Each summer, over 1,000 long-finned pilot whales are corralled by men in boats and forced into shallow bays in the Faroe Islands (the Danish islands mid-way between the Shetland Islands and Iceland.) During these “drive hunts” or "grinds," boats chase these animals (which are on par with great apes and humans in their mental and emotional capacities for pain and suffering) to shore, where the disoriented creatures are easily gored with metal gaffs.
Pilot whales form some of the most cohesive social groups in nature and have highly sophisticated communication methods. Groups, known as pods, sometimes contain hundreds of individuals consisting of a single extended family, and tend to stay together throughout their lives. Females don’t breed until they are 7 to 10 years old. They can live for over 60 years and some suckle their calves for over a decade.
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Interpersonal bonds are so strong that pilot whales won’t abandon each other even in situations of mortal danger. According to Phillip Clapham, who directs a whale research program in the US, “If one or two animals get sick and into trouble, the group will tend to band together and get in trouble as a group.” Pilot whales are around 20-25 feet long and weigh up to five tons. Like other toothed whales they have highly developed nervous systems and experience pain and fear like other mammals. Even stranded pilot whales have been shown to suffer severely, so the pain and terror of animals that are butchered alive doesn’t bear thinking about.
The bloodbath begins as soon as the animals reach the shallows. Wielding spears and hooks, islanders wade toward the thrashing, terrified animals en masse. Young and old alike slam heavy metal crowbar-like hooks, called gaffs, into the helpless whales’ bodies - often into the ultra-sensitive blowhole.
Waters turn a brilliant red by the time killers sink a 6-inch blade past their blubber and flesh to sever the animals spinal cord. Finally, vital blood vessels are cut, leaving the bays littered with mangled animals. Unbelievably, these drives are festive community events and are conducted under the guise of “Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling.” Even children are encouraged to take part in this gruesome spectacle and are given a day off school, so they don’t have to miss out on the ‘fun.’
While commercial whaling is banned and the whale meat is not sold commercially in the Faroe Islands, you can find it in their restaurants. With over 50,000 people inhabiting 18 islands, each person receives approximately 22 pounds of whale meat each year, whether they need it or not. Their major export (not import) is fish – so it is obvious that this cannot be considered “subsistence” or for aboriginals. In addition, their own Health Authority warns against the consumption of pilot whale meat because it is polluted with mercury, cadmium, DDT and PCBs. Not surprisingly, demand for the meat has dropped and tragically much of it is dumped and left to rot.
The Faroe Islands are a protectorate of Denmark, which is part of the European Union. The islands have their own government and regulations governing the pilot whale hunt. Similar hunts used to exist in the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney. However, they were rightfully abandoned decades ago and are now illegal in other European countries.