Whaling in the Faroe Islands

Whaling in the Faroe Islands

Whaling in the Faroe Islands has been practised since at least the tenth century. [cite web | url = http://www.wdcs.org/dan/publishing.nsf/allweb/1A54D1513433CC8080256F350048721B | title = An Introduction to the History of Whaling | publisher = WDCS | accessdate = 2006-12-05] It is regulated by Faroese authorities but not by the International Whaling Commission as there are disagreements about the Commission's competency for small cetaceans [cite web| url = http://www.iwcoffice.org/conservation/smallcetacean.htm | title = Small Cetaceans | publisher = International Whaling Commission | accessdate = 2008-03-19] [cite web | url = http://www.iwcoffice.org/conservation/catches.htm | title = Catch limits | publisher = International Whaling Commission | accessdate = 2008-03-19] . Around 950 Long-finned Pilot Whales ("Globicephala melaena") are killed annually, mainly during the summer. The hunts, called "grindadráp" in Faroese, are non-commercial and are organised on a community level; anyone can participate. The hunters first surround the pilot whales with a wide semi-circle of boats. The boats then drive the pilot whales slowly into a bay or to the bottom of a fjord.

Most Faroese consider the hunt an important part of their culture and history. Animal-rights groups criticize the hunt as being cruel and unnecessary, [cite web | url = http://www.whaling.fo/thepilot.htm#Drivingthewhales | title = Whales and whaling in the Faroe Islands | publisher = Faroese Government | accessdate = 2006-12-05] [cite web | url = http://www.wdcs.org/dan/publishing.nsf/allweb/99E632F7502FCC3B802568F20048794C | title = Why do whales and dolphins strand? | publisher = WDCS | accessdate = 2006-12-05] while the hunters claim in return that most journalists do not exhibit sufficient knowledge of the catch methods or its economic significance. [cite web| url = http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=2248161&page=1 | title = Dolphins are hunted for sport and fertilizer | publisher = ABC News | date = 2006-07-28 | accessdate = 2006-12-05]


In Faroese "grind" has different meanings. The expression "ein grind", can mean both a school of pilot whales as well as pilot whale meat. The plural form "grindir", means several schools of pilot whales. But "grind" is also the actual event, defining the whole affair and the associated culture. The word "grind" derives from the Old Norse language. A pilot whale is in Faroese "grindahvalur". "Dráp" means "killing" or "slaughter". Therefore, literally translated, "grindadráp" means "pilot whale kill" or "pilot whale slaughter". However, a commonly encountered, neutral, translation is "pilot whaling".

The cry of "grindaboð", which historically took place when a school of pilot whales was sighted, are the two words "grind" and "boð" the latter meaning message. Literally translated it therefore means "grind" message". A better translation could be: news of "grind".


Whale hunting has been a common phenomenon for a long period of time. It is known to have existed on Iceland, in the Hebrides, and in Shetland and Orkney.

Archaeological evidence from the early Norse settlement of the Faroe Islands c. 1200 years ago, in the form of pilot whale bones found in household remains in Gøta, indicates that the pilot whale has long had a central place in the everyday life of Faroe Islanders. The meat and blubber of the pilot whale has been an important part of the islanders staple diet. The blubber, in particular, has been highly valued both as food and for processing into oil, which was used for lighting fuel and other purposes. Parts of the skin of pilot whales were also used for ropes and lines, while stomachs were used as floats.

Rights to whales have been regulated by law since medieval times. References are found in early Norwegian legal documents, while the oldest existing legal document with specific reference to the Faroes, the so-called Sheep Letter from 1298, includes rules for rights to, and shares of both stranded whales as well as whales driven ashore. [Killing Methods and Equipment in the Faroese Pilot Whale Hunt—English translation of a working paper by senior veterinarian, Jústines Olsen, originally presented in Danish at the NAMMCO Workshop on Hunting Methods for marine mammals, held in Nuuk, Greenland in February 1999.]

