Faroe Islands: Message from the Sea

SYNOPSIS & VIDEO The Faroe Islands - Message from the Sea

The Faroe Islands - Whale Hunt

A few hundred miles southeast of Iceland, 50,000 descendants of Vikings live on a string of craggy islands called the Faroes. For more than 1,000 years, the people here have hunted pilot whales, and whale meat continues to be an important part of their diet. But when pictures of whale hunts first appeared in the media during the 1980s, many from the outside world were shocked and animal rights activists mounted an anti-whaling campaign. The protests eventually abated, partly because the Faroese are not involved in commercial whaling. Yet, the islanders now face a new threat to their way of life: A landmark 20-year study of Faroese children has found that high levels of methyl mercury and other contaminants in the whale meat are harmful to a child’s neurological development. FRONTLINE/World reporter Serene Fang explores how the study’s findings have rubbed against deeply held traditions in this beautiful and remote part of the world.

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Svend Heinesen
Copenhagen, Denmark

Thank you very much for this film. I thought it was a welcome break from the accusations we usually find ourself the center of. Finally a non-Faroese effort to look objectively at what the whale tradition is to the Faroese.
All the best,
Svend, a Faroese in Denmark

Dean Stelmach
Oakland Park, FL

Did anyone posting here watch the video beyond the whale hunt? The issue here is MERCURY.

I spent several months getting to know a woman from the Faroe Islands and learning their culture. I met some of her visiting relatives. Asking the Faroese to quit killing and eating whale is as preposterous as telling the Seminoles to quit killing and eating alligators. How much farmable land did you see in the report?

The smug ethnocentric judgements on their diet is a dumb distraction from the real danger from mercury poisoning. Does anyone think that it's OK for the whales to be full of mercury as long as no one kills them for food?

Before the mercury contamination doctors from all over the world studied the Faroese and found them to be unusually healthy with the best teeth anywhere. The diet couldn't be that bad.

Joseph Young
Houston, TX

I'm extremely disappointed with the reactions from other viewers. The goal of this piece was not to question whether hunting whale was ethical. We were shown that a very important part of Faroese culture is threatened due to pollution of the ocean by others thousands of miles away. I find it disgusting that many feel that this contamination is merely a serendipitous means to ending the whale hunt.

faroese faroeman

You large nations can just keep dumping chemicals into the ocean, and no one can eat anything from the ocean at all.

Is it better to pollute whales and make their lives horrible, than give them a quick death?

No matter if humans kill animals or not, there will always be a natural balance, that will make them die from something else (like die from hunger, or eaten by other animals).

Irvine, CA

What is happening is not worse than what happenns in US slaughter houses. If many Americans actually see how beef, pork and chicken are prepared before the meat get to the supermarket, less than 5% of US population will ever eat meat again. It is barbarous and inhuman, and it does not have to be so. At least these Faroe Islanders, hunt and share among themselves. In the US, the rich own the farms and slaughter houses, and the poor work to buy the dirty meat as food. Who is kidding who?

All cultures of this world are going to have to give up certain cultural practices in order to create sustainability. I would not question the hunts if they used their historic row boats and spears. The pacific Native Americans also hunt from culture...one whale a year! Soon all peoples are going to realize the cost of eating any animal is too much for our modern population numbers and ecosystems.

Mike smith
Montreal, Quebec

Something feels innately wrong about killing sea mammals. However, I understand the cultural implications of the 'whale hunt' to people of the Faroes. This is a difficult subject for me to remain unbiased about, so Great Journalism! I really liked the piece.

David Mumford
Glasgow, Scotland

It's nice to see that the decendants of the Barbaric Vikings are continuing to cull the innocents. The ancestors of these modern day
Killers used to rape and pillage the weakest areas of my country and cull
the population in a murderous frenzy. Those of Danish ancestry are proud of
their heritage of Babarism and I suppose feel strong because of it. But listen you people of the Faroe Islands, this is the 21st century, don't any of you think that we should be past doing these things of Medievil origin. So Please,Please,Please stop this Murder of a highly intellegent species and
truly become a fellow European of whom we can be proud of.

I am repeating that Japanese killing whales, dolphins as a ritual or more cultural is total BS. Danes, you are as insane as them and
to me these human traditions should be brutally slaughtered as the animals
were. If it means going and reducing those places to rubbles, than so be it.

