One of 120 pilot whales killed on June 5, 2012 in Sandoy

I have just recently returned from another visit to the Faroe Islands, where I was attending an international conference hosted by the Nordic Committee on Bioethics, called, Hunting and Protecting of Marine Mammals—A Clash of Cultures? The focus of this conference centered on the merits of continuing the controversial pilot whale hunt, or Grindadrap in the Faroe Islands. There were representatives there from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, the UK, Switzerland, Greenland and more.

A key presentation came from Dr. Pal Weihe of the Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health and the Faroese Hospital System. Dr. Weihe admonished the attendees on the dangerous levels of contaminants present in pilot whale meat and blubber, including methyl mercury, PCBs, POPs, DDT and other toxins. His presentation focused on the negative and cumulative effects of ingesting such toxins, most disturbingly resulting in demonstrated birth deficits in infants and lasting developmental problems in Faroese children.

Dr. Weihe presenting at the conference

Dr. Weihe’s warnings are not new, he’s been an outspoken presence in the Faroe Islands about the health problems inherent in consuming whale meat for some time, but these warnings have taken on a new urgency. Where previously, Dr. Weihe had simply advised the Faroese people limit their intake of whale meat to one meal per month (excluding children under the age of 14, pregnant/nursing mothers and any young women intending to become pregnant and also excluding ingestion of whale blubber), he now advises against eating it at all. Whale meat and blubber is too toxic to safely eat.
It’s a powerful argument coming from within the Faroese midst and as the reason stated for continuing the hunt is for food—this serious toxicity would appear to mean the Faroese whale hunt really should be relegated to the history books on the grounds of public health alone.
But those who support the continuation of the Grindadrap, refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of the associated health issues. In speaking with many Faroese about the issue, it seemed that simply stated, many of the men who participate in killing the whales enjoy the challenge of killing such large animals, people like the taste of the meat, the meat is “free” and they don’t like outsiders telling them what to do. Thus this once proud tradition seems to have devolved into a superfluous blood sport to obtain a meat product that Faroese health officials insist is in fact toxic and not really appropriate for human consumption. Yet the more outsiders would aggressively criticize the practice, the more stubbornly the Faroese dig in their heels and avowal to continue the hunt.
One of the items that arose a number of times during the conference challenged the idea that there is anything “special” about cetaceans, in particular, that they possess any kind of elevated intelligence or awareness. This same objection is always raised by those who support whaling, because to acknowledge the truth would leave the whalers to face what activists have been telling them for decades—that they are not just killers, but murderers.

despite efforts, a traumatic death

The biological size, complexity and architecture of cetacean brains is enough cause for pause and consideration, but the fact is the growing body of evidence for cetacean intelligence and self awareness has warranted backing from increasing numbers of scientists from diverse fields as well as inclusion at the annual AAAS symposia, (American Association for the Advancement of Science) arguably one of the most prestigious gathering of scientific minds on the planet. The many papers and publications and evidence are out in the public arena, but it appears pro-whalers are assiduously ignoring the evidence rather than face the very real facts.

Nevertheless, it was most refreshing to have the issues engaged in open dialogue—in true Nordic fashion, so very different from the tendency of officials in Japan to hide all evidence and block or discourage all useful public discussion on the pros and cons of whaling.
In the middle of the second day of the conference, I was unexpectedly informed that a whale hunt, a Grindadrap was just commencing on the neighboring island of Sandoy. After brief consideration, the decision was made to leave the conference and make the journey to Sandoy to document the event, which lay at the center of the entire debate. With two colleagues and the kind accompaniment of a Faroese friend, we set out to the ferry terminal…

