Some people outside the Faroes think that Faroese people are senseless primitive murderous inbred drunken brutal beasts who once a year kill thousands of intelligent dolphins for fun as a ‘coming of age ritual’ just to leave most of the whales to rot on the beach and feeding the rest of the poisonous meat to their innocent children. As if the Faroese were the most ignorant and worst enemies of nature you can find on the face of the earth. Sadly many people believe these fantastic stories.
I understand the disgusted feelings it evokes in people to see the pictures that have been spread around. I admit that pilot whale killing looks like a brutal bloodbath with all those people participating in the kill running around on shore and in the water, seemingly for no purpose – and with all that blood in the sea.
But the graphic pictures don’t reveal the whole truth. Far from it. I understand it looks shocking to people who haven’t seen anything like this before and don’t know what is going on. To them it seems incomprehensible. So they judge it based only on their immediate feelings of disgust. Which one can’t blame them for. They see it from their own angle – and in their view: how can anyone in their right mind kill dolphins that way – such wonderful creatures!?
I must say for myself: I do NOT support pilot whaling unconditionally. I don’t like to see animals being killed – like most people. I hate it. I wish humans could be less dependent on meat consumption. I think that dolphins as well as other whales are fascinating and wonderful creatures. So far I’m not that different from most people in the western world.
What makes me different, though, is that I’m Faroese. I grew up in the Faroe Islands where people have been killing pilot whales for food for at least 1200 years (according to research based on archeological excavations). I do not eat pilot whale meat myself though (I don’t like the taste of it. Actually I almost don’t eat meat at all – just occasionally. But I like the blubber, though, together with dry fish).
What made me write this blog post is, that I don’t recognize the picture at all painted of my people in all these anti-whaling campaigns and petitions flourishing all over where people sign up to express their disgust about the Faroese pilot whaling tradition. It makes me so sad to see all the prejudice and all these wildly exaggerated wrongful rumors about my people that have been spread through out the world by people – either on purpose as part of shock tactics to get their anti-whaling point across, or because they don’t know better – when the truth is that for the Faroese people the pilot whale killing has always been a matter of survival – and still is in a way. It certainly does not help the whales to agitate people. I’ll get back to that point further down in this blog post.
I will try to explain – in an honest, truthful way – what is going on, seen from a Faroese angle. And I will kindly ask you, the reader, to forget – just for a moment – all that you’ve seen and/or heard about pilot whaling in the Faroes, and set all the emotions of disgust and anger it created aside, and just try to read this blog post without any prejudice.
First, let’s correct some misunderstandings
The “dolphins” the Faroese kill are not bottlenose dolphins (like ‘Flipper’) who most people are familiar with, but long-finned pilot whales which is another species, though it is in the same family – only the pilot whale behaves more like a big whale than like a dolphin. But that might be beside the point for many, so I won’t dwell with that. The fact is that the Faroese have always looked upon pilot whales as a source of food in pretty much the same manner as most people in the world look upon cattle or pigs as a source of food (even though pigs, for instance, actually are quite sentient, social and intelligent animals, perhaps just as much as pilot whales).
Almost any foreign article I’ve read about pilot whaling in the Faroe Islands, claims that the pilot whale killings take place “once a year”. I don’t know from where this misunderstanding originates. Perhaps it came about because Faroese officials have used the phrase: “annual kill”, which doesn’t refer to a single event – they actually just refer to the amount of whales killed on average over the course of a year. In fact pilot whale killings can take place several times during a year, and some years no killings take place at all.
It is also claimed that pilot whaling only takes place in the summer. This is also a misunderstanding. Pilot whaling takes place randomly when pods of pilot whales are spotted, for instance from land or from small boats sailing close to shore in the waters between the islands. Since there is more boat traffic in Faroese waters in the summer, the likelihood of a pilot whale kill taking place in the summer is greater than in the winter, but pilot whaling can and does take place in other seasons as well.