Elements of the hunt

The sighting

The pilot whale hunt has a well-developed system of communication. Reverend Lucas Debes made reference to the system, which means that it had already developed by the seventeenth century. Historically the system takes place as such: When a school of pilot whales has been sighted, messengers are sent to spread the news among the inhabitants of the island involved (the Faroe Islands have 17 inhabited islands). At the same time, a bonfire is lit at a specific location, to inform those on the neighbouring island, where the same pattern then is followed.

It is believed that the system is one of the oldest elements concerning the pilot whale hunt. This is because a rather large number of boats and people are necessary to drive and kill a school of pilot whales. Today, however, the news of a sighting is relayed via mobile phones and other modern methods of communication.


The location must be well-suited to the purpose of beaching whales. It is against the law to kill pilot whales at locations with inappropriate conditions. The seabed must gradually slope from the shore out to deep water. Given such conditions, the chances are good that the whales can be driven fully ashore or close enough to the shore that they can be secured and killed from land. When a school of pilot whales is sighted, boats gather behind the whales and slowly drive them towards the chosen authorized location, usually a bay or the end of a fjord. There are 17 towns and villages that have the right conditions, and therefore legal authorisation, for beaching whales. These are Bøur, Fámjin, Fuglafjørður, Syðrugøta, Húsavík, Hvalba, Hvalvík, Hvannasund, Klaksvík, Miðvágur, Norðskáli, Sandavágur, Sandur, Tórshavn (in Sandagerði), Tvøroyri, Vágur and Vestmanna. These towns and villages have featured most heavily in the statistics for whaling in the Faroes since 1854.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, proposals to begin regulation of the whale hunt began to be proposed in the Faroese legislature. On 4 June 1907, the Danish Governor (in Faroese amtmaður) as well as the sheriff sent the first draft for whaling regulations to the Office of the Exchequer in Copenhagen. In the following years, a number of drafts were debated, and finally in 1932 the first Faroese whaling regulations were introduced. Since then, every detail of the pilot whale hunt has been carefully defined in the regulations. This means that the institution of the pilot whale hunt, which had previously largely been based on tradition, became an integrated part of society's legal structure. In the regulations one has institutionalized old customs and added new ordinances when old customs have proved insufficient or inappropriate. [Joensen, Jóan Pauli, Pilot Whaling in the Faroe Islands. Ethnologia Scandinavica 1976, Lund]


Since 1832, the Faroe Islands have been divided into several whaling districts, although there is reason to believe that these districts already existed in some form prior to this date. These whaling districts are the basis for the distribution of the meat and blubber of the pilot whales caught. The catch is distributed in such a way that all the residents of the whaling district are given the same amount of the catch, regardless of whether or not they took part in the hunt.


Before the enactment of home-rule in 1948, the Danish governor had the highest responsibility of supervising a pilot whale hunt. Today, supervision is the responsibility of the Faroese government. The government is charged with ensuring that the Pilot whaling regulations are respected and otherwise answer for preparations. In practice, this means that it is the local legislative representative, who holds the highest command in a pilot whale hunt. It is his responsibility to both supervise the hunt and to distribute the catch.

The hunt

Whale hunting equipment is legally restricted to hooks, ropes, and assessing-poles for measurement. A boat that has been equipped in such a manner is a pilot whale boat. The pilot whale boat is not a traditional small Faroese rowing boat, neither is it a vehicle used by the coastal navigation, and it does not include the modern Faroese factory fleet. A pilot whale boat simply describes the temporary condition of a small boat during a hunt, which is otherwise used for line fishery or leisure purposes.

When the whalers have met the requirements specified above, the pilot whales can be driven. Whale drives only take place when a school of whales is sighted close to land, and when sea and weather conditions make them possible. The whaling regulations specify how the school of whales is to be driven ashore. The drive itself works by surrounding the pilot whales with a wide semi-circle of boats. On the whaling-foremans signal, stones attached to lines are thrown into the water behind the pilot whales, thus the boats drive the whales towards an authorised beach or fjord, where the whales then beach themselves. It is not permitted to take whales on the ocean-side of the rope. A pilot whale drive is always under supervision of local authorities.

