an animal is the byproduct of their dinner.

A child surveys whale carcasses laying on the beach in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

A child surveys whale carcasses laying on the beach in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

I continue to support the tradition of the hunt in the Faroe Islands because I believe hunting animals in the wild is the most humane method of meat consumption. These animals are killed quickly and done so without having ever spent any time in captivity, which cannot be said for most American feed lots, where cows are crowded and sinking in the mud. I do so also because, as of right now, pilot whales are not an endangered species, but, according to the Faroese, are plentiful and can be seen often. This is another misconception when it comes to discussing whale hunting.

Children play with the blubber on a whale carcass after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

Children play with the blubber on a whale carcass after a whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Photo © Katie Currid

I think of my time in the Faroe Islands fondly. After everyone finished sorting the whale meat, my friends and I — Frihild Holmsund and Sari Lesch — filled up trash bags of leftover meat before the whale carcasses were put back into the ocean and loaded the bags into our small loaned hatchback. Before we left, we had waffles with a family who lived near the cove overlooking the beach where the whale hunt took place – a hunting tradition, they said. And the next day we ate boiled whale meat and, the next day, a whale stew. And who knows after that — I’m sure Frihild had meat for months. And it was a great feeling, as those meals had a sense of accomplishment — because we knew where the meat had come from, we knew it was fresh and we worked to get it on our table.

The small village of Gjógv is nestled in a valley in the mountains of the Faroe Islands. Many villages, such as this one, are home to no more than 100 people, often from the same family unit. This particular village has no grocery store or gas station — its only buildings that are not houses include an old church and an indoor fish farm.

The small village of Gjógv is nestled in a valley in the mountains of the Faroe Islands. Many villages, such as this one, are home to no more than 100 people, often from the same family unit. This particular village has no grocery store or gas station — its only buildings that are not houses include an old church and an indoor fish farm.

16 Responses to “whale hunting in the faroe islands: a retrospective”

  1. judith says:

    Well written. I was at the same whale hunt as a visitor and feel the same as you do.

  2. Katie says:

    Wow, you were at that same whale hunt? What a small world. Are you Faroese?

  3. Hjalmar says:

    Thank you!

    A well written description of a part of life that in most places is conveniently hidden. Our small society is up against economically strong forces, Every burger and every pizza that contains meat originates from an animal that was killed, we just can’t hide it when we kill the animals on the beach.
    As you so well describe it all the meat is used, actually hospitals and homes for the elderly get their own share of the food every time. This is one of the oldest social security systems in the world that is still in force.

    On http://www.heimabeiti.fo/default.asp?menu=97 can be found statistics from 1584 and up till now.

  4. Sir_RageALot says:

    Wow just by watching these pictures made me really hungry :D
    And this was well written :)

  5. Sarah T says:

    Am making my first visit to the Faroes in April. So looking forward to it and love the fact that there is a people who still feed themselves without relying on supermarkets etc :)

  6. Angela says:

    Very well written, I’m glad your sharing the other side of the story. I must admit when I first saw the facebook postings and the caption that it was all about male prowress it made me sad but I did think there would be more to it. In fact I also think it sounds like a far more humane way to get our meat. We are top of the food chain after-all but we don’t have to be arseholes about it.

  7. Nicolai says:

    How sad that there is so many flaws in your blog! Let me sum it up
    #1″The men herd the pilot whales into hunting-approved beaches in row boats.”
    No row boats involved they use motor boats to drive them in!
    #2″ the hunters use a tool to slice the spinal cord of the whale through the blow hole, which takes less than 20 seconds. It kills the whale within seconds, and causes little pain.”
    It takes more than 20 seconds to kill the whale (usually between 0.30 and 1 min.) and I wonder how you can claim that it causes little pain (have you tried the procedure yourself?
    #3″The actual hunt takes less than 20 minutes”
    The “hunt” takes between 1 and 6 hours including the time where the whales are being stressed while driven into shallow ground (and there is evidence of hunts that has lasted more than 12 hours! Among them one in Klaksvig last year)
    #4 “Whale hunting was borne out of a necessity — the Faroese find their sustenance in the water.”
    Yes it WAS born out of necessity but it’s not necessary anymore (the Faroese Islands has one of the highest living status in Europe) and now it has changed into a sort of commercial whaling (the meat can be bought in supermarkets and restaurants)
    #5 “pilot whales are not an endangered species, but, according to the Faroese, are plentiful and can be seen often.”
    The pilot whale is clasified as Data Deficient which means that nobody knows how many there are left!
    I’ve been there myself last year and we had only ONE bad day of weather out of 14 days up there so the weather description you give is also flawed!

  8. Karen says:

    Well put Nicolai !!

  9. Katie says:

    I’ve been reading that they are data deficient, yes. I would like to see more information on that, though. But it is correct that they aren’t classified as endangered species as of right now.

    I made the correction about row boats. My mistake. Thank you for clarifying. I altered my text to now just say “boats.”

    I did not see any whale at a supermarket or a restaurant while I was in the Faroe Islands, and have not heard of such a thing. If you have photos of a menu or it in a supermarket, I’d be happy to alter my statement, but as it is illegal to sell the meat commercially, I will keep what is written.

