NEWS Blood in the Water, Food on the Table, Protesters on the Shore

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In a cafe close to the misty harbor in Tórshavn, in the Faroe Islands, Andrew Marshfield and Espen Østrem stick out as obvious foreigners. It’s not their English, which is spoken widely across this self-governing archipelago within Denmark, located halfway between Iceland and Norway in the North Atlantic. It’s the two men’s opinions that turn heads our way. They’re talking about whales—specifically, how to stop local residents from killing them.

“This year, they slaughtered whales in front of a cruise ship,” Østrem says, incredulously. The cruise line issued an apology to its passengers, noting that the event was “distressing for the majority of guests on board” and objecting to the “outdated practice.” Newspapers and networks all over the world covered the story, including the Washington Post and NPR in the United States. Østrem and Marshfield, both animal rights activists, think tourists should boycott the islands to help turn the tides against the practice. Three women sitting by the window glance toward us, then politely turn back to their hot drinks.

In a centuries-old tradition known as a grindadráp, the Faroese people hunt long-finned pilot whales for their meat and blubber. The whales are technically large dolphins, ranging from four to over six meters long, with bulbous heads and black tails. When a pod is sighted, someone calls a “grind,” pronounced “grinned,” and people are free to leave work to participate. School children leave class to watch. Once the hunters have killed the whales using lances, they share the meat and blubber, carrying it home in buckets, wheelbarrows, and truck beds for boiling and preserving.

For many in this place so deeply connected to the sea, the practice is meaningful and central to cultural identity and memory. But it’s proven controversial to outsiders. Compared with industrialized commercial meat production today, which tends to remain contained within factories and industrial slaughterhouses, the grind does not hide the violent reality of harvesting meat for food. That—and the fact that the grind’s quarry is an intelligent marine mammal—have made the hunt a high-profile target for Østrem and Marshfield, and other activists. The pair is part of a land crew with the Captain Paul Watson Foundation UK. Paul Watson is the infamous founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society—best known for its militant tactics on behalf of marine life, including against Indigenous whalers. When Watson split with Sea Shepherd in 2022 over directional differences, a few chapters around the world changed their names to stay aligned with him, including Sea Shepherd UK.

Sea Shepherd flag
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a marine conservation organization known for its direct-action tactics against whaling and illegal fishing, carried out with a fleet of its own ships. Photo by SOPA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Østrem and Marshfield, a Norwegian software engineer and a British underwriter, are here to capture photos of blood-filled harbors and butchered whale carcasses so Watson’s foundation can muster outrage online. Ultimately, they want to rouse global political pressure, maybe even a trade embargo, to end what they call unnecessary violence.

Østrem and Marshfield are well aware that locals see them as meddling outsiders. The grind is widely supported by the Faroese people. Although the International Whaling Commission doesn’t regulate the hunt of long-finned pilot whales, it permits similar small-scale practices along the coasts of Alaska and Greenland under the umbrella of Aboriginal subsistence whaling. That the grind is such a fundamental part of local culture has convinced many activists to leave the remote islands and their tradition alone.

But not everyone. “We’re undercover at the moment,” declares Marshfield, earnestly.

He and Østrem have holed up in an Airbnb with a handful of other activists to lie in wait. Whenever they learn of a grind, they race to the site to photograph and film. “It’s a bit like being a firefighter,” Marshfield says. “At a moment’s notice, we switch the oven off and go.”

He’s not bluffing. We’ve only just finished our oat-milk lattes when Marshfield’s phone sounds a blaring alarm. He shows Østrem the screen and we bolt for a car packed with camera equipment. This grind will take place 50 kilometers away in the northern islands. Though we didn’t know it at the time, just as we began to head north, boats were already driving a pod of whales toward a bay in a village called Hvannasund.

The Faroe Islands are a wind-battered nation of sea cliffs and clouds, villages tucked in mossy valleys along fjords, and volcanic bluffs backed by foggy mountains. Some 54,000 people live on 17 of its 18 islands, some of which are connected by long tunnels and others by ferries. It’s impossible here to get farther than five kilometers from the sea.