The pilot whales that are not beached were often stabbed in the blubber with a sharp hook, called a gaff (in Faroese sóknarongul), and then pulled ashore. But, after allegations of animal cruelty, the Faroese whalers started using blunt gaffs (in Faroese blásturongul) to pull the whales ashore by their blowholes. Today, the ordinary gaff is only being used to pull killed whales ashore. The blunt gaff became generally accepted since its invention in 1993, and it is not only more effective, but it is also more humane by comparison to the other gaff. However, anti-whaling groups such as Greenpeace and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) claim that the partial blocking and irritation of the airway hurts and panics the animal.

Furthermore, in 1985 the Faroe Islands outlawed the use of spears and harpoons in the hunt, as it considers these weapons to be unnecessarily cruel to animals.

Once ashore the pilot whale is killed by cutting the dorsal area through to the spinal cord with a special whaling knife, a grindaknívur. Given the circumstances during a pilot whale hunt, the whaling knife is considered the safest and most effective equipment with which to kill the whales. Naturally since the whales are killed manually death cannot, by definition, be instantaneous. The length it takes for a whale to die varies between a few seconds to a few minutes, with the average time being 30 seconds. ["With the use of the traditional whaling hook, the average total time-to-death taken in the 199 whales recorded was 65.4 seconds, with a range of 8.0 to 290 seconds, and with 50% of whales killed in 55.3 seconds. With the use of the blowhole hook, recorded with a total of 52 whales, the average time-to-death was 29.2 seconds, with a range of 6 to 211 seconds, and with 50% of whales killed in 20.0 seconds.", quote from [http://www.whaling.fo/nammco99whalingandanimal.htm Killing methods and equipment in the Faroese pilot whale hunt] ]


During the cut of a pilot whale's spine, their main arteries also get cut. Because of this the surrounding sea tends to turn a spectacular bloody red. This vivid imagery is often used by anti-whaling groups in their campaigns against the hunt. These images of a blood red sea can often have a shocking effect on bystanders.

Since harpoons, spears and firearms are prohibited, the whalers must be on the shoreline of the water and kill each individual whale.

Ólavur Sjúrðaberg, the chairman of the Faroese Pilot Whaler’s Association, describes the pilot whale hunt in such a way: "I'm sure that no one who kills his own animals for food is unmoved by what he does. You want it done as quickly and with as little suffering as possible for the animal." [cite web | url = http://www.highnorth.no/Library/Publications/M-hunter/mo-an-tr.htm | publisher = High North Alliance | title = Marine Hunters: Modern and Traditional | accessdate = 2006-12-05]

The pilot whale as a source of food

Most part of traditional Faroese food consists of meat. Because of the harsh Faroese climate, grain and vegetables have not been able to grow very well. During the winter months the Faroe Islanders´ only option was to mostly eat salted or dried food (this includes meat, pilot whale meat, seabirds and fish). This means that over the centuries, the pilot whale has been an important source of food and vitamins to the isolated population on the North Atlantic archipelago.

The pilot whale meat and blubber is stored, prepared and eaten in the Faroese households. This also means that meat is not available at supermarkets. Although the Faroe Island's main export is fish, this does not include pilot whale meat or blubber. An annual catch of 956 pilot whales [cite web | url = http://www.whaling.fo/numberswhalingandani.htm | publisher = Whaling.fo | title = Pilot Whale catches in the Faroe Islands 1900–2000 | accessdate = 2006-12-04] (1990–1999) is roughly equivalent to 500 tonnes of meat and blubber, some 30% of all meat produced locally in the Faroe Islands.

