CONTRIBUTOR

Bloodshed on the Faroe Isles: My Account of the Centuries Old Tradition of the Grind.

06/22/2016 04:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016
Oden Roberts
Actor and activist Ross McCall on board Sea Shepherd's MV Bridgitte Bardot, at the Faroe Islands in 2015. The islands are located halfway between Scotland and Iceland.

The Faroe Islands are a magnificent spectacle. A land seeped in historical splendor and saturated in strict cultural traditions. If there was one way to describe these shores, it would be, breathtaking. If I were to describe how I was feeling this time last year, it would be easy.

Confused.

It’s strange to say that. It’s not something I’m accustomed to. I don’t think the Faroese are violent people. But I truly believe that the exhausted tradition of the Grindadrap, is perhaps, nothing more than an act of extreme, legal violence. I can’t see it being any other way. And believe me, I’ve looked.

From day one of my arrival, I had met many, beautifully friendly and hospitable locals. I also met those who didn’t shy away from telling me, through passive aggressive smiles, that they knew why I was there and that I shouldn’t try and convince outsiders to look a little closer at the Pilot Whale drives that have been taking place there for centuries. Then there were those that told me I was not wanted there. Maybe it was my face. Maybe it was my vibe. But I suspected it was more likely because of my beliefs and perhaps the company I was keeping. 

Neptune's Navy: Sea Shepherds 

I became aware of Sea Shepherd in 2011. I became actively involved a year later. My first taste of a campaign was September 2014, and on June 15th, 2015, I landed on those very Islands once more. I was a rookie in the grand scheme, but I had big ideas.

I had concerns about how I was going to land on foreign shores and somehow find a respectful line in order to get people to hear my thoughts on the 500-year-old tradition of the Grindadrap. A really tough thing to do when you are faced with a local distrust and questionable defenses. Sea Shepherd is an incredible organization. Volunteers from around the globe who give up their time, their wage, their surroundings, to save wildlife that doesn’t have a voice to reason with. The end goal is simple. To save hundreds upon hundreds of cetaceans’ lives from the hunters of the Faroe Islands.

Mayk Wendt / Sea Shepherd
On August 12, 2015, 61 pilot whales were slaughtered at the Sandavágur killing beach in the Danish Faroe Isles. Five Sea Shepherd volunteers were arrested for standing in their defense.

We may have, collectively, exhausted any form of relationship we ever had with the people from The Faroe Isles. Something we can’t take back. This happens when two opinions are so far apart. But, unlike many world-wide practices, we cannot live in the past. We must move forward, and move forward in the only way I know how. Rebuild the proverbial bridges? Sure. Remain within the guidelines of the law? The laws that have been designed to keep our opinions and beliefs tucked safely behind the closed curtains of the society that doesn’t want their horrifically visual Grindadrap to be touched? Yes. But our fight will not be pressured to go away. We will not stop protecting the ocean-life that the locals think nothing of harvesting.

A Man Called Hans

The locals are truly kind, gracious, generous.

Until it is mentioned that you oppose the Grind.

One particular day, I met up with a man named Hans. He and I met on my trip in 2014 and we interviewed each other extensively, spotlighting our beliefs in a to-and-fro conversation. We put it on film and FOX ran the piece last year.

Hans is close to my father’s age. He’s a family man. A good man. A father, a husband, a retired school teacher and now a driving instructor. He also hunts the pilot whales and actively takes his part in any Grind he is called in for. I thought it would be a good idea to sit with him again. He knew I was in the country as the press had picked it up that I was there again.  We are Facebook friends, so when he instigated a meet, I agreed. We had a few things in common. Both liked football. Both liked coffee. Both liked Island life and nature. I met him in the hippest coffee joint in town. It would be well at home on Abbot Kinney in Venice. Specialty coffee, modern tunes, pretty girls working the counter. As soon as I arrived, he stood to shake my hand, I forced him into a hug. If I’m going to sit and drink with someone on the opposite side, I’d rather it be in a friendly manner. If he had other ideas, I’d have turned and walked. A guy-hug would give me an indication of where we stood. Friendly terms, was the answer.