    Maybe some hunts take from 1-6 hours, but the one I experienced and all others that I’ve talked to who have covered the hunts happened in maybe 30 minutes , tops. That’s why there are not a lot of photographs from the actual hunts. And your statement about the killing taking 10-40 seconds longer than I stated just seems like semantics to me.

    I was also there for two weeks and it was misty and rainy every single day. Nice that you had such good weather.

    Thanks for your input and your concerns. I think you make some good points, but we may just have to disagree on some points, as some of these things just do not have hard numbers. Let’s just hope for more accurate reporting on the subject and maybe more interest in it will lead to more research (such as in the pilot whale population numbers), which will lead to an even more thorough understanding.

  10. H. Roland J. says:

    Nicolai:
    Let’s, for arguments sake, agree that you are right in your statements. My question to you is So Effin’ What?

    1#
    Rowboat or motorboat – actually it doesn’t matter. Hunting is hunting, and what of it? Hell, they could use helicopters or seagulls for all I care; it only proves that the faroese are not some barbaric tribesmen.

    2#
    It takes a lion somewhere around 12 minutes to kill a wilderbeest, all while others of the pride is eating it. So? Should we ban lions from eating the wilderbeest or perhaps make them do it humanely?
    If your argument against this logic is “we are not animals” then I assumed you believe in the christian god who says, that all animals are put on earth for us to eat. If you follow the theory of evolution you simply don’t have an argument against killing animals to eat or sell, for that matter.

    3#
    The average hunts takes about 20 minutes for the whales – very few are longer and only the trapping-part is longer.

    4#
    It is still a necessity for the faroese to hunt whales. It is a greater part of their economy. And a part of their diet.

    5#
    The fact remains that the whales are THERE and the faroese are able to hunt, kill and eat them. It’s called nature and while I know it might be a bit scary and bloody, it’s the foundation of life.

    Are you scared the pilot whale goes exstinct? You shouldn’t be; if it does the only ones who suffer are the faroese, who are, as far as I know, the only ones eating them. I don’t know the exact number of exstinct species during the lifetime of our planet, but species die out or change all the time (if you believe in evolution). Stop being so scared of nature; you’re part of it and so is all the things you eat and wear.

    Stop whining about something that is every bit as natural as a lion hunting down and eating a wilderbeest….

  11. Nicolai says:

    H. Roland J
    No it’s not necessary for the Faroese to hunt and kill the pilot whales (as stated the Faroese has one of the highest income rates in Europe and also a higher well fare status than Denmark,which is where I come from)
    The whale meat is highly toxic and deemed unfit for human consumption by the chief medical officer Pál Wiehe in 2008 and again in 2012!
    Your statement about the lions (which is the standard BS from prowhalers) is flawed since the lion is a carnivore and a wild animal (but maybe you consider yourself as such also in which case I would ask you to stop cooking your meat and move out of your house !)
    I’m a vegetarian and don’t wear animal products so no it’s not a part of what I eat or wear! I’m not scared of the nature (here where I live there is a lot of beautiful nature just outside my windows (big wild forest,a river with a lot of fish and there are a lot of wildlife including at least 6 golden eagles)

    Katie I will gladly provide you with the pictures and other info I got about the Grind just tell me where I should mail it and I’ll send it as fast as possible

  12. H. Roland J. says:

    Nicolai:
    My analogy about lions is hardly flawed, unless you consider humans to be unnatural? Humans are omnivorous; we eat everything, but since you are a ‘vegetarian/vegan’ you are not following nature and therefore you can hardly understand how nature works.

    Your comment about how I should stop cooking my meat and move out of my house is ridiculous; again, because you seem to have a hard tme understanding how evolution and nature works.

    What does high income rates or high wellfare have to do with living off the land or sea? And how do you think they get that high income rate? Yes, indeed, partly because they live off the sea and the grind is part of that! Without it they’d be poor.

  13. […] « whale hunting in the faroe islands: a retrospective […]

  14. Nicolai, honestly… don’t you have anything better to do than to troll someones blog?

    I was born and raised, and live in Faroe Islands, and pretty much everything Katie has said is true. There are of course exceptions, but one Grindadráp taking several hours doesn’t mean anything as it depends on the number of whales. If there are just a few 20 – 50, then it’s quick, and if there are 200 and upwards, then of course it takes longer. That is just simple logic, which you clearly don’t get.

    As for what Pál Wiehe said, it’s true to a certain extent. But trust me when I say, he is known to over exaggurate. Mostly everything proves his “theory” wrong.
    For example: We of Faroe Islands have one of the longest lifespans in the world. Our average age is 75, where as in the rest of the world it’s somewhere in the 60′s
    Also, no one has ever died nor shown any symptoms from eating whale meat here, and saying it causes genetic disease is just bollocks.

    I don’t know what to tell you other than you are misinformed. You refuse to listen to Faroese people, unless it’s in your favor and is against Grindadráp, and you swallow the tripe Paul Watson says without questioning it.

    Anyway, if you want real facts about anything in Faroe Islands, feel free to ask me. My email is Darrathion@hotmail.dk

  15. nicolai hvad med dem 10.000 delfiner og marsvin der drukner i danske fiskenet hvert år bliver bare smidt i havet igen jeg synes du skal holde opp med att brokke dig her brok dig til de danskere der fisker med net

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