Many foreigners refer to the pilot whale slaughter in the Faroes as a ‘ritual’, which the Faroese perform as a ‘celebration’ of the ‘coming of age’ of young men. This is ridiculous. This misunderstanding probably comes from some words and phrases being mixed up. Some people probably get the connotation ‘ritual’ and ‘tribe’ when they hear the word ‘tradition’, and forget that their own habit of eating turkey for Christmas dinner is also a ‘tradition’. Some Faroese might have said at some point, that they think that boys somehow become grown men when they participate in a whale kill the first time, because this reality of life and death somehow toughens them up, but this is far from saying that the kill is done for this purpose only!
It is also often claimed that the pilot whale killing is a ‘celebration’ and a ‘feast’ – almost like a carnival, which outsiders find quite offensive. But this is highly exaggerated. One must understand that in the old days the Faroese, obviously, were very pleased that by killing the pilot whales, they had obtained enough food to ensure their own survival in a long time, which they understandably thought was worth celebrating. Moreover, it was not possible for many who participated in the killing to sail home the same day or evening. Accordingly, they stayed in the village and then everybody gathered to sing and dance together to greet each other, keep warm and talk about their achievement. Today this particular part of the tradition is no more, though some of the whalers sometimes might gather afterwards to drink a few beers at the local pub, if they like, just because they are happy to see each other.
I would think this is quite normal human behavior, but sometimes it seems that people elsewhere way too willingly misunderstand all this, perhaps because they subconsciously search for something to confirm their own prejudice. Their initial reaction to the often very dramatic descriptions and portrayals of the whale killings they come across is, understandably, disgust. Perhaps they just need to justify their own feelings. Since dramatic descriptions by often quite ignorant – or biased – outsiders far outnumber the Faroese viewpoint in global media and / or online, people might have small chances to get acquainted with all the facts, which perhaps could explain the incomprehensible. Which is why I write this blog post.
Pilot whale killing not as brutal as it seems
Even if it might be hard to believe, the pilot whale killing is in fact not as brutal as it seems. It’s not about a lot of insane people just throwing themselves into a killing frenzy making as much harm to the whales as they possibly can – which many people seem to believe, and want others to believe too by spreading these inflammatory messages. But most of these people have never been there themselves and have never spoken to any Faroese people asking them what is going on.
Behind the spectacle is a highly developed killing method – a joint effort – which makes sure that the killing is done as quickly as possible to minimize the whales’ suffering. Killing such big animals is challenging. Suffering can, unfortunately, never be totally eradicated, just as any other animals’ suffering killed for food in the world can’t be eradicated. But of course suffering can be minimized – which the Faroese are eager to do even if it doesn’t seem so to an outsider.
There is a purpose for all those people being there at the kill. Everyone has a task that takes certain skills that have been passed on from generation to generation. The more people participate in the pilot whaling the quicker it’s over with.
Some of them drive the whales to shore with boats to make as many whales as possible swim up unto the beach.
Some of them wade into the water to pull the remaining whales the last bit of the way up onshore with (rounded) hooks in the blowholes – which is the quickest way to do it. The sharp hooks one sometimes can see in pictures of the killings are ONLY used to move whales away that have already been killed.
Some people stand ready on the beach to cut the whales’ spine with a knife in one movement in the second the whale is positioned to make sure that the whale is killed as quickly as possible. Lately a new killing method has been developed – a special tool, which cuts the spine in an instant. This means that every single whale dies within 4-5 seconds (!) on average – not minutes, as one often sees, outsiders claim.
Some take the killed whales away to somewhere where the meat is cut, divided and distributed in the community. Every single bit of meat and blubber is used for food and everyone gets their share for free. There is a law that demands that nothing must go to waste and that any leftovers, like bones, the scull and intestines unfit for consumption, must be taken away within 24 hours.
So some take the bones, the scull and intestines and dump them in the ocean in deep water with strong currents, where they probably would have ended up anyway if the whales had died of natural causes.
And some take their children to see how all this is done from A to Z. Not for entertainment but to teach them the facts of life on these islands and how people survive here. That is how it’s been done for many centuries.