After our hello, our obligatory compliments on how we both look, the recent football results that had the Faroese national team and supporters on a high, we got down to business. He led the way. It’s a circle. These conversations. He says his piece, I say mine.

"If they were to choose to end this tired practice, then they could, quite possibly, change anything in the world.

-Ross McCall

It’s the same opinions. The same arguments. He said they don’t inflict cruelty onto the whales and they kill them as humanely as possible. I’d retort. Yes you do and no you don’t. He then counters that they use the meat which saves them millions of Euros in traded produce from Europe. I welcomed him to the world, explaining that we all have to take in trade from other lands and we are all surviving. Neither of us belong to indigenous tribes and rely on whale meat to feed. Also, I reiterated, I don’t see homeless or starving people on the Island who could use the handout of free meat. In fact, everywhere I looked, I saw booming industry. If the Whale meat was their only choice in being able to feed themselves and their families, I’d understand that a little more. But it simply is no longer the case. He replied, they have done this for hundreds of years and who are Sea Shepherd to tell them otherwise. I agreed, it should be their choice. And if they were to choose to end this tired practice, then they could, quite possibly, change anything in the world. He liked that idea.

I pressed on, some traditions are wonderful but others should be let go. The ones that no longer serve humanity. He then continued with how no-one understands that the Grind is a worthwhile and accepted system.

So I asked him to let me see it.

Now I knew this is the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. The last thing in the world I’d ever want to witness. But I wanted to see if he would actually be willing to let an opposed outsider see their practice or whether or not he didn’t want the world to see behind the curtain and try and keep me as far away as possible. He said no. It was too dangerous for an untrained man. (I since found out that in order to gain a license to kill the whale, you need to take a mandatory course. The course is open to all and it only takes two hours to pass.)

Next he asked if he could show me around the town. I took him up on his kind offer. He drove me to the Torshavn harbor, pointed out the traditional fishing boats. Then he said he’d like to show me where he used to teach the kids, some of whom are now grown up and would occasionally stop him and say hello. The Mayor of Torshavn, I called him. Away we went. Our discussion continued.

Killing pilot whales is more humane than killing cows, he said, because the whales live a free existence until they are coerced by local fishing boats towards one of the 27 killing beaches. I don’t like that argument. In fact, I don’t see the parallels. To me, I explained, that is like saying a murder in prison is worse than a random murder on the streets. They’re both terrible. I agree that the mass production of meat farming is horrific. Led purely by greed, the agricultural world has become a business of horror. But, I think, I hope, we all know that. Comparing or defending the Grind doesn’t satisfy my questions.

But that seems to be a common theme. The same answers from everybody. Answers seemingly passed down from generation to generation.

Cris Cely / Sea Shepherd
Another bloody day on the Faroe Islands.

Walking through his school, an amazingly progressive educational system, I was blown away by the resources available to the children. Science labs, wood-workshops, gyms and architecture that rival the best schools in the U.S. I met a few of his teaching colleagues, most of whom, at first, greeted me with a smile that soon turned suspicious when he mentioned my name and who I was representing.

Those who recognized me would be pleasant enough, make a comment on how they will never change, then ask for a selfie. I was only ignored by one man, who clearly could care less who I was and who’s company I was keeping. One teacher, only spoke in English for one sentence, telling me she was looking forward to eating her catch of Pilot Whale this season and didn’t care if it had Mercury in it or not, it still tasted delicious. She laughed. So did Hans. He later explained that people just wanted to tease. That they all wanted to defend their right. I understood that, because I wanted to defend mine.  

An Outdated Practice in a Modern World

Tradition. Culture. Affordable food source. Generational rite of passage. A gift from God. All answers that, personally, don’t fit for me. Rape and pillage was once a tradition. Slavery too. We woke up, saw the light, and don’t do that in civilized society anymore. My fore-fathers would steal sheep, steal sail boats, and I’m sure, commit horrendous crimes that were once accepted in historical society. Things that still live on the memory, but are no longer practiced. My point was, we all change and adapt with the times.

There are grocery stores in every single village on the Isles, stocked fully with everything I can find in my local supermarket. Fresh food, affordable pricing. Everything that can be bought in a supermarket in London, Copenhagen and Paris, can be bought in the Faroe Isles. In fact, the Faroese have the highest per capita income in Europe and one of the highest standards of living.