Food preparation

Whale meat and blubber is a Faroese specialty. Well into the last century meat and blubber from the pilot whale meant food for a long time. Everybody got their share, as is the custom to this day. [cite web | url = http://www.faroeislands.com/Default.asp?sida=877 | title = Faroe Islands tourist guide 2007—Food from the clean waters | accessdate = 2006-12-05] The meat and blubber can be stored and prepared in a variety of ways such as Grind og spik. When fresh, the meat is boiled or served as steaks. A pilot whale steak is in Faroese called "grindabúffur". Whale meat with blubber and potatoes in their skins are put in to a saucepan with salt and then boiled for an hour. Thin slivers of the blubber are also a popular accompaniment to dried fish.

The traditional preservation is by salting or outdoor wind-drying. Today the meat and blubber is often kept in the freezer. The traditional way of storage is still being practiced however, particularly in the villages.

Tourists in the Faroe Islands, who would like to try pilot whale meat and other Faroese food specialties, can do as such at different cultural events which are mostly organized in the summer period.

Cultural importance

The pilot whale hunt is an integral part of Faroese social culture. Faroese men often say that grindadráp makes them feel Faroese. Women do not actively take part in grindadráp, but are bystanders or onlookers. This is part of the traditional division of labour concerning grindadráp that is centuries old, and has not changed over time.

In Faroese literature and art, grindadráp is an important motif. The grindadráp paintings by Sámal Joensen-Mikines rank internationally as some of his most important. They are part of a permanent exhibition in the Faroese art museum in the capital Tórshavn. The Danish governor of the Faroe Islands Christian Pløyen wrote the famous Pilot Whaling song, a Faroese ballade written in Danish entitled "A New Song about the Pilot Whale Hunt on the Faroes". It was written during his term of office (1830–1847) and was printed in Copenhagen in 1835.

The Danish chorus line is:" Raske drenge, grind at dræbe det er vor lyst "

In English:" Strong young lads, to kill the grind that's our joy "

These old verses are rarely sung by the Faroese today. To many in the outside world (including Denmark) they are seen as a backward cliché about the culture of the islands.


Records of the drive exist in part since 1584, and continuously from 1709—the longest period of time for statistics existing for any wild animal harvest in the world. [ cite web | url = http://www.whaling.fo/thepilot.htm#Whalecatches | title = Whale catches in figures | publisher = Faroese Government | accessdate = 2006-12-05]

The catch is divided into shares known in Faroese as a "skinn," which is an age-old measurement value that derives from agricultural practices. 1 skinn equals 38 kg of whale meat plus 34 kg of blubber: in total 72 kg.

* Long-term annual average catch 1709–1999: 850
* Annual average catch 1900–1999: 1,225
* Annual average catch 1980–1999: 1,511
* Annual average catch 1990–1999: 956

Threat to the whale population

There is a raging debate about whether the pilot whale hunt represents a significant threat to pilot whale populations; the actual size of the Northeast Atlantic Pilot Whale population is a subject of debate between different organizations.

In its Red List of Threatened Species the IUCN lists both the Long-finned and Short-finned Pilot Whales as "Lower Risk: Conservation dependent". The figure accepted by the International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee is the 778,000 animals obtained by the North Atlantic Sightings Survey in 1992. Those in favour of whaling, such as the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission in their 1997 and 1999 report on the hunt, [cite web | url = http://www.nammco.no/Status_reps/Pilot.pdf | title = NAMMCO 1997 and 1999 report on the hunt | accessdate = 2006-12-05] say that this is a conservative estimate, whilst those opposed to the hunt, such as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society say the figure is over-estimated. If the figure is accepted, then the average kill from 1990–1999 of 956 animals per year, represents a little more than 0.1% of the population, which the commission insists is sustainable.


Photographs in the media of the pilot whale hunt display a red-coloured sea with the bodies of dead pilot whales. These images engaged whale protectors worldwide.

Most Faroese maintain that it is their right to catch pilot whales given that they have done so for centuries. The Faroese whalers defend their actions before international organizations like Greenpeace with three arguments: one, that grindadráp is not a hunt as such, but a "dráp" meaning a "kill" (ie that they do not regularly take to sea just to hunt for pilot whales, but only kill those which are sighted swimming to close at land); two, that the pilot whale hunt does not exist for commercial reasons, but for internal food distribution among households; and three, they do not believe the pilot whale to be an endangered species.