Yes, there is a lot of blood – these are very big animals. They loose a lot of blood instantly when they’re killed properly. The quicker the sea gets red it’s a sign that the killing has been swift and effective.
Usually the number of whales in a pod counts from 50 up to 200 animals. The actual killing of ALL the whales in a pod is over with in approximately 10-15 minutes, perhaps up to 20 minutes if there are many whales in the pod, but very, very rarely more than that. Not more than it takes to kill pigs in a slaughter house.
Traditional diet in danger – not because of the Faroese, but because of the outside world
As I mentioned before, excavations show that pilot whales have been part of the diet on the islands for at least 1200 years. According to scientific study there are presumably 750,000 pilot whales in the North Atlantic, at least (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/pilotwhale_longfinned.htm). The Pilot whales are not on the list of endangered species. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species considers this species “Low Risk Least Concern.”
The Faroe Islanders have monitored their whale killings since 1584, and the numbers show that they have taken an average of 850 pilot whales yearly since then – some years more, some years less, some years none at all. That is approximately 0,1 % of the whole population on average taken every year. (Not 1% as I’ve seen claimed many places. No, it’s ten times less than that: zero point one percent!). This means that the pilot whaling in the Faroes does NOT threat the pilot whale population as a whole. NOAA states that the bycatch to fishing gear is the primary threat to pilot whales. Long-finned pilot whales are entangled, incidentally taken, or interact with a number of fishing gear, that include gillnets, longlines, and trawls. Also threatening this species are heavy metals, pesticides, pollutants, and various contaminants in the marine environment that have been found in this species’ blubber.
According to the Faroese themselves, they haven’t seen the number of pods swimming by the islands decrease – seen over time – all these years they have killed pilot whales. Of course, there has always been some fluctuation of natural causes, for instance, because some years the pilot whales’ own diet – the squids – swim further from the Faroese shores than other years. But the Faroese are convinced that the killing is still sustainable. If the number should decrease it’s pretty certain that the Faroese aren’t to blame. It’s most likely because of changes in the whales’ natural environment caused by pollution.
Note that it is Faroese researchers who have been studying the pilot whale and who have brought the world’s attention to the problem with contamination of the whale population and the dangers of mercury poisoning. Why would the Faroese do that if they didn’t care?
In reality, the Faroese are very conscious of the fact that they must take care of nature – including the whales and the whale stocks. The Faroese are very aware of how important it is to preserve this natural resource, to keep it healthy and keep the killing sustainable because their people have been vitally dependent on whale meat for centuries. So they do not kill more than needed and not enough to endanger the species – just like they’ve always done. There are cases where whale pods have been driven back to sea because authorities have estimated that people have received enough whale meat.
People do not eat more than the researchers recommend – but it is also important to note that even if the researchers have issued a warning they also acknowledge the fact that the whale meat is rich in poly-unsaturated fats, and essential vitamins and minerals, such as selenium, which means that there are still health benefits to be gained by eating whale meat if one just makes sure that the intake is limited.
Crucial for survival in the old days – and perhaps still is
Pilot whale killing was absolutely crucial for survival back in the old days where it was almost impossible to get hold of vegetables (and difficult to get hold of the vitamins that go with them) at this latitude. People shared the meat in solidarity with each other. It was distributed to the local community according to rules made a thousand years ago, where especially elderly and sick people and widows were taken into consideration – a tradition the Faroese have kept intact until this day. They still don’t kill whales for commercial purposes.
It has simply been a question of helping the whole community to survive in a very harsh and inhospitable environment on some isolated islands in the middle of the North Atlantic. The pilot whale is therefore still highly valued by the Faroese as a life saving contributor and a symbol of a unique solidarity between the islanders.
But why do the Faroese still kill pilot whales in modern times? Is it necessary? This is a tricky question because it’s a little complicated to explain why people here still find killing pilot whales somehow necessary – even if the meat is polluted. Quite incomprehensible, isn’t it?
