The French documentarist Vincent Kelner has made an engaging film about the controversial hunts of the pilot whales on the Faroe Islands. He joins the French crew of the Sea Shepherd, a proactive group originally formed by Paul Watson, one of the founders of Greenpeace. They head for the Faroe Islands to intervene in the annual slaughtering of the animal.
When the weather gets rough in the open sea, the pilot whales turn to the archipelago to protect their calves, which makes them prone to drive fishery, Grindadráp or Grind, as the local calls it. The hunt involves the whole community, when some take their boats and circle in the dolphins and push them towards the bay. The other half waits at the beach and catches the pilot whales with robes to pull them onto land, where a certified whaler kills them with a spine cutter.
Hunting pilot whales has been essential for survival for the last half a century, providing meat, oil, and fertilisers for the islanders. However, this is no longer necessary as the Faroe people enjoy one of the highest living standards due to the fast-growing revenues generated from their industrial fishing and salmon farms. Still, they fiercely hold on to practising the Grind, arguing that it is a part of their cultural identity.
Pilot whales, also known as blackfish, are, in fact, large oceanic dolphins. They stay in stable pods and have strong social bonds. They are intelligent mammals using a complex «language» through acoustical signalling. According to one of the activists, “they even talk about dolphins who are no longer among them, and they mourn their dead.»
When the pilot whales are stressed, they give out a «plaintive cry», which almost sound like a human pleading for mercy, and this is also how Kelner chooses to open his film. To a black screen, we hear the shrieks of the animals and the excitement of men yelling instructions to each other. Then the pictures open up with a montage of a chaotic slaughter scene. A whole pod of pilot whales lay in a bloodbath, some dead, some dying and others just looking into the camera with a despairing look in their eyes just before they are killed.
The Sea Shepherd’s mission is to physically intervene in such slaughters by blocking the local boats from circling in the dolphins. The animosity between the activists and the whalers has been high for the past 20 years. For the activists, it is about stopping the cruelty implied to a wild animal. For the Faroe people, it is about holding on to their cultural identity and ensuring free access to great meat.
According to an interview Kelner did with Cineuropa, the director was put on land because the Sea Shepherds got too busy. He was at first very apprehensive as he thought he had come to the land of barbarians. However, he quickly discovered that the locals were quite friendly and reasonable once they realised he was not a Sea Shepherd himself.
Almost by chance, Kelner achieved close access to both sides of the battlefield and made good use of it. Being his own cinematographer and sound recorder made him a non-intrusive element in the locals’ daily lives. From each camp, he portrays the most kind-hearted character so that he can set their arguments against each other later in the editing room. The result is a well-balanced film. It is hard to know on which side one should be, which makes it an excellent film for any school debate.
Should the Faroe people be allowed to continue their tradition of Grind when all other nations have banned this practice? Is it more sustainable to buy meat that has travelled half the world? Is whale hunting in any way crueller than any other slaughtering of animals?
They invited him to a traditional pilot whale meal in their homes. The meat is supposedly tastier than beef. «I feel more proud eating this than buying myself a piece of meat at the supermarket. People call this a slaughter, but they have no idea of what is happening behind the slaughterhouses. If you are not able to kill the animal, then you should not eat meat», says the sympathetic schoolteacher who becomes Kelner’s personal guide on the Islands. Kelner admits that it was during the shooting of this film that he realised it was only ethically correct to become a vegan.
The second time a pod of pilot whales bewilder themselves into the archipelago, Kelner chose to capture the scene from the villager’s point of view and avoided putting in the more drastic scenes. We follow a whole community gathering at the bay. Everyone is present, from the kids to the very old. We hear despairing dolphin cries in the background but see the excitement as men rush from one dolphin to another, killing them relatively quickly. The scene reminds me of something from an anthropologist’s book. As the sun sets, the meat is finally distributed equally among the 834 families. Thirty kilos of free meat for each. Enough meat to last at least eight months. «This is the gift of the ocean, and it is for all of us», says a young fisherman.
A local, who personally killed around 90 oceanic dolphins, recognises the impact of the Sea Shepard has brought some good. «I think the activists opened our eyes for the cruelty. They put some pressure on the Faroe Islands and some of that pressure was good.” The locals no longer use stones, spears or sharp hooks, as they did up to the 1980s, which impacted great pain and slow death. The technique has become more efficient by using a spine cutter. Although the panic the dolphins experience as they try to protect their calves when trapped is heartbreaking to witness.
The animosity between the activists and the whalers has been high for the past 20 years.
The debate is easier when the local public health officials present their recent findings. It turns out that the pilot whales are so toxic with mercury, and in some parts with DDT, that eating their meat is a direct health hazard. Studies show consuming its meat is directly linked to birth defects of the nervous system, development of Parkinson’s disease, hypertension and other diseases. The local politicians are reluctant to implement unpopular policies such as forbidding the Grid, but they highly recommend the locals not to consume its meat. Although not mentioned in the film, the pilot whales are, in fact, so toxic that it will most certainly affect their general health and reproduction capacity in the near future, which makes human-induced pollution the main threat to their existence.
Not the full picture
In the final title, Kelner gives us some staggering numbers; 200 million land animals and up to 7 billion fish are killed daily for human consumption. After reading sources such as WWF, Rethink Fish and Ecohustler, I discovered the situation is far more alarming for pilot whales than what we are presented with in A Taste of Whale.
Modern industrial fishing use equipment that harvests everything in the sea. About 40% of all catch is bycatch, which means sea creatures are immediately tossed overboard, where they die a slow and agonising death. Over 300,000 dolphins and whales entangle themselves in these gigantic fishing nets and die from suffocation or from being tossed overboard, as do a quarter million turtles and half a million seabirds yearly.
Up to 40% of all wild fish caught are turned into food pellets for salmon and trout in sea farms, making salmon farming one of the most ecologically problematic food industries we support. Besides, 20% of farm salmon die due to poor living conditions, resulting in another 10 million salmon being thrown away because of diseases and illnesses. In addition, salmon farming pollutes the surrounding sea and depletes it from life.
Considering that 90 percent of all revenues on the Faroe Islands are based on industrial fishing and salmon farming, one could have looked at how these industries endanger the existence of pilot whales, as it is the second largest threat after pollution.
An estimate by the WWF predicts that if we continue to deplete the ocean at the current rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the global oceans by the year 2050. In fact, we do not need to worry too much about the Grid hunt because it will cease to exist as the meat becomes inedible. If we wish, we could actually make a difference by simply boycotting salmon. If you want to do more, please look up Rethink Fish, WWF, and Ecohustler – A Survival Guide for the Planet.
A Taste of Whale screens as part of Ji.hlava IDFF Testimonies programme.