The warm Gulf Stream flows around the Faroes from the southwest and meets cold waters from the Arctic. Together, they circulate nutrients in strong currents around the fjords. Marine life is plentiful and diverse, drawn to the stable temperatures, clean seas, and abundant food.

map of Faroe Islands
Map data from ArcGIS

For over 1,000 years, the Faroese people have relied heavily on fish and whale meat for their sustenance and survival. Today, the Faroes have one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world, largely from farmed salmon and commercial fisheries for catches like mackerel and herring. Fish and fish products account for around 90 percent of Faroese exports. Related industries employ roughly 15 percent of the labor force. The ocean is still a large part of the nation’s livelihood and a key part of its cultural identity, which includes its own distinct language.

The grind is part of that context. The practice dates to when Norse Vikings settled here in the ninth century, and the earliest laws governing it came in a 1298 decree mostly concerned with sheep farming, one of the only agricultural practices the wet, windy, and cold Faroese climate supports. In addition to whales and fish, people on the islands hunted seabirds such as fulmars—related to the albatross—and they still do today.

“You can catch those, eat them,” a boat captain named Magni Blástein says. People commonly scoop up fulmars in August, when chicks fledge from their nests and fall into the water but are still too chubby to fly away. Like whale meat, he says, “it’s good food. You can feed your family with it.”

Neither whale nor fulmar is commercialized here. If you’re not procuring the meat in the wild yourself, your best bet for obtaining either would be to buy from friends, or maybe a neighbor on Facebook. Though whale meat can occasionally be found for sale dockside or in certain stores, it’s not stocked regularly, like ground turkey.

Blástein has fished all his life, even on summer breaks while studying history in Denmark. He ultimately returned to the islands because “family ties are important,” he says, and his family has been here “since forever.”

Most local families have. And tracing those roots, generation after generation took part in grinds. Written records of whale and dolphin catches began in 1584. While some aspects of the hunt have changed, such as the weapons used, the basic structure remains the same.

The Grind in 1961
Technology and stricter regulations have changed aspects of the grindadráp, but today’s hunts still closely resemble those of previous generations. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Denmark

When someone spots a pod, they’re required to tell the central police in Tórshavn. The police notify a local sheriff, who will decide whether or not to call a hunt after consultation with community grind leaders. The choice may depend, for instance, on whether residents already have enough meat from a previous grind, though there’s no official catch limit on long-finned pilot whales. On the day of the grind in Hvannasund, it is sheriff Jens Jensen who makes the call.

Jensen spent 40 years as a police officer and detective before transitioning into the booming farmed salmon industry. When one of the Faroes’ three sheriffs was elected mayor of Klaksvík, the archipelago’s second-largest town with 5,500 residents, Jensen applied for the vacant position, which oversees multiple islands. The nation has extremely low crime rates, so Jensen’s major duties usually involve civil marriages, nature preservation, and the occasional grind.

After Jensen calls the hunt in Hvannasund, he tells the police in Tórshavn. They, in turn, contact all the nearby foremen—community members in charge of organizing the drive and slaughter. There are 23 authorized whaling bays, each with four foremen and two assistants from nearby villages. “These foremen are my specialists,” Jensen explains.

The foremen estimate whale numbers and figure out where to drive the pod based on currents. Often, word that a pod has been spotted has already gone out on Facebook groups and via SMS well before this process is underway. According to Jensen, “it’s been twice around the Faroe Islands before I act.” Once he does, people with boats head into the water, forming a half ring behind the whales and corralling them like sheep into a bay, where licensed hunters wait on the beach with blowhole hooks, lances, and knives.

Grinds can also legally target harbor porpoises and Atlantic white-sided, white-beaked, and bottlenose dolphins. But most involve long-finned pilot whales, of which there are two existing subspecies: one in the North Atlantic and one in the southern hemisphere. Neither is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Since 2010, the Faroese have killed an average of 687 pilot whales annually, out of an estimated global population of around 800,000. In scale and technology, the grind is very different from the industrial whaling that left the oceans bereft of blues, humpbacks, and other species. But the practice—and its practitioners—have still endured decades of attack.

It takes an hour to drive from Tórshavn all the way up north to Hvannasund, a fishing village of 248 people. Marshfield and Østrem won’t tell me if someone tipped them off, or if there’s another way they heard about the hunt. But they do share their plan: to document everything, even if it means breaking the law by flying a drone over the site of the hunt.

