The skull glides through the gray evening air, its hollow black eyes surveying the Faroe Islands, land that seems to have risen from the sea just to be photographed and admired. On a map, the 18-island archipelago looks like Italy flooded by melting ice caps; from the sea, it looks like the creation of Hollywood digital-effects artists, volcanic rock exposed where streams cut through the green of swaying grass that blankets the islands. Some of its 700 miles of coastline juts up dramatically, towering above the ocean—no trees, only sheep that fearlessly walk in places it should be impossible to walk. In coves where the land slopes toward the sea, two-story houses nestle in the grass. On this Friday night, the windows in one cove twinkle, literally, as residents take pictures of the blue and gray ship that is approaching their harbor, their dock, their home.
Cameras are filming from aboard the Steve Irwin, the flagship vessel of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which announces its presence with a massive two-story version of the skull-and-crossbones flag that has marked pirate ships for 300 years. Its Jolly Roger is modified with obvious symbolism: The outlines of two dolphins swim in a circle on the skull’s forehead, a shepherd’s staff and a trident replacing the bones underneath. This modern pirate ship is potentially dangerous, even deadly, to the volunteers who crew it and to anyone who boards, such as a visiting journalist from Playboy and the people who produce Whale Wars, the Animal Planet series that follows Sea Shepherd. Whale Wars is well watched in the Faroe Islands, yet it is not a show this tiny, independently governed Danish territory wanted filmed here, even if it will make millions of people aware of its existence for the first time. Cameras came to the Faroe Islands for 38 days last summer to watch as Sea Shepherd’s two ships cut through fog, a helicopter circling overhead, because in this nation of fewer than 50,000 people, they kill and eat whales.
The Faroese have been keeping records of whale hunts, known in their Nordic language as grindadráp, since 1584. Commonly called the grind (pronounced “grinned”), the hunt is noncommercial, with the communities that kill the whales sharing the meat. That is one of many ways the Faroe Islands’ whaling industry differs from Japan’s, which Sea Shepherd is best known for targeting. Although the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling for its member nations in 1986, Japan continued its hunt in the Southern Ocean, exploiting a loophole that allows the killing of whales for science. In 2011, Sea Shepherd did what the IWC did not: It stopped Japanese whaling. The fleet returned to Japan early, citing the organization’s harassment: activists in small inflatable boats zipping around towering whaling ships, splattering them with bloodred paint and dropping ropes in the water to entangle their propellers. This is the work of Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, a man who might be the most hated—and most effective—international activist alive. He is also the most unlikely, a frumpy man of 61 who tells stories in a generally monotone Canadian accent through a slack jaw outlined by a white goatee. He doesn’t look like a person who would be branded a terrorist or demonized for his unapologetic actions, which range from co-founding and later disparaging Greenpeace to sinking Icelandic whaling ships. Onboard his ship, his presence barely registers. Watson appears to spend most of his time peering at his laptop or conducting interviews with the media in his office, which is directly under the bridge and has portholes framed by square red curtains and a desk that is a mess of maps, books, papers and cables. Watson delegates nearly everything and appears disconnected. On the bridge one day, the Skype telephone system failed to connect the ship to someone who may have been reporting a grind. “Whoever’s in charge of this better get it fixed up,” he says, not a trace of emotion in his voice.
Watson is an enigma who’s impossible to ignore because he does what few people are willing to do: define what matters and pursue it relentlessly. Sea Shepherd does other work to protect marine life, from the Galapagos Islands to his home country of Canada, and this is not its first visit to the Faroe Islands. But it is its first visit accompanied by camera crews from the internationally popular Animal Planet reality series that has, for four years, followed the group’s efforts in the Southern Ocean and transformed both the network and Sea Shepherd, bringing attention that a stream of press releases couldn’t match. Sea Shepherd spent $293,733.82 on this campaign, called Operation Ferocious Isles, but its real impact may be felt this spring, when the Faroe Islands episodes are aired and the world sees the group in action.
