An Island Ecology

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?” we chime.

“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 wondered 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.

boat-mountain
Image by Sarah Thomas

We quickly gathered our things and strode to the harbour through the drizzling fringes of last night’s storm, ready for whatever the day might hold. 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 pod had been driven by that flotilla of boats from the open sea into 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 in the archipelago of eighteen islands that make up the Faroes, 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 the man from tourist information. I had spent more than an hour picking his brains when I had landed at the airport, whilst I decided in which direction to travel first. Tourism is still embryonic, 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 chest freezers from this, so everyone is very happy,” he smiled 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 him.

“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 participating boat owners get a larger share than the villagers, and 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!”

rows
Image by Sarah Thomas

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, so it’s 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 graciously. “It’s just up that hill”.

I loved this personal relationship and lack of protocol. We stood there as humans finding ways to meet needs, which can happen when communities remain small, when ecologies and economies remain aware of their connectedness, and the currency is trust and common sense. It reminded me of Iceland when I had first started going there eight years ago, before it became a touristic zeitgeist and the sheer number of visitors made the opportunity for personal gestures to outsiders less tenable, though they were coming exactly for the ‘friendly locals’ and ‘unspoilt landscape’. The powers that be in the Faroes wished to follow Iceland’s lead and I wondered how they would fare. For years the Faroese have been under immense international pressure to cease this whaling tradition, left aghast that their critics are nations who engage in industrial farming. A push for tourism puts it under increased scrutiny.

But it 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. Our modern disconnected lives have made these ‘pristine’ seas swim with pollutants which accumulate up the food chain and torture 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. But emotions are more persuasive than facts, and a worldview cannot change overnight.

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. Each had a number and its volume carved 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. Pink innards spilled out onto the concrete, glistening. This inversion was a stark rupture in the whales’ smooth dark surface, an unintended metaphor for this toxic truth revealed. 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. I asked a lady in orange rubber dungarees, who looked official holding a clipboard, what caused these marks.

“These whales love squid,” she smiled. “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 next to the bodies, while their companions took photos on their iPads. They did not appear to assume the pose of domination, I noticed, but of co-existence and pride, despite the unfortunate fact that one was dead and the other was not.

6,5,4. 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.

cutting-teeth
Image by Sarah Thomas

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 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, wondering 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 had evidently seized the opportunity to impress his client and driven here to partake of the 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 sings.

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.”

Frustrated with the closure of the ferry route between the UK and Iceland in 2008, in 2015 Sarah Thomas attempted to join the dots between her home in Cumbria and her former home in Iceland only by land and sea via Scotland and the Faroe Islands, and failed. This event happened during that journey.

 

Sarah Thomas is a non-fiction writer currently working on a memoir about a period she spent living in remote northwest Iceland. She is particularly interested in how we engender an active and reciprocal relationship with place. She is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Glasgow.

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