By Brita Belli
A few years ago, National Geographic Traveler ranked Denmark’s Faroe Islands first among unspoiled island destinations. The landscape there is breathtakingly dramatic—impossibly sheer green cliffs dropping into blue harbors, cascading waterfalls, white shaggy sheep, coastal towns with buildings in bright, primary colors and grass-roofed cottages that look like storybook pictures come to life. Situated between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroes have a very distinct cultural identity drawn from their original Viking ancestry, with their own language (Faroese), a circular “chain dance” that consists of dancers holding hands and stomping feet along to Faroese ballads, and the annual grindadráp, or “grind,” dating back to the 16th century. During the grindadráp, hundreds of pilot whales are rounded into a bay with a semicircle of boats, forcing the animals to shallow water where they become stranded. Then, as community onlookers, including children, look on, Faroese men kill the whales with knives, hacking into the whales’ spinal cords. The many online photos and videos of these whale hunts show the men’s faces splattered with blood as they set about their grim task, the bay running red from boats to shore. Gruesome as it sounds, the grindadráp is considered a celebratory festival by locals.
It is this last cultural tradition that brought Captain Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to the Faroe Islands this past summer in a mission dubbed “Operation Ferocious Isles.” The Animal Planet show Whale Wars follows Watson and his crew as they challenge whalers in remote corners of the world, and the show’s notoriety ensured that his arrival would be noticed. Worried about the potential negative exposure, the Faroese police allowed no whale hunts while the Sea Shepherd boats—the Steve Irwin and the Brigitte Bardot—were on patrol. “They feel that if they don’t give us a whale hunt than we won’t have a show,” Watson says. “But we’re here to save whales, not to film whales being killed, so we’re quite happy with that.”
The Sea Shepherd’s patrol lasted from June to August, the whales’ peak migration months, and ended without a single pilot whale killed. But a report from the Faroe Islands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs later noted that as of September 2011 “there have been five whale drives, with a total catch of 406 pilot whales.” The average annual catch, according to the report, is 800 whales, a number it calls “fully sustainable.”
What Watson has witnessed in the Faroes in past years, he says, is nothing short of a “blood orgy” with no commercial or practical purpose. “They say it’s been done for hundreds of years, it’s a tradition. God gave them this gift from the sea. These guys get all worked up, they get drunk, they go down and they kill things. They kill everything—males, females, calves. They even rip the fetuses out of the bodies.” More....