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Faroe Islands Dolphin Hunt

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

For more than a thousand years, the people of the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic have hunted whales, a practice that has sustained their lives in the bleak, subpolar environment. Now, the focus of animal rights activists has turned on the harvest over the difficult-to-watch beaching and killing of white-sided dolphins, also known as pilot whales.

Atlantic white-sided dolphins after a catch in the Faroe Islands.

Atlantic white-sided dolphins after a catch in the Faroe Islands.

Faroe at a Glance

The Faroe Islands sit between Iceland and Norway, and to the north of Scotland. About 50,000 people live on the rainy and windswept archipelago that is a semi-independent territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. The Gulf Stream keeps the country warmer than its latitude would predict, with the temperature rarely dropping below freezing, but also rarely rising above 60 F (15 C).

The official government website notes that “Enduring today is a nation in which the living standard is one of the highest in the world. A highly industrial economy mainly based on fisheries and aquaculture continues to flourish, while a Nordic welfare model ensures everyone the opportunity to explore his or her own potential.”

Isolation means the people of the islands have preserved their ancient cultural traditions, one of which is whaling.

The Pilot Whale Hunt

Twelve hundred years ago, pilot whale blubber and meat formed the staple of the diet of the Viking settlers of the Faroes.

When a pod of whales was sighted, the islanders used boats to herd the animals into a bay where they could be beached and killed. In a paper written for the Faroese Department of Foreign Affairs, veterinarian Jústines Olsen, reports that “The whale hunt today is in general carried out in the same way as it has always been done, but there have been significant improvements in the techniques used, as well as in the organisation of the drive and in the regulation of whaling locations.”

There's no dodging the fact that the actual killing of the pilot whales is grisly. A hook is placed in the blowhole to secure the dolphin and drag it ashore if needs be. Then a deep knife cut is made across the back of the neck. This severs the spinal cord and shuts down the blood supply to the brain, causing death. It's a process that can take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes to complete.

Annually, more than a thousand dolphins are killed in the Faroe Islands in a communal hunt, with each participant getting a share of the catch. It's known as the Grindadráp, or grind for short.

Efforts have been made to regulate the hunt and to introduce methods that cause a minimum of distress to the animals, the most recent iteration being the Grind Law of 2013. Spears and harpoons that were used in former times were banned, while firearms are said to be useless.

Boats herding a pod of pilot whales to the shore.

Boats herding a pod of pilot whales to the shore.

The Big Catch

In September 2021, video surfaced of a hunt that caused a public relations nightmare for the people of the Faroe Islands.

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(I'm not going to post it here, but, if you have a mind to, you can easily find it on the internet).

Hundreds of dolphins had been driven into a bay on the island of Eysturoy. As the slaughter began, the water of the bay turned red with the blood from the animals. There were so many dolphins that those doing the killing were overwhelmed by the numbers and could not abide by the regulations that were devised to minimize the pain and suffering. The final body count was 1,428 pilot whales, almost five times more than a usual catch.

Robert Read is director of the campaign to end the whale hunt for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He said the September 2021 catch “was a complete disaster, completely unprecedented in fact, it could even be the largest single hunt of cetaceans in documented history anywhere in the world.”

And, the former chairman of the Faroese association organizing the hunt, Hans Jacob Hermansen, didn't disagree. He told The Associated Press “We must admit that things did not go as we would like to. We are going to evaluate if anything went wrong, what went wrong and why, and what can we do to avoid that in the future.”

Stopping the Faroe Grind

By Faroe Island law, the pilot whales, which are not endangered, must be killed in the open, in front of witnesses; it is not considered a popular tourist attraction. Watching the sea turn red is graphic and shocking for onlookers unaccustomed to the Faroe way of life.

The islanders argue that what goes on inside slaughterhouses would be just as upsetting if it was open to public view, which it isn't. Slaughtering cattle is done behind closed doors, so that consumers can still enjoy a Porterhouse steak without feeling qualms.

Ólavur Sjúrðaberg is a schoolteacher living in the Faroe Islands and is chairman of the Faroese Pilot Whalers' Association. He says “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.

“I can well understand the strong reactions people have to pictures of pilot whaling in the Faroes. But, all meat was once a living creature that someone had to kill so it could end up on your plate. People seem to want to forget this fact of life.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Shark fin soup is popular in China and southeast Asia and the Shark Research Institute says as many as 100 million of the animals are slaughtered each year to supply the raw material. The institute says that “Sharks are caught, their fins are savagely hacked off and most are then thrown back into the ocean while still alive where they die a slow and agonizing death by downing or by bleeding to death.”
  • Mattanza, means “slaughter” in Italian. It is the name of a traditional tuna fishing method off Sicily and Sardinia. The fish are guided into a large net surrounded by boats. Fisherman in the boats then stick the bluefin tuna with a gaff hook and they are hauled out of the water into a waiting bin where they flap and squirm in a futile attempt to get oxygen. The Mattanza is declining partly because of animal rights opposition but also because the tuna have been over-fished and stocks are depleted.



  • The Official Website of the Faroe Islands.
  • “Killing Methods and Equipment in the Faroese Pilot Whale Hunt.” Jústines Olsen, Faroese Department of Foreign Affairs, February 11, 2009.
  • “1,428 Dolphins Killed on Faroe Islands in Traditional Hunt.” The Associated Press, September 16, 2021.
  • “Marine Hunters: Whaling and Sealing in the North Atlantic.” The High North Alliance, 1997.
  • “Outcry over Killing of Almost 1,500 Dolphins on Faroe Islands.” Richard Orange, The Guardian, September 14, 2021.
  • The Shark Research Institute.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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