Whale Hunting: A cultural tradition

In the Faroe Islands. Whale hunt happened yesterday. Just another day, huh?

whale hunting denmark

This week and next week, I am in the Faroe Islands to shoot my last project for the Danish School of Media and Journalism.

whale killed denmark

Where are the Faroe Islands, you ask? They are a territory of Denmark and are located between Iceland and Ireland. Don’t whip out your globe just yet, though — the area is pretty small and almost impossible to spot on a large map. Around 50,000 people live here.

whale hunt denmark

And why the Faroe Islands? I was initially inspired to come to the Faroe Islands for a few reasons. I met a nice student in Denmark at the collegiate where I live named Martin and him and I had quite a lot of talks about the Faroe Islands, where he is from. Also, I knew the Faroe Islands were one of the few places in the world where they still hunted whale, a process called the grindadráp, and was immensely interested in this event.

faroe islands whale hunt

The grindadráp is a non-commercial whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. The animals themselves are not actually “hunted” — as in, the Faroese do not go out on boats and seek them. A local will spot the whales from the shore, usually traveling in a large group, and will notify the harbor’s grindaformenn, the men in charge of organizing the grind.

whale hunt faroe islands

From there, the hunters will go out on boats and form a semi-circle around the whales, herding them in closer to the shore. The shore must be shallow, as deep beaches make it more difficult to kill the whales, and therefore more painful for the animals themselves.

Once they are closer to shore, the hunters attempt to kill the whales as quickly and painlessly as possible — the process they used to be killed was quite brutal, as they would stab the animal many times. But not only was that a cruel way to kill the animal, it also damaged the meat. Now, the process of the actual killing takes about twenty minutes total. The animal's spinal cord is severed with a hook, killing it instantly — much like a chicken's neck is wrung during a culling.

whale hunting faroe islands

Although the actual grindadráp takes about twenty minutes, the entire day is spent dividing the meat, cutting it up and distributing it amongst the Faroese. During the one I witnessed, the actual killing took place at 10 a.m. and the cutting of the meat didn't even start until 6 p.m. And from there, we didn't leave until around midnight.

killing whales faroe islands

There is a hierarchical system of how the meat is divided, as I understand. The individual who first spotted the whales typically gets an entire whale for his or her family. Then, each individual who takes part in the actual killing gets a good share of the meat. After that, each resident of the village in which the grindadráp occurs receives a share of the whale killing. Sometimes, this can be a lot of meat and sometimes it is not as much, depending on the size of the kill.

killing whales faroe islands

The grindadráp I witnessed had 204 whales — which is a ton. About 1,000 whales are hunted in the Faroe each year, typically in the summer months, but most hunts consist of 40-50 whales.

whale hunt faroe islands

I cannot stress how amazing an experience it was to witness the grindadráp. Although the practice has come over quite a bit of controversy, especially from Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, I do not think the Faroese get to share their side of what an important cultural and social even it is to them.

denmark whale hunt

The Faroese really, truly try to get the hunt over with as quickly as possible. Also, many may criticize the killing, comparing it to Japan’s whaling industry (see: "The Cove"), but the grindadráp is not industrialized. It is illegal to sell the meat — it is divided between those who participate in the grind and then the leftover meat is given to whomever wants it, and is also distributed to nursing homes, hospitals and the hungry on the islands. Once all the salvageable and edible meat is obtained from the animal, its carcass is placed at the bottom of the ocean, where other animals and fish will feed off of it — I think that's kind of neat, like the circle of life. It's not thrown somewhere and burned or filling up a landfill.

dolphin killing

The grindadráp used to occur out of great necessity. The islands themselves have harsh land, harsh climates and are not at all sustainable for farmland or livestock. The only thing that is farmed on the Faroe Islands is sheep — trees cannot even grow on the islands. Rhubarb can be farmed, and fishing is a big deal, but if one wants to have cows, they have to be kept in a barn 24/7, which can be costly and not provide much room (not to mention be uncomfortable for the animal.) Before the industrial revolution, the people of the Faroe depended on the grind, in addition to sheep and fish, as a source of food.

faroe islands whale hunt

Today, because the cause meat and other food products, such as vegetables, can be shipped from mainland Europe, the grindadráp serves as a huge reminder of Faroese culture and a reminder of what sacrifice animals give to provide sustenance for humans. Literally everyone in the surrounding villages comes down to take part in the process of the grind, whether it is cutting up meat or counting whales or just bringing coffee to help the workers stay warm. It is an immense social event and brings many people together who may not have known each other otherwise.

faroe islands whale hunt

I don’t want to write too much because I'm only halfway through my story, but I did not want to post pictures of such as controversial subject without providing some context. I’m sure Greenpeace and other environmental organizations have stances on the matter, and I will not reveal what I feel about the grindadráp, but I think many people do not get to hear about how the actual process goes down. There is a lot of information out there, but much of it seems to be one-sided.

faroe islands at night

I will be spending the remainder of my two weeks for my final project capturing Faroese culture — that is the basis of my story. This week, I will venture down to local knitting shops to photograph the very traditional Faroese sweaters, will hopefully spend some time with some fishermen and sheep farmers and will also head to church, as the Faroe Islands are quite a religious place. The grindadráp will only serve as a small portion of my story, but it is really a huge part of Faroese culture that cannot be ignored.

Update: If you would like to see my final story, which is not just about the whale hunt but of the Faroe Islands as a culture, you can view it here.

All photographs are copyright Katie Currid © 2011 and may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission. All rights reserved.