The roads are drilled straight through mountains to save the trouble of climbing up or around, and each time we exit a tunnel, I catch my breath. Waterfalls flush down emerald hills, dotted with small sheds for sheep, and tumble into glittering fjords. Marshfield talks about how nervous he is. It’s his first grind; he’s unsure how he’ll handle the blood.

Østrem has more experience with it. He was here for a couple of months in 2022 after several years of volunteering with other animal rights organizations in Oslo, Norway. He’s horrified by the way people treat animals around the world, including at fish farms in Norway. To him, the grind is just one example of the way humanity abuses other beings.

Marshfield is similarly resolute. He got involved with Sea Shepherd about eight years ago, after seeing an online photo of a slaughtered whale that left him deeply upset. His activism gradually scaled up; he started by donating, then sharing things on Facebook and selling T-shirts. Eventually, he joined Sea Shepherd campaigns in Sicily and Iceland. Now, he’s here. He grows more solemn as we drive, steeling himself to see a dead whale in person.

Protestor in Sea Shepherd t-shirt
A Sea Shepherd volunteer wears an Operation Bloody Fjords shirt at a protest in London, England. The organization’s crusade to end the grindadráp in the Faroe Islands is now dubbed Operation Living Fjords. Photo by Vuk Valcic/Alamy Stock Photo

Watson’s followers have a long history of fighting the grind. Activist groups, including Sea Shepherd, first started protesting the tradition back in the 1980s, putting the archipelago under global scrutiny. “People were telling us it didn’t look nice,” says Bjarni Mikkelsen, marine mammal specialist at the Faroe Marine Research Institute.

According to Mikkelsen, environmentalists grew troubled over whether the hunt was hurting pilot whale populations. “People walked around with banners, saying it was unsustainable,” he says. Around the same time, sighting surveys were launched to estimate population levels. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, a body comprising the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway, has since carried them out every six years.

Using standard international sampling techniques, surveyors most recently estimated the population of pilot whales in the Faroes–Iceland area to be around 380,000. Survey to survey, this number changes, depending on timing and coverage. But scientists consistently report abundances that can sustain the Faroese catch. “The population is high compared to other species in the North Atlantic,” Mikkelsen says, and there’s no significant downward trend.

Greenpeace eventually abandoned their opposition. But Sea Shepherd held firm. In 2014, under Watson’s leadership, around 70 volunteers descended on the islands for Operation GrindStop, donning black hoodies stamped with Sea Shepherd’s distinctive Jolly Roger insignia and physically intervening in hunts by jumping into the bay. The following year, the organization returned with the same conduct, resulting in fines, arrests, and court cases.

Resentment for the disturbances lingers among many of the Faroese, especially since Sea Shepherd Global continues to fight the hunt, though in softer ways. “Sea Shepherd’s history with the Faroe Islands has been quite aggressive and colorful,” says Valentina Crast, the group’s current Stop the Grind campaign coordinator. Now, she’s working on a tamer strategy, focused on building a local community of supporters.

Watson’s new foundation, meanwhile, wants to maintain the same level of pressure Sea Shepherd once brought. “We’re living in a world where there is no enforcement of international conservation laws,” Watson says. “The high seas are the Wild West. And we’re sort of vigilantes.”

The 73-year-old self-proclaimed pirate (a title confirmed by a United States Court of Appeals in 2013) is against the killing of whales on moral grounds, no matter who does it, or how. He has carried out his brand of vigilantism for nearly 50 years. Talking to him is like talking to a buccaneer who shares stories of sirens and sword fights, except Watson’s tales consist of ramming Portuguese whaling vessels, sinking Icelandic ships, and tricking Soviet soldiers. He’s been criticized for targeting Indigenous peoples over their traditional subsistence hunting practices, including seal hunters in Canada and teenage whalers in Alaska.

