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Killing time – and whales – in the Faroe Islands

Charlotte had booked a room for 4 nights for us back in Tórshavn so today we had to leave Suðuroy, having only just arrived. We were both left feeling pretty annoyed at this as there was much more of the island to be explored. The ferry would leave at 5PM so we decided to venture into the hills around Øravík to kill some time and try and appreciate Suðuroy as much as possible in the little time we had.

The grumpy hostel owner let us leave our big bags with him when we checked out, which seemed remarkably decent of him considering our past dealings. So into the hills it was. It was a drab day, the sky being a dirty white and with a strange hazy rain falling. We weren’t quite sure where exactly we were going but this seemed to add to the sense of adventure, as well as the risk that we’d fall to our deaths from some unseen cliff edge.

I am not a good climber and had to keep taking rests, which I assured Charlotte were photo stops.

“But you left your camera in the hostel,” she pointed out.

“Quiet, woman. I know what I’m doing.”

So up that bloody wet slope we went, until I noticed a very convenient, if somewhat randomly placed bench in the middle of field of sheep. From here we got an amazing view over Tróngisvágurfjørður (try and say that! No, please do, I haven’t a clue either) Below us tiny Øravík sat in silence, to our left mountains dominated the skyline and it was the same behind us. It was another one of those moments where you feel so far from anywhere, lost in your own thoughts for a few blissful moments.

It was only when Charlotte nudged me back into reality that I became aware of the vast armada of boats sailing up the fjord. For a moment I was puzzled. It seemed as if every boat on the island was amongst this throng, and what were they doing? There were fishing boats, tugboats, rowing boats, boats in all shapes, sizes and colours. There was even a lifeboat or two, and they were part of the wide crescent formation of their fellow craft, a crescent as wide as the fjord itself and travelling up it at great speed. Now I began to have a few suspicions. I turned my gaze to the water a good 100 metres ahead of the boats, and there I saw dark fins cutting the water… whales!

A Grindadráp, a Faroese wale hunt was taking place. It had obviously attracted a lot of attention, as the road to Tvøroyri was jammed with hooting cars, trucks and buses. Everyone on Suðuroy had come along for the hunt. Not wanting to miss out on this spectacle we shot down the hillside we had spent so much effort climbing and down to the road. When we got to the bottom the next car that came by stopped straight away, without us having to flag it down. The Faroe Islands are hitchers paradise. Upon climbing in we were met with excited grins from the couple in the front seats, as well as one of the Spaniards from the hostel.

“Are you going to the killing?” the young man behind the wheel asked, although he didn’t even wait for an answer before we sped off. As my face began to slowly melt due to the speed we were travelling, it occured to me that had we had no idea about the whale hunt our driver’s question would have been somewhat alarming.

The car raced along the fjord road and we caught up with the whale pursuit, which appeared to have come to a halt. The young man brought the car to an abrupt stop and we clambered out to a small cliff-edge nearby. We looked down at the fifty or so boats sat bobbing on the dark water. They had lost the whales. Our disappointment was shared by the couple, whose names we never learned due to frenetic nature of this whale hunt. The young man was greatly agitated, running to the cliff-edge and kneeling down scanning the waters for any sign of the whalefish. But the fjord was still. He came back to our group shaking his head.

“I could catch them all myself. If I still had my boat…” he muttered, kicking stones off the cliff-edge and into the water below.

“What happened to your boat?” I asked.
“Never mind” he muttered once more without looking at me, and booted another small rock into the depths of the fjord.

All of a sudden, the water below us began to bubble and roar. Great dark shapes appeared at the surface and spouts of foamy water sprayed. The boats turned, shouts went up and the hunt was back on! Our driver leapt once more into life and began punching the air like a madman and shouting what sounded like encouragement to the hunters. “Aha!” he yelled into the air.“Ha! They too need to breath sometimes!”

Now we could see the whales properly, so close were they. Pilot Whales, who are a 6 metre long, darker and more overweight version dolphins. They were almost killing themselves in desperation to escape, their fins rising up and down out of the water as they cut through the water, trying to slip by the boats and out of the fjord. For those brief few seconds when they swam by I realised that this was the first time in my life I had seen whales in the wild. I had seen plenty of other creatures, birds, foxes and other such beasts, but nothing as impressive as this. The pod cut through the water at great speed, sending freakishly high waves to shore. Now that I had seen them up close and seen how incredible they truly were I couldn’t help but hope secretly that they’d escape.

Once the whales had resurfaced the hunters were onto them once again, and pretty soon they were driving the whole pod towards the beach below Tvøroyri, on which an excited crowd had gathered. Both locals and people from miles around had dropped everything to get a share of the catch, if it could successfully be brought in. Some of the men on the boats were armed, with long knives, spears and what looked like tridents. Even on land there were men with great butcher knives, beautifully decorated with silver inlays of wave-like patterns, eager for the whales to be driven ashore. They turned the knives in their hands, swapped them from left to right and back again, while all the time watching the whales growing ever closer. We had raced down to the beach by this point and stood apart from the armed throng. The boats had the whales totally trapped now, and the fifteen or so began to thrash their tails violently, searching in vain for some deeper water to escape into. As soon as they were close enough in the shallows, in rushed men with ropes, and from where we stood we witnessed the whole thing. One man from each group would stick a hook in a whale’s blowhole. These hooks were attached to ropes, and when in place the men would drag the great beasts ashore. They pulled and pulled, some slipping on the wet sand and falling in the water as they did so. Once a whale was beached in rushed the men with knives, who delivered deep and swift cuts down to the whales’ spines. Blood gushed from the gaping wounds in a sickening fountain.

All the whales were dispatched pretty quickly in this manner, and the speed of it took me aback. Their lifeless bodies, which we had seen so full of energy and determination to live only minutes before, lay strewn across the now crimson beach. One of the pod was not amongst the dead however, and was still clinging onto life and fighting all that came before it. It was also the biggest of the lot and was attempting to escape by ramming its way through the massed boats barring its way to freedom. This was getting serious, and you could see it on the faces of everyone, particularly those sat in the boats in the whale’s path. The small wooden craft now looked flimsy in face of the whale, who could smash a boat to pieces with his huge tail if it wanted to, and it knew it. Our new friends told us that many a hunter had been killed by the thrashing tail of a pilot whale, and this particular whale looked as if it could crush a tank. Cries of fear went up as the sound of crunching wood could be heard. Men jumped out of doomed boats, either into other craft or the bloodied water, rather than contend with the angry whale. It was almost as if this one knew its fate but was determined to take down as many of the hunters as possible in revenge. Having just seen 14 whales butchered yards away I had no wish to see a person crushed the death and I began to back away, but then something extraordinary happened.

To catch this monster another kind of beast was needed, and one was found in the form of a great troll of a man who had been ever present throughout the killing, dispatching several of the whales single handedly. He hurled his huge frame off the nearest boat and onto the whale’s back. The whale let out a deep groan as it took the man’s weight. The sound sent shivers right through me. The onlookers gasped as they saw this unfold, sure that such an action could only prove fatal. It turned out to be so, but only for the whale, which by some super-human effort the trollman dragged to shore. In all my life I have never seen such strength. Once the whale was ashore it seemed to concede to its fate and didn’t fight back, but rolled slowly onto one side sadly. Within seconds it was dead. With that a great cheer went up and the hunters slumped to the sand, exhausted by the whole encounter. Some no doubt were relieved they were still alive and lay gasping for oxygen on their backs.

So, with the last whales caught, the crowds began to filter away. The spectacle was over. The hunters and those from the surrounding area were sure to get a share of the meat. Charlotte and I wondered if we might be able to pick some up ourselves, but we were put straight by a local, who said that we were entitled to none, as we had neither taken part in the hunt or lived nearby. It was just as well really, hulking around a great slab of bloody meat would’ve been quite an effort.

The dead whales were dragged away by the boats to some other beach to begin the butchering. An hour after the last brave beast had been killed the beach lay empty apart from our small group. The only clue that a slaughter had occurred was the scarlet water that filled the head of the fjord. Both Charlotte and I were quite lost for words. We did not disapprove of what we had witnessed, but we had never in our whole entire lives seen anything quite like it. As we stood there I imagined what people back home would think of it all. I knew they would disapprove, and I would have too, but I was still torn inside. What we had seen was not ”sport”, it was life. Although it had been harrowing to watch I knew it had been done for credible reasons. The Faroese hunt whales to eat them, simple as that. Groups like Greenpeace seem to think there is something darker behind it, but they couldn’t be more wrong. The North Atlantic is teeming with pilot whales, you can’t move for them, and how many can a tiny nation like the Faroe Islands really kill? They themselves only take a certain amount every year. Once they have enough they stop, as the Faroese realise that if they ruthlessly plunder their seas then pretty soon they will be empty.

From what we had seen of the killing of a whale, although bloody, is quick and not senseless murder. In addition, once the adrenalin had worn off, the faces of both the hunters and the locals lost that look of excitement. Once the grim work was completed people stopped to take stock. Clearly none of them had taken a great deal of pleasure in watching a group of beautiful animals die, but this a way of life, of survival. Only 100 years ago, when living on the islands was a hell of a lot harder than today, a hunt like this could have saved a whole community from starvation. Of course, these days The Faroes can rely on imports from Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia, but this practise is so deely ingrained into the Faroese psyche that who are we to say they can’t do it anymore?

It seemed fitting that the date of this grindadráp, the 31st of July, was the national day of the Faroe Islands, and that we had witnessed something real, something few foreigners in this part of the World ever see. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to us it became an eduring memory of the Faroes.We left the beach harrowed but strangely enlightened.

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