It is rare to hear critical voices in the Faroe Islands, but in the last few years they have become more frequent. Opponents of the grindadráp often argue on an emotional level, citing in particular the bloody kill on the fjord bank. The Faroese response to this allegation is that a bloody beach is not in fact a problematic issue concerning whale-catching, and that the problem is that a large part of the civilized population has been alienated from the process and basic consequences of animal food production.

Proponents of the hunt further argue that the pilot whale lives its whole life in liberty in its natural habitat, the Atlantic Ocean, and then dies in a few minutes, in contrast to many commonly held livestock such as cows, pigs and chickens, the meat from which one finds in most modern supermarkets. These animals often live in captivity or confinement for their whole lives and are then subject to lengthy transportation and other stressful events before their final slaughter. Furthermore, causing an animal unnecessary or excessive pain and discomfort is prohibited by the Faroese law.

Animal-rights activists argue that the grindadráp is not only cruel, but in view of the ample food supply in today's Faroes, completely unnecessary. Additional argumentation is supplied by the Faroese Ministry of Health, which warns of excessive consumption of pilot whale meat, since it has been shown to contain high levels of mercury, PCBs and environmental poisons. [cite web | url = http://www.chef-project.dk/marinecontaminants.html | title = CHEF—Children's Health and the Environment in the Faroes | accessdate = 2006-12-05] In practice this means that pilot whale meat and blubber can only be safely consumed once a month by the Faroese, a much smaller quantity compared with previous decades.

In the recent history of the Faroes, the catch methods have changed fundamentally. When the Faroese used rowing boats out on the sea to circle and drive a school of whales, the whales had a relatively large chance of escaping. Today they don't stand a chance against what is practically a small fleet of motorboats, although according to statistics the number of pilot whales caught recently is smaller than previous decades. In the Faroe Islands, international criticism is often felt as interference into national affairs; many Faroese believe that pilot slaughter is a local concern. On the other hand pilot slaughter, in spite of its traditions and justifications, hurts the prestige of the country, something that the Faroese stubbornly are willing to accept. This latter attitude is by no means marginal in the Faroese society.

In 1989 the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society commissioned an animated public information film (narrated by Anthony Hopkins) to raise awareness on the Faroe Islands' whaling of Long-finned Pilot Whales. The film caused controversy when it was released, as it shows in somewhat graphic detail what occurred during the annual hunt, but was only given a Universal Certificate by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) since it was animated.

Notes and references

Further reading

* Sanderson, Kate. "Whales and Whaling in the Faroe Islands". Tórshavn, Faroe Islands: Dept. of Fisheries, 1990.

External links

* [http://www.whaling.fo Whaling.fo—English website from the Faroese Government]
* [http://www.ngs.fo/en/sat2004/index.htm Museum of Natural History Faroe Islands] Tagged pilot whales
* [http://www.highnorth.no/Library/Hunts/Faroe_Islands/pi-wh-in.htm Information page from the High North Alliance]
* [http://www.nammco.no/ The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission]
* [http://www.iwcoffice.org/index.htm International Whaling Commission]
* [http://www.art.fo/en/faroese_artists/samuel_joensen_mikines.php Sámal Mikines' Grindadráp-Paintings]
* [http://kari.torkilsheyggi.fo/gallery/grind2 Torkilsheyggi] Images from a pilot whale hunt in Gøtu 2006
* [http://kari.torkilsheyggi.fo/gallery/Grind050406 Torkilsheyggi] Images of pilot whale meat being prepared for storage in Gøta 2006
* [http://www.portal.fo/myndafrasogn.php?tn=700&mn=8174&np=1 www.portal.fo] Images of the butchering after a Grindadráp drive in Hvannasund 2007
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/3104494.stm BBC] BBC Report on the drive
* [http://archives.cnn.com/2000/NATURE/09/11/faroe.islands.enn/index.html CNN] CNN Report on the drive

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