Paul Watson
Both Sea Shepherd and the new organization founded by Paul Watson (center left) remain firmly opposed to the Faroese whale hunt. Photo by Robert Meyers/Alamy Stock Photo

After the crackdown by the Faroese government, protests quelled for a while. But in recent years, social media and an increase in tourism have put the grind back in the spotlight. The Faroe Islands now receive about 100,000 visitors a year, and the nation is often included on top destination lists for its dramatic landscapes. During the summer when seabirds breed, bird lovers flock to spot puffins, guillemots, and other species that nest by the thousands on the steep cliffs. Hilton opened a hotel here in 2020, and the local airline is testing out a weekly direct route from New York. Unaware tourists might encounter a whale hunt occurring in the harbor, as those on a docked cruise ship did last summer; in that instance, most were not happy about the spectacle. Such stories, along with rather gruesome photos of the hunt itself, can be shared worldwide. The Captain Paul Watson Foundation seeks to capitalize on this.

Seizing its moment after splitting from Sea Shepherd, the Captain Paul Watson Foundation sent its first vessel—the John Paul DeJoria, registered in Jamaica and named after the cofounder of John Paul Mitchell Systems hair products—to the Faroe Islands in July 2023 to stop the whale hunts. But the Faroese government barred the ship’s entry to the archipelago via executive order. Ultimately, Watson made only two brief, albeit dramatic appearances, entering the nation’s waters once in an unsuccessful attempt to reach a grind and again 10 days later at news that someone had spotted a pod.

After the second breach, Jamaica stripped the ship’s registration at the request of the Faroese government, and the John Paul DeJoria was ported in the United Kingdom. Land crew, including Marshfield and Østrem, remained in Tórshavn to document what they could.

The final rocky and thin passage to Hvannasund reminds me of a miner’s tunnel, with jagged sides and cars scuttling through one way at a time. When we finally exit, my claustrophobia eases, and the village lies below, a smattering of colorful houses hugging the harbor, backed by a grassy slope.

We’re too late to witness the hunt itself. According to an official report, the killing started at 6:23 p.m. The hunters used their blowhole hooks—shaped like fish hooks but blunt and large—to pull the creatures ashore and hold them still. Then, they cut their spines with lances, staffs tipped by oval knives specially designed to minimize the whales’ suffering, as required by a 2015 regulation. The hunters then used traditional, wooden-sheathed knives to drain the animals’ blood into the harbor. The whole process lasted just 11 minutes. We park the car above a parking lot surrounded by police tape, where a crane pulls whale bodies from the water by their rope-tied tails.

pilot whale being lited by a crane
After the hunt, long-finned pilot whales are pulled out of the harbor by a crane for measuring and butchering. Photo by Reda Company srl/Alamy Stock Photo

It’s a fairly small pod, 44 long-finned pilot whales laid out in lines spaced a few meters apart. A dead calf is placed out of the way, in the back. Marshfield, Østrem, and the rest of the crew, a six-person mix of Sea Shepherd Global and Captain Paul Watson Foundation UK volunteers, assemble just outside the police tape with their cameras.

A few dozen people mill around the whales. Parents have brought their kids. Someone slices each whale belly, letting intestines tumble out. Someone else walks around with a clipboard and measuring stick. Tonight, Jensen will work out how the meat will be distributed to over 200 people. He’ll also file reports to the government and the Faroe Marine Research Institute. “There’s a lot of paperwork when a hunt happens,” he says.

Slowly, the crowd of residents mostly disperses, but the activists continue to snap photos. It’s still light when we leave a few hours after the evening hunt. We’re so far north, the sun doesn’t set until almost 9:30 p.m.

That night, at an Airbnb after a meal of vegan pasta, the land crews sit around a dining room table to upload photos and write captions. Their faces are painted with horror. The whales “have families and lives. They have languages,” a crew member had told me, at the grind. To be sure, many animals do.

hunters in the water with pilot whales
Entire pods may be killed during a grindadráp. Hunters use a special lance, designed to minimize suffering, to sever the whales’ spines. Photo by Eyðfinnur Olsen/Alamy Stock Photo

The Faroese hunting tradition is unlikely to reduce the pilot whale population, and one could argue that at least the whales enjoy free lives beforehand, in contrast to domestic animals that pass from factory farms to slaughterhouses. But for people who believe that humans should not kill marine mammals under any circumstance, surveys and hunting regulations will never be enough. “Our position is that the life of every whale is worth saving,” Watson says.

At 7:00 a.m. the next day, most of the activists are back in Hvannasund. Community members, some wearing fishing bibs and others carrying plastic buckets, gather by the ferry building, where the mayor of Hvannasund stands on the back of a truck and starts calling out names.

