Footage exposes country's 'bloody' whaling tradition - so should it be stopped?

A fierce debate is continuing to brew on a tiny European island.

WARNING — DISTRESSING IMAGES: Watching footage of a swimmer expertly riding a small pilot whale by clutching its fin, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s part of a tourist show. But 58 seconds after he jumps on the animal's back, his colleagues shove a metal spike into its spine and butcher the animal. The water runs red with blood.

Europe’s annual whale slaughter off the Faroe Islands is gruesome to watch. The footage shared with Yahoo News Australia is from May 8, 2023, but the grindadráp is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.

Holding the camera was Samuel Rostol, a Norwegian-born activist. He works with Sea Shepherd UK, an organisation that is actively working to get the hunt banned. Mr Rostol has witnessed around 10 hunts, including the butchering of 100 bottlenose dolphins in 2022.

A man riding a whale before it is killed.
A man was filmed riding into shore before Faroese hunters secured and killed it. Source: Samuel Rostol

“In front of us, 100 bodies of an animal whose sibling affected my childhood so strongly — Flipper — were being pulled out of the water and slapped down on the harbour to be cut open and butchered," he told Yahoo News Australia. “The scene was absurd as their deaths were unnecessary.”

In 2021, an entire mega-pod was herded into shore and 1,423 dolphins were killed.

Faroese argue they're being unfairly targeted

But while seeing enigmatic species cut to pieces is hard to see, Bjarni Mikkelsen a marine mammal biologist and Faroe Islands native believes his community’s traditions are being unfairly targeted.

He argues the grindadráp is no less bloody than what occurs in abattoirs across mainland Europe, the United States or Australia. "It's much easier to hide what's happening in your own backyard, just by pointing to others," he said.

Mr Mikkelsen said most Faroese continue to follow old customs, slaughtering their sheep at home, or shooting rabbits on the mountain. He argues taking whales is no different. “It just has to be done in order to get our food. There is no more in it than that... It's very bloody, it's outdoors and we don't hide anything. Because, in my opinion, most of the Faroese are very proud of this practice," he said.

Are the methods used to kill whales and dolphins cruel?

Despite it being a confronting spectacle to watch, Mr Mikkelson argues killing methods have improved that are “comparable to modern slaughterhouses”.

The hunters now use a large hook to spike the whales through their blowholes and drag towards the shore. Their spinal cord is then severed with a metal lance and their neck is cut to bleed them out. “I don’t know how many millions of sheep are killed in Australia each year, but we kill 600 dolphins on average efficiently,” he said.

An aerial shot of a harbour in the Faroe Islands. There's a crowd of people, dead whales and the water is blood red.
Opponents of the grindadráp in the Faroe Islands believe international pressure could see it banned. Source: Getty

While progress has been made, Sea Shepherd UK disputes that the killing methods are acceptable. Its chief operating officer Rob Read notes that modern abattoirs have more oversight from inspectors and they do not kill mammal species in front of each other, as this is known to cause significant stress.

“There’s the unique nature to the grindadráp where that entire pod is killed. So that includes animals of all ages right down to calves. And pregnant females — in many countries doing that is just outright illegal,” he said.

Call for international pressure to end grindadráp

John Hourston from UK-based conservation group Blue Planet Society agrees the grindadráp needs to end, noting the animals killed are ordinarily protected under EU regulations and the world is experiencing biodiversity crisis.

“Why is a rich country, with a dozen supermarkets and a globalised supply chain continuing to harm wildlife in such a cruel way?,” he said.

Mr Hourston is calling on nations like the United States which buy fish from the Faroe Islands to put pressure on its inhabitants. “If they want to get it stopped, they could. It’s really just a question of political will.”

Locals say international pressure won't make them budge, and change will have to come from within.

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