The Grindadráp debate has proven that cruise-goers need to brace for local cultures
Earlier this month, Ambassador Cruises issued an apology to passengers for sailing into the Faroese Grindadráp – a large-scale traditional whale hunt. Once again, people are calling for a boycott of the Faroe Islands, but there’s a real danger of ignorant ethnocentrism
It was undoubtedly a grizzly view. With ribbons of blood-red marble pooling across the ocean surface, accompanied by the echoed slap of blade against flesh amid an anguished sense of defenceless atrocity, the hard-hearted spectacle likely felt akin to a hellish film production.
Except, this was not fictional savagery. Passengers of Ambassador Ambition didn’t have to imagine the offal-soaked chaos or the agonised wailing. The scene was presented, large as life, to the packed cruise ship as it sliced through Torshavn’s stained waters.
Witnesses spoke of unadulterated brutality as dozens of beached pilot whales were slaughtered in broad daylight. The outcome was similar to sacrificing the entirety of a petting zoo for a child’s birthday party. Passengers were shocked to their core. Some stood on deck, open-jawed at proceedings, while others apparently broke down into hysterics.
Ambassador’s bigwigs feverishly scrambled to publish an explanation and subsequent apology, sharing a statement on July 13 highlighting the misfortune that Ambition’s arrival “coincided with the culmination of a hunt.”
But should they really have felt the need to apologise so profoundly? After all, what passengers observed was not sheer bloodlust or irrational compulsion, but rather a staple of local traditions. And that raises further questions about tourism's respect for domestic cultures – even if they remain controversial.
Having teamed up with ORCA, Ambassador has to walk a fine line and avoid ethnocentrism, as the British-based cruise company speaks out against whale hunting; while also including the Faroe Islands in their itineraries.
It’s a complex, diplomatic and PR leviathan that the cruise line is successfully straddling. But now, as the age-old debate of tradition against tourism is raised again, it's important to look at the full picture.
Grindadráp: A vexed local tradition
To those brainwashed by modern culture’s unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of other countries, Tórshavn, on Streymoy Island, is the capital city of the Faroe Islands.
You’ll find the Danish self-governing archipelago located between Iceland and Norway. It’s a beautiful land that attracts a never-ending procession of tourists and cruise ships.
As a tight-knit community of islanders who unashamedly celebrate their rich heritage and folklore, the age-old Faroese practice of Grindadráp stops for no man. Whaling in the Faroe Islands – referred to as ‘grind’ – has taken place for more than 800 years and, as a longstanding tradition, multiple hunts take place every year.
As Ambassador’s passengers scrambled to witness the approaching destination, it coincided with the sixth hunt of 2023. No less than 78 long-finner pilot whales (a species of dolphin) suffered the climatic final throws of Grindadráp that day.
Having been driven towards land and hauled ashore before being suffocated by a 150-person strong crowd, the hunt is over quickly. Although, according to ORCA, an organisation dedicated to the protection of whales and dolphins, some of the pilot whales took longer than 30 seconds to die once the crowd descended with their blow-hole-bound lances.
Sounds barbaric on paper, but is it the sad reality of mankind’s need for sustenance? Grindadráp is hunting in its’ rawest form, yet there’s a clash of cultures that brings controversy. Although long-finned pilot whales are far from endangered, the subpolar dolphins remain protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
It's a touchy subject, and the Faroese practice receives regular criticism from animal rights activists and those opposed to blood sports. Except, it’s not viewed by others as mindless killing or blood sport; but as man’s most basic right.
Local needs versus tourist ignorance
Those in charge have always claimed that Grindadráp provides food for local families and that the tradition is fully regulated by law.
“The average catch of around 800 whales a year is not considered to have a significant impact on the abundance of pilot whales, which are estimated at around 778,000,” the government has previously argued.
And who could honestly strip the Faroese people of a required food source and sleep soundly at night? As it turns out, plenty. The sort of tourists who screech about ‘incoherent butchery’ yet enjoy steak and fish, having retreated to the onboard buffet in search of meat that someone else has rounded up and slaughtered on their behalf.
Unless each traveller studies and recognises the local culture prior to visiting, there’s a real danger of hypocritical double standards.
For instance, practising carnivores have bemoaned about the insensitivity of the Faroe hunt. Such a stance is purely emotional and wildly judgemental. It could be seen as an irrational train of thought, in danger of then straying into ethnocentrism whereby “thinking one's own group's ways are superior to others" or "judging other groups as inferior to one's own" takes place.
The Faroese population certainly do not operate with an insensitive attitude towards animals. If that’s the label that perched ivory-tower residents slap upon them, then any meat eater is just as insensitive. By yelling about the unjust treatment of dolphins as meat, then surely breeding cattle or slaughtering pigs and chickens in our own abattoirs is also unnecessary?
It is not up to tourists or cruisegoers to decide what the Faroese do and what they can’t. Spouting such ignorance shows a complete lack of cultural understanding or circumstantial knowledge.
I very much doubt that outraged passengers martyred themselves that evening by avoiding meat and opting for the vegetarian option. Not that Ambassadors’ veggie selection isn’t delicious (trust me, it very much is).
There’s also economic ignorance at play here. Rather than import hugely expensive foreign foods, the Faroese utilise their local habitat with available resources. Unlike countries with large plains and fertile soil to raise livestock, the Faroe Islands don’t have usable space to employ. It’s a mountainous region that suffers debilitating storms. The arable harvest cannot feed the population alone.
Finally, there’s a secondary argument that stipulates ‘dolphins are intelligent creatures and should not be consumed for human subsistence’. I don’t even know where to begin with that, as all animals possess intelligence. If we only ate ‘stupid beings’, our diet would solely consist of those who watch Love Island.
Voices from the ether repeatedly claim that cruise ship companies should boycott the Faroe Islands until the killings stop, and that noise doesn’t exclusively stem from basement-dwelling keyboard warriors.
The Chief Operations Officer at Captain Paul Watson Foundation UK has highlighted the cruise industry’s inadvertent support of the ‘abhorrent practice’, with further support from various celebrities.
The cruise industry supports the entire Faroese infrastructure when docking, not because of Grindadráp, but for the entire package. The Faroe Islands provide a unique take on life and offer a large amount of experience fodder that tourists adore. The ