I was visiting my friend Rogvi in the Faroe Islands this weekend. The Faroe Islands is a colony of Denmark, a small island chain right between Norway and Iceland. It’s been inhabited by Vikings, and little else, for the last 1,000 years. Most of it looks like this:
Just after I arrived, Rogvi took me on a driving tour.
‘Where are we off to?’
‘I heard on the radio that they caught some whales in Kvivik,’ he said.
Apparently a whale hunt works like this.
- A fisherman spots a pod of whales.
- He broadcasts the location of the pod to all other fishermen in the area.
- The other fishermen rush to his location
- En masse, the fishermen use their boats to push the pod of whales closer and closer to the shore.
- Eventually, the whales simply wash themselves up on the beach
- The fisherman hop off their boats and club the whales in the head to knock them unconscious.
- The fishermen sever the whale’s spinal cord with a long knife they keep with them whenever they’re on the sea. Imagine a ninja cutting someone’s jugular, only in the back of their head instead of the front.
The entire process takes less than 10 minutes, and about 1,000 whales are killed like this every year.
Here’s what we saw when we arrived in Kvivik.
The intestines are the only part of the whale you can’t eat.
Though dolphins, humpback whales and killer whales are regularly spotted up here, Faroe Islanders only kill pilot whales. The carcasses ranged from golden retriever-sized infants to full-grown males the length of a Cadillac. One guy was hosing them down while another tried to arrange them in rows with a forklift.
Each of these hunts yields thousands of pounds of whale meat and blubber. The person who first spotted the whale has first dibs, and gets the largest share. All the fishermen who participated in the hunt are also allocated a ‘part’. After that, parts are reserved for village residents, local hospitals and old-folks homes. If there’s any left, people simply sign their name in a sort of guestbook and are also given a share.
A hunt like this can yield 500 parts, each consisting of about 100 pounds of meat. People eat it year-round, and some ends up in restaurants.
As Rogvi put it, anyone who eats meat isn’t allowed to be sickened or disturbed by this. Many of the industrial processes between ‘cow’ and ‘hamburger’ are significantly less edifying than these pictures. Humans eat meat. Meat comes from animals. This is just what that process looks like.
Rogvi also pointed out that, for about 1,000 years, whales provided one of the only sources of food for Faroe Islanders. Only about 2 percent of the islands are suitable for agriculture, and meat from fish and whales—raw, dried, smoked or boiled—was literally the only food available.
I’m definitely not convinced on the latter point. We don’t own slaves in 2010 just because, hey, for a few hundred years there, it was the only agricultural labour available. The repugnance of human activity is not related to its longevity.
But there’s something to the former. I don’t know if I found the experience of seeing all those whales uncomfortable because I think whales are closer to humans on the sentience-spectrum than cows, or simply because I’ve never been that close to a bunch of large, freshly killed animals before. Either way, it’s hard to stand within smell-distance of the consequences your consumption behavior and not feel compelled to defend it.