Long-finned pilot whales, a species of oceanic dolphin like the killer whale, are about 20 feet long, weigh between 3,000 and 6,000 pounds and have large, round foreheads. When they are spotted swimming near the Faroe Islands, a series of events unfolds, tradition codified into law that’s specified in the Faroese government’s detailed Executive Order on the Pilot Whale Drive. The crew that spots the whales attaches a cloth to its boat’s mast and immediately contacts the district’s grindadráp administrator, who is in charge of organizing the hunt along with the whaling foremen, who are appointed to five-year terms they cannot refuse. Wearing approved badges or uniforms, the administrator and the foremen set out on boats with the Faroese flag flying. Together, they decide whether to drive the whales and, if they do, which pre-authorized whaling bay to use and whether to drive the animals back out if there are too many for that bay. They may also designate a whaling area, which includes land and airspace, and clear it of all vessels not participating in the hunt—such as Sea Shepherd’s small inflatable boats and Jet Skis, which sit on decks waiting to be deployed to do whatever possible to stop a grind.
Boats are arranged in a semicircle to corral whales, and stones are thrown into the water to keep them moving forward. As the animals splash toward shore, misty geysers erupting from their heads, Faroese men run into the water, hooking blowholes with government-approved tools to drag ashore those whales that haven’t beached themselves. Unsheathing their grindaknívar (knives with artfully crafted wooden handles), they cut deep across the whale’s neck, splitting the flesh open and severing the spinal cord. Blood splatters the men and turns the bay the color of cherry Kool-Aid.
Once on land, where dead whales can be used to teach novices how to kill them, the carcasses are cooled by carving slits in their stomachs, as though opening the luggage compartment of an airplane, and letting the intestines spill out. Within an hour, everyone who took part in the grind is identified, and the whales are measured (the unit is the skinn, which is approximately 75 pounds of blubber and 84 pounds of meat) and labeled. Based on a distribution system outlined by the government, the catch may be divided among everyone from the person who first spotted the whales to the entire community, and those who have a share of a whale help butcher it. The sheets of whale are hung in the cool breeze and dried into black pieces that will be eaten with potatoes. All this is done in the open. The process is detailed, including photographs, on an unexpectedly transparent website (whaling.fo) maintained by the Ministry of Fisheries.
There were 1,107 whales killed this way in 2010 in the Faroe Islands; 726 died during nine grinds in 2011. None were killed during the five weeks and three days Sea Shepherd was there.
Chris Aultman, piloting the Steve Irwin’s helicopter, is wearing a green flight suit with removable patches that allow him to hide the Sea Shepherd logo for this campaign—a tiny bit of anonymity that made life easier as he sipped coffee at the islands’ only airport after refueling. Aultman banks the MD 500 helicopter and circles back after the Whale Wars camera operator sitting behind him notices something. It’s just some detritus, perhaps seaweed. “That’s the job: hours of sheer boredom followed by minutes of incredible excitement,” Aultman says.
One day on the bridge, where an old PC sometimes streams music from Spotify, a Whale Wars audio engineer is tucked into a corner listening to crew members, who wear mikes inside their shirts so devices can record everything they say. Cameras and mikes are also placed overhead to capture anything that might be missed by the camera operators, one of whom is perched on a table, sometimes filming, sometimes chatting. Watson comes in and walks over to a map used to plot their position. Suddenly everyone is racing around. “We’re going.” “We’re going up as quick as we can.” “Could be a hoax. We’re just going to haul ass.” Aultman moves quickly through the narrow hallway, down a flight of stairs and out the back of the ship to the onboard hangar, ready to take up the helicopter to investigate a report of Faroese herding whales. The Brigitte Bardot, a Sea Shepherd interceptor vessel named after the actress and animal rights activist, has also been notified so it can race over to attempt to stop the grind.