People might understand why it was necessary in the old days, but now? Why now? Well… Faroese economy is still heavily reliant on primary production and has only recently begun to make inroads into secondary and tertiary provision. It is, even today, often difficult to run business and make ends meet in this remote area. It is expensive to import and buy vegetables. Economy fluctuates much more here than in other countries in the modern world because the Faroese income is dependent on nature’s fragile balance and often quite irregular cycles.
As late as in the early 90’ies there was a huge economic crisis that consequently had almost a fourth of the people migrate from the islands. Parts of the remaining population survived by helping each other, for instance exchanging goods without having money involved. In these years whale meat was a very important part of the meat consumption. A fourth of the whole meat consumption was pilot whale meat.
It means that in the eyes of the Faroese the pilot whale has up to this day been one of the most important key factors for their survival – especially in times of economic crisis. Crises and recessions occur relatively often in islands like the Faroes with harsh natural environments and fragile homogenous economies. These predicaments usually hit the island people hard.
Faroe Islanders are therefore used to rescue themselves by going back to basics from time to time – even if they on a daily basis seem to live a modern life today. But the Faroese are – from bitter experience – never far from the next crisis in their mind – and thus never far from the basics of life either.
Today the world economic crisis rages and has hit the Faroese people as well. One of the two biggest banks in the Faroes went bankrupt this year and we have still not seen the magnitude of the consequences following this severe bank crisis.
Now that we are all affected by the ongoing world economic crisis, it is, for instance, natural for the Faroese to think that if the crisis gets even worse in the future, killing whales might still be very important for survival. So why give it up and forget all about the skills of killing pilot whales? These skills might come in very handy one day if everything else crumbles. The rest of the world may very well suddenly be on fire and then the Faroese will find themselves cut off and all alone out there, far away in the ocean – totally dependent on what is available on site.
That is part of the reason why the Faroese have been so reluctant to give up on this tradition, even if they regard themselves as a modern civilized people in many ways today and usually, in better times, aren’t as dependent on whale meat as they have been before. But they want to preserve their inherited whale driving and killing skills because they still feel that they live in an environment that demands of them that they trust more in themselves, i.e. in their bare hands together with nature’s mercy, as the best guarantee for survival.
Rather than settling for being entirely dependent on import and the modern worlds complicated and fraud full economic systems, they rely on what ever they’re able to harvest directly from their surrounding natural environment. They feel very strongly about this because they are proud of their old traditions that helped them survive for so long. Of course they choose to hold on to what ever makes them feel the safest, the strongest and the least vulnerable.
Misunderstood by the world outside
Let’s give it an extra thought. Of course it is difficult for people from outside the Faroe Islands to understand the Faroese people’s behavior; especially if they haven’t ever experienced that their life was dependent on what they could harvest directly from wild nature. It’s only natural that they find it disturbing, if they focus solely on the unfortunate animals and not on the livelihood of the people who live in places where you can’t grow vegetables and where people for so long had to survive with whatever means they had available.
Most people would probably feel quite helpless if they had to kill an animal with their bare hands in order to get a meal on their table. But they don’t have to do anything disgusting like that because they live a modern civilised life with all necessities within close reach. With those living conditions it’s very easy to forget that they’re actually themselves dependent on the killing of animals too.
Of course they know it, but they probably prefer not to think too much about it. I guess they don’t like to think of themselves as some kind of predators. But the fact is, that most people eat animals without giving it a single thought that somebody had to kill the animal, for them to be able to eat it. The modern world has created a whole industry out of people’s need to displace these facts. We do whatever we can to distance ourselves from the fact that we – humans – exploit animals by making it as invisible and painless (for ourselves) as possible that we breed animals to kill them so we can eat their meat. We don’t want to know about it so we hide it away so we don’t have to look at it.