Participants receive a piece of paper with portions written on it, directing them to a whale by its number, etched into each body near the ear. Whoever spotted the pod gets the largest whale. The foremen, assistants, and sheriff all get hefty shares, too. Other portions are allocated first to those who participated in the hunt, whether at sea or on the beach. If there’s a lot to go around, community members might receive what’s remaining.

In the parking lot, two foremen cut up a whale. One is a 29-year-old naval architect. The grind is “controversial because we’re the only ones who do it,” he tells me. “[Whale is] quite sustainable, high in mercury, but tastes good.” His father taught him how to hunt and gave him the knife he wears in a sheath on his belt. “We’re raised like this,” he says. “I killed my first whale at 12.” (Now, you must be 16 to participate in the hunt and must also be certified before actually killing a whale).

Pilot whale meat
After a hunt, community members carve up their allotted shares of meat and blubber right on the dock. Photo by Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo

The millennial thinks all the negative attention and protests have galvanized locals to deepen their commitment to the tradition. Now, more people in their 20s and 30s participate, motivated by what they perceive as the denigration of their heritage.

On the outskirts of the lot, the activists still struggle with covertness. They watch and photograph from behind police lines, with dark, solemn expressions. When someone asks Østrem if he’s part of Sea Shepherd, he truthfully replies no. Of course, the foundation he works for remains committed to the aggressive tactics that Sea Shepherd is trying to leave behind.

At one point, Østrem drives high up on a nearby hill and launches a drone to film an aerial view of the site, though it’s against Faroese law to fly one so near a village without a license. Two years ago, an aggravated foreman shot down a drone, unauthorized. This time, someone politely threatens to do the same. “Not to be rude,” the person adds.

It’s the only occurrence that approaches any sort of tension. But there might be more next year. Watson plans to send “a special land crew to the Faroes with the objective of intervening,” potentially with vessels to support them. This renewed attempt at “aggressive non-violence” is unlikely to be received well on the islands. For now, though, Jensen sees no issue. “They can look and take photos,” he says, “but they can’t disturb the grind.”

In the parking lot, chilled with the sun still below the nearest green-carpeted mountain, the naval architect and his friend, a fisherman, are almost done butchering the first of two whales. The fisherman drags some squares of meat to the side. The naval architect keeps talking as he makes another slice with his knife.

“If we stop killing whales, we’ll be just like Denmark,” he asserts. He reflects a moment and makes a thoughtful addition. “Only with worse weather.”

A few days after the hunt, I attend Seaman’s Day in Klaksvík. The festival is held every August to celebrate the Faroe Islands’ fishing industry. Fishermen participate in net-mending competitions, children splash around a starfish petting zoo, and hundreds line up for free fish and chips.

Weaving through the crowds proves difficult; I’m surprised at such a massive turnout. The lines for the food stalls barely inch forward. There’s a variety of competitive games, such as stacking the largest number of milk crates. On a stage, two fishermen chop fish in a high-speed race. Behind the hustle and bustle, dozens of fishing boats rock back and forth slowly alongside a dock.

Seaman’s Day festival in Klaksvík
At a Seaman’s Day festival in Klaksvík, a traditional dance encircles a hunted long-finned pilot whale. Photo by Stock Photo

Two of the whales from the grind in Hvannasund are here at the festival. One is laid out on display, looking as fresh, somehow, as if it had just been pulled from the harbor. The other, presumably, has ended up on the paper plates that a crew of people are passing out under a tent. I don’t usually eat mammals, but I decide to try this one. Slightly apprehensive, I take a sample of whale meat and potatoes.

I expect the whale to taste like the sea it was pulled from. But really, it’s rich and earthy. The meat takes a while for me to chew. And though it’s not my typical diet, it feels natural to eat it here at Seaman’s Day. The whole festival is a celebration of the Faroese way of life. The meat was hunted by and for the community, and I am a lucky guest at their table. Around me, others jab their portion with plastic forks, enjoying the fresh catch.

It strikes me how much the surrounding waters influence the lives of those around me, from the adults milling by the fish and chips stall, to the kids weaving between legs and petting starfish in the pools. As the young grind foreman told me in Hvannasund, before returning to his butchering, “the ocean is the only thing we have.” The ocean, and the abundances it still throws to these lonely basalt slabs.