by Sarah Thomas
A saloon car pulls up beside us and its spotless body perfectly reflects our anoraked forms. A greying man with a youthful smile hops out.
“You can get in if you don’t have whale blood on your shoes,” he asserts warmly.
It is a fair request. His car is much smarter than one I’d expect to pick up a hitchhiker – especially three hitchhikers, with luggage. But this is the Faroe Islands and it has already been a day of surprises.
He shifts some boxes from the back seat into the boot.
“All three of us?”
“Ja ja, get in.”
It is an early June evening and the sun is showing no sign of descent. I am in the village of Miðvágar on the western island of Vágar, attempting to reach the capital Tórshavn. I am laden with a backpack, and flanked by a Polish couple I met last night in a spartan and gloomy hostel during a cataclysmic rain storm. How our fortunes have changed in the past twenty four hours.
We were the only guests. Unusually, an international gymnastics competition had filled the limited accommodation in Tórshavn and I found myself in the out-of-town barracks out of necessity. Last night, as the fog licked the mountains and the rain nailed at the windows, we had all wandered what we were doing there.
This morning at breakfast our question was answered. Gazing out at the grey-white threshold of sea and sky a flotilla of small fishing boats moved at speed across the bay. Jakob the Pole noticed it first and began clicking his camera on rapid fire. He leant over to me and zoomed in on the LCD. I looked more closely and saw that the boats were chasing a cluster of dark fins. “It’s… a whale hunt!” I exclaimed, my emotions an unreconcilable commingling of excitement and guilt.
We quickly gathered our things and strode to the harbour through the drizzling fringes of last night’s storm. The salt smell of shoreline danced in my nostrils with the newly unleashed richness of damp soil, and something else quite new to my senses. We could see from some distance that the water in the bay was steeped an opaque coral red. The kill had been quick. The whale pod had been driven by that flotilla of boats from the open sea into this, the nearest bay. Perhaps two hundred men were waist deep in seawater and blood, heaving their roped bounty to the towboats. They were wearing only trousers and woollen jumpers, as if they had dropped whatever they were doing and waded straight in. A few hundred villagers lined the shore, their delight tangible. It had been fifteen years since the last hunt on this island, they told me.
Some onlookers, looking wary, asked if we were from Greenpeace. I responded in Icelandic which seemed to eradicate their need for further questioning. An unspoken brotherhood emerged in the place of fear. “Many people judge us for this,” one older woman said.
“Hi Sarah!” A voice came from behind me.
I turned, surprised that anyone here should know my name. It was Andreas, the man from the airport tourist information. I had spent more than an hour picking his brains when I had landed, whilst I decided in which direction to travel first. Tourism is still embryonic here, the airport no more than a small former British Army air base. I had asked about luggage storage. There was none, so he had let me keep a bag in his office for a few days.
“We will all get a lot of meat in our freezers from this, so everyone is very happy,” he said, smiling shyly.
The day was waking up and the news was spreading. More onlookers arrived. I noticed the hunters, still wet, lining up at the window of a police car.
“What are they doing?” I asked Andreas.
“Each hunter has to give his name to the police so they can calculate the share of the meat due to him. The people who spotted the whales get one whale plus their share, the hunters and the boat owners who helped get a larger share than the villagers. The rest is shared equally among the community of the village, and then the island. There might even be enough this time to share it with the islands beyond!”
I was glad to have a perspective on this scene from a villager; one who had, as many Faroese do, lived and studied abroad but not resisted the umbilical tug back to his homeland and his traditions.
“They’re going to spend the next few hours getting the whales up to the pier and calculating the shares. A good time to go for a walk if you feel like it. It’s not raining now. You can leave your backpacks at my house if you want,” he continued. “It’s just up that hill”.
This personal relationship and lack of protocol resonated. It reminded me of Iceland when I first started going there nine years ago. That was before Iceland entered its touristic zeitgeist, and the sheer number of visitors made personal gestures to outsiders less tenable, even though outsiders had been sold the ideas of ‘friendly locals’ and ‘unspoilt landscapes’. The powers that be in the Faroes want to follow Iceland’s lead and I wondered how they would fare. For years the Faroese have been under international pressure to cease this whaling tradition, left aghast that their critics are nations who engage in industrial farming. Tourism puts Faroese values under increased scrutiny.
But the whale hunt is a tradition that may have to cease for other alarming reasons, for which we are all responsible – least of all the Faroese, who have lived in close connection with their environment for centuries. The pilot whales that they hunt are not endangered, but they are now toxic. These ‘pristine’ seas now swim with pollutants which accumulate up the food chain and torture sea life from the inside. Seabirds are dying en masse, their food supplies dwindling and their insides a tangle of plastic. The whales’ bodies have accumulated dangerous levels of mercury and PCBs, which is passed on to those that eat their meat and blubber. This can cause developmental problems in children, cancers and a host of other illnesses, the connections of which we are only beginning to understand.