Just like Taiji Harbor in Japan, Faroe islands needs some face uplift for their dolphin killings. Are there any airforce personnel willing to fly on this mission? Just make sure that these places will never be able to continue with the barbaric traditions. We will make sure all innocent are rescued
before your flights.

Singapore, Sunny Island

The key thing is educating the folks. You can't really change culture overnight unless there's law in place.


The difference between slaughtering these whales and slaughtering cattle, chickens, fish etc is that animals are bred and farmed for the purpose of slaughter.

These whales are in the wild. Thats like chopping down rain forests and not replanting new trees! Also .. who do these whales belong to??? The cattle and chicken etc. we eat are farmed by us. But the people of the Faroes are taking the worlds whales for themselves. Slaughtering whales for food does not bother me. But if its more about the 'sport' or tradition then I think it's wrong. Tradition or culture does not give certain places more rights than others.

What if we all decided to hunt whale like this? Who is monitoring numbers? Farm your whales the way the rest of the world farm their food!!!! On a completely different note, obviously I think the rest of the world should take responsibility for their own pollution. This is clearly a complicated and sensitive topic and I am merely expressing my opinion. Very interesting documentary. Oh, one more thing .. In the rest of the world we don't all get together in a sport like fashion and cull hundreds of cattle etc. It is not a social practice which is probably why so many people think this is so shocking; the enjoyment of killing these animals. We prefer to turn our heads the other way instead of enjoying and participating in a bloody massacre. We accept that we need to eat and we do so in a modest and respectful way. We don't fill a room with animals and release the whole village on them for kicks.

I am surprised. No, astonished. Didn't you see that movie or what?! Tradition or not, open-air butcher festival is beyond my mind. I mean I knew about Taiji, but this made me - as a European - just ashamed of my neighbours.

K Harry
Toronto, Ontario

This is barbaric to the rest of the world, but this is the Faroese' people way of life for centuries. My concern is because of the rest of the world's polluting ways, we cannot allow the Faroese people to disappear due to Mercury Poisoning. They have got to reduce the consumption of these whales; and the rest of the world have to stop polluting our environment; especially those developed countries (In North America, lots of Mineral Mines-use Mercury in their operation, and a tailgate for the mercury, into nearby lakes)

Jackie Delaney

Our species has absolutely no right to inflict pain and suffering on other animals. Excusing barbaric practices on the grounds that they are part of one's culture is absurd. Burning women alive, stoning women to death, beheadings, clitorendectomies and child marriage are all part of cultural practice in many countries. Should these crimes be excused as part of a culture? Of course not.


To continue this type of ancestral tradition with high-speed and modern motor boats does not leave these pilot whales with any chance. If Man does not respect Nature the day will come when these animals are gone and we will have nothing more to do but cry.

Diane M
Brainard, Minnesota

I think it is great they are hunting for their own food. It is no worse than the deer hanging on a pole gutted and ready to be skinned and cut up for our winter meat supply (our deer hunting party does well here in the northern Minnesota forests). We do not do it with spears and ancient bows and arrows either. We all get involved in the cutting and packaging of the meat and share with less fortunate families. I am a viking descendant also and it is fun to see that some of us still talk and live in some ways like our ancestors.

Vaughn Skaggs
middleburg, VA

How was the whale hunt conducted a 1000 years ago? I bet they didn't use boats with diesel engines. If it is really about the tradition then maybe more care could be taken to perform the hunt in the way their ancestors did.

New Zealand

I traveled to the Faroe Islands on exchange for a year, and was lucky enough to see a whaling. Yes, the people enjoy the whalings, because they are a vital part of tradition and culture for them and will continue to be.The whales will never be hunted into extinction. The pilot whales are actually overpopulated around the islands and eat the fish stocks which provide the main source of industry and income for the people in the Faroe Islands. Also, the whale hunting, or grindadrap as it is called in Faroese, occurs only when herds of whales come near the islands. Some years it will happen five or six times, and some years there will be no whale caught.
The killing of whales is incredibly humane, and much more so than harpooning ever was, and no profit is made from the meat, which is divided equally (by the police) between the attendees to the whaling and the population of the town in which it occurred.
For the record, I come from New Zealand, one of the most anti-whaling countries in the world, and I was able to not only understand, but enjoy the tradition. Indeed, it was the most culturally rich experience I have ever had, and given the chance, I'd do it again a hundred times over.
(Whale, by the way, is delicious.)

walnut creek, CA

In the first half of this piece, not a single mention/insight/comparison of the destruction done by the average Asian fishing trawler...far away from any territorial claims?