Considering this, I’m not surprised why people get so angry with the Faroese. How can people who never see animals being slaughtered and don’t have any direct contact with animals (other than pets of course) feel otherwise than they do? How can people that almost only see wild animals in zoo – or as they are portrayed on TV or films made for entertainment – be any other than sentimental about these animals. How can they NOT get shocked by the bloody images of whale slaughter. It’s very understandable.
But can they be sure that their own life style is a better alternative? Can they be sure that it is right to judge so harshly so quickly just based on the feelings some seemingly brutal pictures evoke in them? Can they be sure that they’re not blinded themselves by their own self-righteousness? Are they themselves in a position to point at others?
What they don’t know (or perhaps don’t want to know) is, that they might themselves, very likely, be a much bigger threat to nature and the whale populations of the world than the Faroese will ever be. Their modern way of living is based on a heavily polluting mass industry which has much more unfortunate consequences on nature in the long run – including the whales. Their food consumption is dependent on an often extremely polluting agriculture, or on all the poor animals that have become domesticated living their whole life in captivity, often under horrible circumstances, totally on the mercy of humans, bread only for one purpose – to be meat for humans. The Faroese old way of living has, on the other hand, proved to be a much more life-sustaining way with much less impact on nature – allowing the animals to live a free life until the moment they are killed.
What can we all learn?
What to do about it? I don’t know…. Is it possible to learn from each other and make the gap smaller between the old Faroese traditional – and actually more eco friendly – way of living and the modern life….? That’s the big question….
Are pilot whales more special creatures than so many other – also sentient creatures humans kill for food? Should they get special treatment for that reason? (As I’ve stated before, the pilot whales are not on the list of endangered species.) I really don’t know. I’m just asking the question. Who’s to decide where the limit should be to which animals should be allowed to kill for food and which not? If the degree of animals social skills should be the criteria that determines which animals are fit for killing for food or not, why do we kill pigs or hens? They are highly sociable animals. If intellligence should be the criteria, pigs should definitely not be on the list. Latest research shows that squids are highly intelligent creatures, but we eat them anyway – yes, even pilot whales eat squids! What do we make of that? Define it as inhumane, unacceptable behavior?
And if the suffering of the whales is the big concern, well, is there someone who can come up with a better way to do the killing, to make it more “humane” (whatever that means)? I am absolutely sure that the Faroese will be open to reason and very happy to take some friendly advice. They have proved that they have done so in the past – they have listened to criticism, if it’s been fair, and have changed their ways.
To ask the Faroese to stop this practice and just become vegetarians would seem a little unrealistic considering how expensive it is to buy vegetables in the Faroes because all vegetables must be imported from far away. And it would seem a little hypocritical to ask the Faroese to start importing more meat from other animals – maybe treated less humanely than the whales. This meat would also have to be imported and transported over long distances in heavily polluting freight vessels that seriously damage the habitat of the whales – the ocean – and cause the contamination of whales… No, there is no simple solution.
So… if you are really interested in doing the best for the whales (and not just blindly following some inflammatory out-roar pleasing your own need to burst your aggression out) then try to get the facts right and act as respectfully as you would want the Faroese to act. Get into a constructive dialog, please.
This is an important topic to discuss! If you’re interested in knowing more about this topic, read also the page about pilot whaling on my other website: http://www.heinesen.fo/faroeislandsreview/pilotwhaling.htm – especially the last 3-4 sections about why all the anti-whaling campaigns have failed – and perhaps just endanger the pilot whales even more….!
The point I’m trying to make is this: The more people outside the Faroes condemn the Faroese, and the more they punish the Faroese by not buying their export goods or by not travelling to the islands, the more isolated will the Faroese be from the rest of the world, and the more they will tend to stick to their old traditions – which in the end means that more pilot whales will be killed!
And here – if you have managed to read this far – I want to tell you about a very good source, if you want to get the facts right. There is a website where you can find all the facts about pilot whaling – about the tradition, research, international whaling treaties, as well as the scientific, the political and the legal and judicial facts, down to the last detail: http://whaling.fo – check it out!
Elin Brimheim Heinesen
8. September 2009