We returned some hours later to wonder with the villagers among the ranks of black rubbery bodies lined up along the pier, straight and stiffening, their fluid motion forever suspended. One hundred and fifty four pilot whales, most the length of a bus. Five young ones perhaps three metres long. Their bodies flanked the pier and the harbour front, whale after whale after whale. Pink and grey innards spilled onto the concrete from square cuts in their bellies the size of a mini-fridge door, the membraneous tangled mass like a metaphor for this toxic truth revealed. Each whale had a number and its volume incised into the blubber. 124, 123, 122. We walked the length of this upside down world from the end to the beginning: the subaquatic brought onto land, the swimming stilled, the inside pulled out. Thick dark blood pooled beneath them, coagulating with the day’s progress. I touched number 87. It had the properties of skin, an inflated dingy and a sandbag all at once, my fingers leaving a gentle impression where I had pressed. Around the burnished curves of the entrance to its mouth was a constellation of rings, each formed of dots of a lighter coloured grey. It was as delicate as a hand-applied pattern on raku-fired porcelain. A lady in orange rubber dungarees looked official holding a clipboard. I asked her what caused the marks.
“These whales love squid,” she said fondly. “It’s the marks left by the squid’s suckers as they struggle to escape death.”
59, 58, 57. Around the corner, along the long harbour front. Villagers posed for photos next to the bodies, beaming with pride and co-existence with the whales, despite the unfortunate fact that one was dead and the other was not.
6,5,4. Together, we rounded the last corner into a courtyard lined with baiting sheds. A woman washed blood from her hands in a small waterfall tumbling against a cliff. A young boy stood on a fluke as his father cut out the teeth with a saw.
Seeing our curiosity, the father proudly informed us how well regulated this practice is. How the police only give the go ahead for the hunt to proceed if sufficient time has passed since the last one – if it’s felt that the meat is needed. How those who kill must be qualified in humane slaughter and must use the correct tools. How the police calculate how the catch will be divided. How each whale is documented, and has been since the sixteenth century.
He pulled out the detached block of jaw and teeth.
“It’s like tree rings,” he explained. “You can see their age from the teeth, and from the ovaries how many young they’ve had.”
I stepped closer to look at them, blood pooling on the ground beside my boots.
“Everyone in the village gets a share,” the woman added, wandering over to join us “whether they are ninety or newborn.”
A sheepdog circled another specimen as its owner wheeled a barrow filled with knives and beer, ready to cut out his share and celebrate, when the police declared what it would be.
* * *
We all squeeze into the back seat. In the front, there is a passenger already. The car is as full as it can be.
The driver grins in the rear view mirror, pulling away. “I’m Marni and this is Jeff. You are very lucky to see this hunt.”
“I know,” I reply, wondering if there is a more appropriate word than ‘luck’.
“Jeff here is a top chef from London, who thinks he knows everything, and I’m here to show him that he doesn’t.” Marni gestures at his companion who turns to greet us.
Jeff is full bellied with a dark sculpted beard and from his accent, clearly hails from New Zealand.
“Yeah I can’t believe what I’ve eaten in the past 24 hours…guillemot eggs, gannet chicks. And now we’ll be trying the whale.”
Marni has evidently seized the opportunity to impress his client and driven here to partake of this most Faroese of food events.
“Well, we have to run an errand on the way to Tórshavn. I can drop you at the bridge or you can come with us,” Marni offers.
We hitchhikers are united in our curiosity: “We’ll come with you.”
“You are open and curious. In the Faroes this is a good thing!” he enthuses.
We pull up to an unmarked warehouse on the seafront. Following them inside through a large fringe of rubber it becomes clear that this is Marni’s empire. A system of plastic tanks of gently flowing seawater house an ecology of creatures. Aubergine coloured sea cucumbers stand erect and swaying gently in the current. Mint green and pink sea urchins perch brittle and unwelcoming. The brown whorls of sea snails lurk amongst dancing dulse.
“Marni,” says Jeff, “supplies me with the best and freshest seafood I’ve ever known.”
A white coated teenage boy appears to be the only employee in this bizarre laboratory. Marni issues a brief instruction. The boy returns with several polystyrene boxes. Marni opens one which is partitioned inside and starts filling it with living langoustines.
“Tonight Jeff will be experimenting,” Marni smiles. “Will you be joining us for dinner? We’ll start with the whale.”
Sarah Thomas is a non-fiction writer. She is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Glasgow University exploring themes of resilience and dwelling through memoir, based on a period spent living in remote northwest Iceland. There she became part of an Icelandic sheep farming family, the financial crisis hit, a volcano erupted, the Greenland ice sheet experienced unprecedented melt and Iceland came to the world’s attention: the local became global and the global came home. With a background in anthropology and documentary film, her work finds connections between the visible and the invisible, rendering big stories at a human scale. In 2013 she was selected by author RobertMacfarlane as Penguin Books’ Wayfarer – a mobile writer-in- residence, walking across Britain guided only by what and who she met on the way. She has been published in Earthlines, Dark Mountain Journal, Caught By The River, An Antidote to Indifference, Zoomorphic and Driftfish.