Entire Families Of Whales And Dolphins Are Being Killed On These Islands

“You can’t explain to someone what a pod of dolphins looks like when they’re in absolute sheer panic."

Rosie Kunneke will never forget watching the pilot whale die.

It was 2015, and Kunneke, a campaign leader for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, was standing on a Bøur beach, near the town of Sørvágur in the Faroe Islands.

Locals had driven the whale and his entire family into the bay. Once the whales had beached themselves, people started killing them with lances and knives, turning the water red.

Warning: Graphic photos below

Faroe Islands whale killings
Whales driven into the bay at Sandavágur in the Faroe Islands in 2015 | Sea Shepherd/Cris Cely

“This one pilot whale was trying to get away, and he was flinging himself onto the rocks,” Kunneke told The Dodo. “And then these guys came and they tried to kill him.”

When the men drove a lance into the whale’s body, the whale panicked even more.

“He went over on his side to try and not get the hook in his blowhole,” Kunneke said. “Then he flung himself onto the rocks, and they were pulling him by the tail. I’ll never forget that animal.”

People killing pilot whales in Faroe Islands
Sea Shepherd/Mayk Wendt

The pilot whale eventually died, and so did the rest of his family, littering a Bøur beach with 111 bodies, Kunneke said.

The Faroe Islands — an archipelago in the North Atlantic known for its stunning green volcanic mountains and abundance of seabirds — doesn't look like it would be the scene of a slaughter.

But each year, typically between June and September, the Faroese people drive hundreds of whales and dolphins onto local beaches, and kill them in what’s called a “grindadráp,” which roughly translates to “killing of the whales” in English, and it's been a tradition for over 1,000 years.

Boats driving ways into a bay in the Faroe Islands
Boats driving about 150 pilot whales to the killing beach at Bøur in the Faroe Islands in 2015 | Sea Shepherd/Eliza Muirhead

What happens in the Faroe Islands is similar to what happens at the infamous dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan — in both places, locals go out on boats and round up entire pods of marine mammals by banging against their boats’ hulls, which traps the cetaceans in a wall of sound. Then they drive the animals into a cove or bay to kill them.

But in other ways, the two events are very different. 

On days that the grindadráp (or grind) happens, local Faroese people gather onto the beach to watch while they wait for the whales to be killed and the meat distributed, Kunneke explained.

“It’s like a festive feeling amongst the locals,” Kunneke said. “Old ladies are getting their sun chairs ready on the beach to watch this whole thing. People are cheering, children are singing, women are clapping. It’s like the circus has come to town.”

Pilot whales in killing bay in Faroe Islands
Sea Shepherd/Eliza Muirhead

This jovial atmosphere comes about when the villagers are waiting for their share of whale meat, according to Russell Fielding, a geographer from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, who’s studied the grinds at the Faroe Islands since 2005.

“After the whales have been killed, there’s always a couple of hours when the authorities are deciding how they’re going to distribute the food, and that always takes a lot of measuring and weighing of the whales, and reviewing of the list of who got it last time,” Fielding said. “During that time, people would still be in the village, and they’d have an impromptu festival or street party.”

But the whales and dolphins don’t have anything to celebrate. While proponents of the hunt say it's a quick death, Kunneke, who’s witnessed the grindadráp on two different occasions, believes they can suffer for hours and experience a slow, painful death.

Faroe Islands whale killings
Sea Shepherd/Mayk Wendt

“People will say they die very quickly,” Kunneke said. “But no. These are hours and hours of agonizing cruelty to these animals. Their panic starts the moment the boats start to drive them. Imagine that you and your family are running from something and the panic of the chase.”

Once the whales or dolphins have beached themselves, the killing begins.  

“The grind foremen give the signal, and teams run out with hooks attached to the ropes,” Kunneke said. “The front person puts the hook into the blowhole of the pilot whale or dolphin, and then the team behind him starts pulling until that dolphin is totally on the sand and can’t move.”

Whale hunters in the Faroe Islands
Faroese hunters holding a whale down to drive a hook into his blowhole | Sea Shepherd/Barbora Kopčoková

The next thing people do is take spinal lances (long metal rods with sharp points) and push them into the animals’ bodies, right behind their blowholes.

“They do it to sever the spine, and they say it takes a few seconds,” Kunneke said. “But these are moving animals, so they [the Faroese hunters] don’t always get that right. We’ve seen dolphins struggle for up to 20 minutes to die, because they’re starting to drown in their own blood."

