The Faroe Islands unstitched me in so many ways. Not since my two months through Newfoundland and Labrador have I been so enchanted by the unique culture of a destination. Just gob smacking beauty at every remote turn. Hardly any COVID restrictions because there are hardly any COVID cases. Hardly any COVID cases because there are hardly any people. Hardly any traffic because there are hardly any towns. Hardly any roads because there are hardly any cars. While Iceland was a bucket list item left over from many years of making wish lists, the Faroe Islands was like discovering your favorite Danish pastry you had been waiting to savor had chocolate inside!
I struggle to put into words how much I fell in love with this place. It was quirky, simple, stunningly beautiful, rugged, wild, and a little bit edgy. It’s tough to peg. Traveling to the small hamlets felt so isolating and remote, yet I was never much more than a couple of hours from anything I needed in the capitol city. It felt like a step back in time, yet I was never without a cell signal, and no-contact credit card was widely used. Roads were narrow one-lane paths, yet the Faroe Islands has one of the most advanced tunnel systems in Europe. I am reminded of the old joke about the Fugawi tribe, who when lost in the tall grass would ask “Where the Fugawi??” I asked myself that question every single day in the Faroe Islands. It just didn’t seem real.
The Faroe Islands are an archipelago of 18 islands in the North Atlantic Ocean about halfway between Norway and Scotland. The 540 sq miles of the island group is situated about 460 km (285 mi) east-southeast of Iceland, a short flight or in my case, a 20 hour overnight ferry ride. While the islands are self-governing as an autonomous territory, the island group belongs to the Kingdom of Denmark. However they maintain their autonomy which allows them to operate and maintain treaties and trade agreements outside of the European Union.
Once I discovered there was a ferry from Iceland, I was compelled to keep going on toward Denmark. However, the Smyril Line Ferry makes a stop in Torshavn, the capital city of the Faroe Islands. The ferry schedule is such that it is possible to disembark and spend a week touring the islands, then re-board the same ship the following week, continuing on to Denmark.
I have much I want to share about this remarkable place, but first, I feel the need to address the ugly elephant in the room. I had moved on to the mainland, still basking in the afterglow of my week on what felt like “Fantasy Island,” when news began to spread about the Faroese latest event of “grindadráp,” their controversial whale hunting tradition. During this hunt, a pod of pilot whales will be surrounded by a group of privately owned boats.
Once the pod is corralled into the cove in shallow waters, they are killed using a spinal lance to sever the spinal column. The meat and blubber are then distributed among the community. On average, 800 pilot whales are killed annually out of an estimated population of 128,000 pilot whales in the area, a rate for non-endangered species that is considered “sustainable” by Faroese government standards.
I knew about this highly controversial local custom of the Faroese before I made the decision to visit, however it was on a much smaller scale. I stumbled across it while doing research, finding posts made by the group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society out of Seattle, an organization similar to Green Peace in their attempts to stop this ancient Faroese tradition. But seeing as how it is a cultural event that has been documented as far back as 1534, and considered to be a vital food source for the islands, I figured who am I to judge?
I figure as long as I am still carving my steak off the T-bone, or gnawing the meat off a roast turkey leg, I have no right to judge how another country gets its food source. They also eat sea birds, including puffins. This is equally offensive to me. I wince at the thought of hunting practices, yet how are they any worse than that slab of salmon that comes on a Styrofoam tray? Does wrapping it in plain brown butcher paper make it okay?
But then on September 21st, reports of the latest “grind” spread across the international news that a “super-pod” had been killed. Not only was it one of the largest hunts in recent history, it wasn’t pilot whales this time, but rather white-sided dolphins. Despite the article stating “The drives are regulated by laws and the meat and blubber are shared on a community basis,” it was impossible to get past the images of that many dolphins lying side by side, slaughtered on the beach of a cove turned red from the spilled blood. I had three different friends send me the link to the article asking “Did you hear about this?” I felt sickened by the news. But I also felt as if I needed to defend my decision for visiting a place with such a barbaric custom.
But I had a different perspective after having spent a week in the Faroe Islands. Were it not for the jar of peanut butter and crackers in my carry-on, I would have gone to bed hungry on more than one occasion. Once you leave the capital city of Torshavn with its supermarkets filled with imported goods, there just aren’t many markets and even fewer restaurants. In the more remote villages, you can’t even find gas station food. Not so much as a coffee shop. I’ll never forget encountering the Bonus Supermarket after a couple of days with no access to provisions. I had to laugh at myself as I ravaged the aisles like it was the first supermarket I had seen in weeks.
Due to the rugged nature of the Faroe Islands, only 2% of their land is viable for cultivation. I saw a few turnips and rutabagas being grown in gardens, but that was it. They grow “farm raised” Faroe Islands salmon in offshore pens, but that is shrouded by its own controversy, as being reported as inhumane treatment of the salmon. That leaves their sheep, but I am not sure how sustainable even that food source would be over the long winters. And how is slaughter of a sheep preferred over a dolphin?
Some of the villages have less than 100 inhabitants. Their only income source is tourism, or exports of wool and salmon. Being able to afford imported Danish ham on a sheep herder’s income is not likely. And how does a sheep farmer benefit from tourism? They recently began charging a fee to hike on their land, another practice that has met with much criticism. It’s very near the case of “hunt for you own food, or starve.” Therefore, one quarter of their food source comes from dried or salt-cured whale meat and blubber.
“Nature” takes on a new meaning in a place like the Faroe Islands. There are no zoos there. No wildlife preserves, nor are there any national parks or protected lands. What is typically considered a wildlife refuge in other countries is what the Faroese call home. They live amidst nature, therefore their culture dictates they depend on it for sustenance. With so few acres available to farm and such inhospitable climate, the sea becomes the obvious choice for harvest. You eat what you’ve got.
To be clear, I do believe mass slaughter of sea mammals is wrong. I don’t even eat octopus, for goodness sake, because they are one of the most intelligent creatures in the sea. But I also believe that as long as the practice of “the grind” is legal in the Faroe Islands, and the mammals are not endangered, it’s their business. To otherwise force outside beliefs on these small, remote islands could qualify as the recently coined term “cultural imperialism.”
There are two schools of thought on travel to controversial tourist destinations such as the Faroe Islands. There are calls to boycott travel due to this ancient cultural tradition of grindadráp. On the other hand, some say visiting there calls to light that change is needed in these centuries-old, outdated hunting practices. I am just not sure what the solution would be when living on such a remote group of mountainous, inhospitable islands surrounded by the sea. It’s tough to pick a side, particularly for a “cow man’s daughter” like me…
With that bit of culture and controversy out of the way, I look forward to posting more about the beautiful flora and fauna of these remote islands. Next stop, Mykines, the westernmost of the Faroe Islands.