Sandur Cove turned red with the blood of whales

By the time we arrived at Sandur strand, Sandoy’s killing cove, the pod of about 120 long finned pilot whales had already been driven ashore and slaughtered; the scarlet stain of their life’s blood emblazoned over the sea. Their bodies were still warm to the touch; their eyes wide open to their last moments, which despite the efforts of the hunters to be as quick and efficient as possible, must have been unbearably chaotic and painful. Baby and juvenile whales lay heaped among the bodies of their mothers and families, all their necks sawn open, the gaping wounds still dripping blood onto the sand. The smell of death was all pervading, smothering the normally fresh clean Faroese sea air.
Other than contemplating the whales’ last moments, a most disturbing thing was the presence of many Faroese children at the scene of such carnage. There, children are encouraged at an early age, to observe the hunt and afterwards, investigate the dead whales, and one might say, acclimatize to what is otherwise an appalling sight, that most parents would assiduously protect their youngsters from viewing. This, some would claim is merely a difference in culture. This aside, it was not merely the presence of children amid the blood, offal and gore, but their BEHAVIOUR that troubled me.

little children amongst the carnage

To be faced with so many large, beautiful, mysterious sea creatures that so recently fought and struggled for life—to see the Faroese children climbing over them, jumping on them, kicking them, peering and poking into the whales gaping wounds, and watching with jovial interest as their bellies were slit open and innards torn out—including fetal placentas—this was extremely troubling. There was no sense of respect for the whales, no sense of thanks for the lives taken and the meat to be received, no sense of the seriousness of lives lost, families wiped out for the Faroese’s free lunch meat. No, the human sense of entitlement was complete–something typically human, rather than specifically Faroese. Yet the whales’ suffering or death was treated as so insignificant as to be beneath anyone’s notice, as their bodies were hoisted, dragged and moved onto the harbor front with huge cranes and machinery.
The Faroese seemed unconcerned about all aspects of the slain whales except for one. It appears every culture draws lines about what it sees as publicly acceptable or shameful… At least ten of the pilot whales were pregnant females and it became apparent that the Faroese did not want the presence or removal of the fetuses documented. Apparently the press generated from past photos of fetal whales lying on the cement beside their mother’s spilling innards and of Faroese children grinning and holding up dead fetuses was too much even for the sensibilities of these islanders.

unborn whale fetus being cut from its mother's womb

To prevent the capture of any further images, now the fetuses were being removed as surreptitiously as possible and quickly stored in a large plastic crate, which was guarded by Faroese women, who refused to meet my gaze. Women, guarding the unsightly, shameful dead whale fetuses. Again, very troubling, this disconnection.

I saw only one Faroese person who appeared to be reacting in what most normal people would call an appropriate way to our bloody surroundings. A little boy of perhaps three or four years of age, who showed signs of what was perhaps autism, (or perhaps the result of his mother ingesting whale meat while pregnant or nursing?). He had his hands clenched over his little ears and was issuing a high, desolate wailing howl which rose above the jocular chatter of the other people. The boy’s mother looked embarrassed and tried to make light of his reaction, but to me, that thin, despairing sound was entirely appropriate to the scene.

baby pilot whale heaped onto the bodies of its family

The sun beat down, the flies settled in droves over the dead whales, and the smell got progressively worse. As an aside, I’m sure what I witnessed would give most health and safety officials in the civilized world a cardiac arrest. Yet the Faroe islanders enjoy one of the highest standards of living in all of Europe.

The flesh of these 120 pilot whales will be shared amongst the 1500 residents of minute Sandoy Island. Yet the roughly 48,000 pounds of meat from the dead whales is enough to feed the eligible adults of the entire NATION, within even conservative current health standards for the next seven or eight months…

120 whales, an entire once-living community--and a massive amount of toxic meat.

One essential thing that needs to be understood is that decades of angry criticism, outcry or attack by foreigners has failed to see an end to the hunting of pilot whales in the Faroe islands. This kind of aggressive pressure does NOT work and simply builds solidarity and support for whaling among a populace that, left to its own devices would be slowly moving away from the outdated practice.

In the wake of the conference, Faroese TV and newspaper featured healthy internal debate amongst islanders about the pros and cons of continuing the hunt.
As outsiders, perhaps what we can most usefully offer are other perspectives of who and what whales are, which may help the Faroese people to see the value in these creatures alive, rather than merely as dead (toxic) meat. It is a positive transition many other coastal communities have already made around the world. Continuing outreach, education, open friendship and useful communication is the way forward here and I look forward to continuing my work in this way.
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