“You can’t explain to someone what a pod of dolphins looks like when they’re in absolute sheer panic,” Kunneke added. “They’re swimming in each other’s blood. You see babies who don’t want to leave their mothers’ bodies. They are so exhausted after being driven that some of them just drop on their sides. Some of them die of sheer exhaustion.”

Fielding also noted that it often takes a long time for the whales and dolphins to die — but explained that it's not the hunters' intention to draw out the killing.

Whale hunters in the Faroe Islands
Sea Shepherd/Mayk Wendt

“There is a standard method that people are taught to deploy, but there are lots of cases where the standard method did not work, and the whales did end up taking longer to have their suffering ended than anyone would have liked,” Fielding said. “There are professional biologists and veterinarians in the Faroes who are constantly trying to work out new methods to try and solve that problem. It’s definitely seen as a problem, and they want to kill the animals as quickly as they can."

After their spines have been severed, people start cutting out the animals’ intestines so a buildup of gas doesn’t make their bodies explode. Sometimes, an unborn baby will fall out of a mother whale’s womb, along with her intestines.

The whales and dolphins aren't always fully dead when people cut them open, according to Kunneke.

“These animals suffer,” she said. “They [the Faroese people] will try and tell you that they don’t suffer, but they suffer.”

Dead pilot whales in the Faroe Islands
Sea Shepherd Global/Mayk Wendt

Once the whales or dolphins are dead, people will cut up the carcasses and distribute the meat and blubber amongst the people in the village.

Locals say the whale meat is an important source of food. But Kunneke, and other critics of the hunt, argue that many people don’t eat the whale meat, which can be extremely high in mercury and therefore pose a health risk.

In 2010, Sea Shepherd crew members claim to have discovered dead pilot whales “buried” out at sea, not far from where a recent grindadráp occurred.

“We found graveyards underwater of hundreds of whales that had been weighted down and sunk, their bodies just disposed of [instead of used],” Paul Watson, founder and president of Sea Shepherd, told The Dodo. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Pilot whale grave in the Faroe Islands
Pilot whales tied to a dock in the Faroe Islands, waiting to be butchered | Sea Shepherd/Cris Cely

Yet Fielding thinks what the Sea Shepherd crew members saw were not whole whale carcasses, but simply spinal columns and skulls.

“After they take off the meat and blubber, there’s a person who’s appointed by the authorities to drag the skulls and spinal columns off to a certain point in the water,” Fielding said. “It’s for hygiene. You wouldn’t want to leave the bones and the internal organs on the beach. You want to haul them away so they can decompose in the ocean.” 

There are concerns about the detrimental effect these killings are having on the different species. Besides pilot whales, which are actually a species of dolphin, the Faroese also kill dolphins and other whale species. According to Watson, the grindadráps are unregulated, and the Faroese can kill as many animals as they want.

Faroe Islands whale killings
Sea Shepherd/Eliza Muirhead

“They can take whatever they want,” Watson said. “The pilot whale population is listed as unknown by the IUCN. Nobody knows how many there are. The Faroese say there are 700,000 in the North Atlantic. Where do they get that figure? Nobody seems to know.”

“If you kill a whole family of whales or dolphins, how do you think the species is going to survive?” Kunneke said.

This year, the grindadráp started early in the Faroes. In late May, locals killed 84 long-finned pilot whales at Bøur Beach. And the killings are expected to continue throughout the summer, Watson said.

“The whales are a target of opportunity,” Watson said. “Anytime they [the hunters] see a pod, they drive them into a beach and kill them, so it depends on when the whales come by.”

Faroe Islands whale killings
Sea Shepherd/Eliza Muirhead

Sea Shepherd ran several campaigns in the Faroe Islands to try to stop the grindadráp, but the Faroese government now instills harsh penalties for anyone who tries to interfere with the grindadráp, and Sea Shepherd crew members are no longer allowed to travel to the Faroe Islands to document it.

Sea Shepherd believes the best way to put a stop to these cetacean killings is to put pressure on the Danish government, which has the administrative authority to put a stop to this. (The Faroe Islands operates as an independent country within the Kingdom of Denmark.)

“It’s got to be from political pressure from Denmark,” Kunneke said. “The more pressure Denmark can get from outside, the better.”

Whales swimming off coast of Faroe Islands
Whales swimming freely off the coast of the Faroe Islands | Sea Shepherd/Victoria Salançon
To help save whales and dolphins in the Faroe Islands, you can make a donation to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, sign this petition or reach out to your local Danish consulate and ask them to consider taking a stand against the hunt.