Seems an obvious sensationalistic hook for the mercury angle.

It's not inhumane killing those whales... at least slaughterers kill their cattle much worse.

Portland, OR
I want to thank all the people who looked past the whale hunting mentioned in this video. As some people previous to me mentioned: This clip was about MERCURY, and the effect it has on CHILDREN, not the ethics of whale hunting. Come on people!!!!!

I noticed one post asked whether the Faroese couldn't just "go to their supermarkets and buy chicken" then mentioned how cattle is raised commercially. Other posts asked if the Faroese couldn't just give up whale meat. Could Americans give up beef? Have any of these critics seen where their chicken and beef comes from? Have you seen the feed lots in this country, where cattle are packed so tightly together in their own filth that they cannot even sit down? Have you not heard of how cattle have their skulls bashed in after being electrically shocked? Have you not read about how chickens are crammed into cages one on top of the other unable to stand, just so more meat can be packed into those plastic wrapped containers in your supermarket?

I do not like seeing any animal suffer, but at least the whales have had long free lives and relatively quick deaths. They aren't cruelly raised in small tanks for mass consumption. Perhaps Frontline should do an expos on American feed lots and chicken farming. The slaughter of the pilot whales in the Faroe Islands is not in excess-- I really appreciate how the meat is shared. The rise in pollutants (the true point of the story) is indeed alarming. The thought that we in the rest of the world, are poisoning people we'll never meet is disturbing, and I'm sure the Faroese aren't the only ones affected.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Thank you for your comments. Frontline did explore some of the serious probelms you mention in a documentary called "Modern Meat".

Roskilde, Denmark
Why should the Faroe Islands stop whaling if the US slaughter houses slit poor cows and pigs throats. Until the US gives up its in-humane slaughter house the Faroes don't have to give up whaling.

Your programs are so interesting, chronicling real life events. People who care about what is happening on this planet will be informed by watching your programs. Thank you for intelligent programing.

Reading the title to this video I thought that it was going to be about some kind of treasure hunt or a long lost clue that helped discover something great, instead I had to watch the massacre of one hundred and thirty whales. I think that the people of this island are horrible and need to forget about their old and harmful cultural ideas. They need to become part of this century. I understand that they are proud to have kept a tradition dating back thousands of years, but the changing views of the world have labeled them as barbaric. They need to stop killing the whales before somebody makes them stop. As for the mercury levels affecting child development, I believe that that is just another reason swaying the people of the island to stop eating whale meat. Perhaps the Faroe Islands will not kill as many whales or stop all together because of this new development.

Dallas, Texas

Watching this video, I was surprisingly not as disturbed as I anticipated to be. Although the killing of these whales was inhumane, I feel that people must do what they can to survive. I don't understand how people can so strongly disagree with the killing of these whales, seeing as how we eat chicken, cow, lamb, duck etc. and they are all killed specifically for the grocery store. Killing whales for food is completely different than killing an animal for its fur, or for its tusks. The Faroese will continue to eat whale and continue their tradition, so I will continue to support them in their way of life.

R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.
Olney, MD

There are some serious untruths involved in the Frontline treatment of mercury "pollution". Aqueous mercury sources are common among volcanoes, eroding granite, and oceanic thermal vents environments, and concentrates as methyl mercury, a toxin, in high chain predator sea creatures. It is found in sea harvests from Iceland, Hawaii, the South Pacific, and many waters none of which are highly industrial environs. The Seychelles study fundamentally contradicts the Faroe study in that no detrimental effects were discovered with massive long-term intake of mercury. (See: http://whyfiles.org/201mercury/3.html)

Moreover, for two centuries dentists have used almost pure mercury to make permanent fillings, for hundreds of millions of patients, with no known detrimental effects. People with "silver" fillings have orders of magnitude (500 X) more mercury in their bodies than EPA limits for water ingestion. (See http://www.cfsn.com/dental.html)

The level of science on this "Pollutant" is very poor. Until basic correlations can withstand technical scrutiny, common sense, it is simply ignorant fear mongering to link a naturally occurring trace metal with health issues related to an ancient human activity, fishing. Journalists are not far from witch doctors. Both make a living, reporting on the boogeyman.

