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Humpback whale underwater

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Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter - ORES

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Boto © Fernando Trujillo

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Orcas at the seabed

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The tradition of whaling in the Faroe Islands

Journalist Hans Peter Roth continues his reports from the Faroe Islands.

What a sight, when the Faroese bring their rowing boats to water. Beautiful wooden constructions – true artwork in handicrafts and quite similar to what the traditional Viking boats used to look like. The Vikings were phenomenal sailors and navigators who had discovered North America 500 years before Columbus. And Nordic seafaring men may have settled on the Faroes much earlier than generally assumed.

The Faroese are proud of their cultural heritage – and this is certainly justified. Numbering just a few thousand people, they braved the rough natural conditions and the tyranny of numerous foreign powers over centuries. And they have survived to present days with their ancient Nordic language. Therefore naturally foreigners find little acceptance when they come here without any knowledge just to yell at the locals and point fingers – also regarding the pilot whale drive.

The pilot whales have essentially contributed to the survival of the Faroese people over centuries. The appearance of pilot whale schools or their absence could decide over abundance or famine in local communities. The mountainous islands and the harsh conditions are unfit for agriculture. The isolated islanders had to depend almost entirely on fishing, some lifestock and – the pilot whales. They tried to catch them with small rowing boats. The Grindadráp (grind) – that’s the Faroese denomination of the whale drive – was an exhausting race against wind, waves, cold and wetness. It is impressive that these men actually managed to catch whales in this way.

There are various reasons to pay tribute to this culture for its endurance and capability to survive in such harsh environment. On the other hand the Faroese have all reason to pay tribute to the pilot whales, as these cetaceans have essentially contributed to the survival of the Faroese people and culture. What beautiful scenery for me when I could watch a rowing competition in Skala, a village on Skalafjord on the Eastern island. Teams of men and women competed in various categories, pepped by screams of the boat leaders and cheering crowds numbering in the thousands. The sports festival was broadcast live by the national radio. A well trained team of ten men can speed such rowing boat up to more than 8 knots, which equals about 15 km/h – phenomenal speed. May this aesthetic and impressive tradition prevail for a long time.

What a contrast to compare these boats to the modern, highly horse powered speed boats, yachts and jet skis that are being used nowadays for the Grindadráp. Such modern vehicles have nothing to do with the original struggle with the elements. Therefore the pilot whale drive nowadays has little to nothing in common with so-called “tradition” – not to mention the needless suffering of the animals. So there are some traditions I’d be happy to see reduced to some space in history documentation, meanwhile it is well worth to keep some others alive. This can be well seen on the Faroes.