Oden Roberts
McCall, left, in the Danish Faroe Isles, with a Sea Shepherd volunteer at right. The serene landscape is a stark contrast to the bloodshed McCall and Sea Shepherd witnessed on its shores during the Islands' annual pilot whale slaughter. 

The next argument that was that God will provide. I agreed. But he also provides me, right? Provides me with the ocean as much as the next person. So with that argument, I must do what I can to help save it and those who live there. For me, all the answers, all the reasons, they feel like excuses.

I’ve now seen the Grind. I’ve walked through the aftermath. The carnage. The carcasses that have been brutally sliced open at the guts. I’ve seen the fetuses. The numbers scraped into the skin. I’ve seen the locals let their children play on the bodies. Seen the knives left in the whales’ skulls. I’ve watched as they used a buzz saw to remove their heads. Watched their gall bladders being cut out. I think it’s fair to say that I do have a little knowledge of what happens there. I’ve met the men who plunge the MONUSTINGARI’S, (retractable spears), into the backs of the Pilot Whales. I’ve witnessed them do it. It’s chilling. It’s devastating.

I hear their defense of the practice over-and- over, but it is now becoming clear to me that it is nothing more than a violent act. An aggressive attack that is allowed to be justified in a land that is holding on to the past.

Cris Cely / Sea Shepherd
The carnage at Sandavágur.

I’ve met locals who claim they don’t eat the meat, but have no shame in telling me they find it beautiful to watch. Beautiful. The blood spurting. The mammals panicking and screeching in pain. The splashing of weapons, of fins. The chase. The hunt. The pure carnage of entire generations of Pilot Whales being gruesomely killed in front of one another.

You see, it’s a circus of sorts. Entertainment that brings the locals onto a frenzied beach that is now stained with blood. Pilot Whales are curious creatures. They show no fear for humans, and I’m starting to think that may be their biggest down-fall. The whalers know their target is gentle. An easy mark.

I find it ironic that they measure these killings as a showcase of their manhood. I’m sure you know how big they are, the whales, but even so, imagine the size of your car. Not your hybrid, but your Escalade. Bigger in most cases. Imagine 150-200 of them being harassed towards the shores, beached and then hooked in their blow-holes, stabbed, deep in the back of the head to snap the spinal cord, then cut around the neck as the whale holds on for dear life, before being dragged onto shore for the locals to rejoice in the festivities.

Cris Cely / Sea Shepherd
Tethered dead whales, including young, at Sandavágur, waiting to be butchered.

Make no mistake. The Pilot Whale drive is brutal. The Whales suffer tremendously. The explanation of them dying within a second or two are grotesquely misleading. Anyone who views the footage can see that for themselves. It is an indiscriminate killing spree.

I went there to lend a hand. Lend a voice. Lend a face. I met incredible individuals who wanted to do more than “like” an article about the slaughter on their Facebook page and travelled to those foreign shores to make a difference. Hopefully, we can thank them when this age-old blood-sport comes to an end.

Truthfully, I’ve looked, I’ve listened. I’ve allowed people to voice their side. A high percentage claim to be indifferent about the Grind. Fine if it continues, fine if it ends. But, for the staunch supporters, it ultimately comes down to the fact that this is something the whalers and locals enjoy. Something that gets the aggression out. And something they seem petrified of letting go.

Maybe it’s time they laid down their weapons on this outdated practice and let the Pilot Whales and cetaceans live as God intended. In peace.

How will it end? Public outcry? Political pressure? Maybe a little of both. Another suggestion is to not ignore it and not to look the other way. Through dialogue, through education. This is the way to bring harmony into the world. We can do that together. And maybe until the Faroese leave this practice in their historical archives, we, collectively, give a stop-over visit to these lands a miss.

A CALL TO ACTION: Faroe documentary short.

I encourage you to watch our mini-documentary. Twenty-two minutes of your time. Then, if so inclined, Retweet, FaceBook, Instagram the link. Let’s be the difference.

Huge thanks to my companion on this trip, Oden Roberts. He shot and cut an incredibly important piece of work.



 

Comments

CONVERSATIONS