Bakersfield, Calif

Well done. This is part of their culture,it is for them to decide if change is needed.

I am with Cohen on this one. If this is a huge part of the Faroese culture, then why not do it as your ancestors did? And more upsetting to me was the fact that everyone seemed to enjoy the slaughter of these sentient, intelligent creatures, children included. If an animal gives its life to keep you alive, should you not at least show a little RESPECT for the dead/dying creature?

Peter Eves
Pago Pago, American Samoa

The video was very interesting. Learning traditional practices that still continue, yet we have to adapt to what we deal with everyday. New regulations and new sicknesses. [Allowing] chasing [of the whales] could be an outlet for traditional practice but killing, may be stopped, if possible.

hamza slaoui
nanaimo, canada, british colombia

Shame on you! Do you have a heart at least??

Dave Kubiak
Kodiak, Alaska

I have been recently to the Faroes and met the people. I have read the IWC reports on Faroese whaling and they take such a minute number of pilot whales that according to the IWC, it is insignificant. So the important issue is not the whales they take but the pollution destroying the viability of the sea.

san diego, ca

It is important to see how this culture affirms the bond it has had for a millenia. The Faroese truly care about their community and the people in it. True, the tradition will have to move into a symbolic festival, rather than a ritual mass slaughter, either out of regulation, respect for sustainable life or by a shameful extinction. I hope the doctor's warning is heeded. The health concerns at present (human and marine life) should outwiegh the provisional concerns of the past.

Sara L.
Austin, Texas

I enjoyed listening to the musicians you featured on the Web site. I'd say hearing them live would be worth a trip to the Faroe Islands!

san diego, ca

This has to be one of the worst things i've ever seen. I am heartbroken to think that people still do these kinds of things.

d car
norrisstown, pa.

I think the people should look for another source of food.

Mike Smith
Montreal, Quebec

I think it's important to mention that cultural practices, that were adopted what feels like eons ago, should not be allowed to continue if they involve the slaughter of animals. Especially whales and marine mammals.

Cambridge, MA

I was very disturbed by the sight of so many high-speed boats herding up whales. If this is tradition then why the fast boats? I know that whales are very intelligent creatures that must have been terrified during this hunt!

Damascus, Oregon
I was finally able to view the video about the Faroe Islands, and I think it was done very well.The photography was beautiful and the story was very humane and interesting.
Thank you. Sincerely, Rakul

Damascus, Oregon
I am from the Faroe Islands; and I was looking forward to seeing your video on the Faroe Islands, since I missed the program on OPB, but I have been unable to get it run, even though I have tried everal times. Would it be possible for you to send the video clip to me? I would really appreciate it.
Thank you.



FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
The video has not been posted yet, but will be soon. Try again and it should play just fine.

New York, NY

Just because they have been eating whale for centuries doesn't justify the brutality of the whole thing. Aren't they an advanced society now? Can they go to their supermarkets and buy chicken? Many cultures used to eat any and all sorts of wild game until many were hunted to extinction. Should this be allowed to continue? Cattle is raised commercially. These people jump into their high-tech speedboats and herd the whales to share and slaughter them. Why don't they go out whale hunting in the traditional sea-vessels that their ancestors have always used? Talk about getting something for nothing.

Anonymous Anonymous
Staten Island, New York

I am a school psychologist and the learning disabilities described in this report are remarkably similar to what I have been seeing with increasing frequency in special ed preschoolers in Staten Island. That is, delayed language and social skills, short attention span and hyperactivity.

Mr. Leslie Spaiser
Concord, CA

Although I am against all commercial whale hunting seeing the hunt on the Faroe Islands did not disturb me. For one thing I eat meat, and somebody had the bloody job of killing the cattle. In this land people have survived by eating whales for a thousand years. I don't feel the small impact of these native people eating whales is of any significance to that particular whale population. However I am sorry for them because we, in the "advanced world" have poisoned their food source not only in the oceans but in streams and lakes across America and the world. Mercury in fresh top predator fish is now a local concern in many places in America. This is the real tragedy, not the killing of several hundreds of whales by a small indigenouspopulation.

Coram, New York
Alone in my kitchen, clearing away after the evening meal I settled in on Frontline and was profoundly struck by the nature of the programing being presented...particularly the story on the Faroese. Though, up until that moment i knew nothing of them, I recognized them as descendents of Vikings and was amazed and overjoyed that such people still exist... thank you.


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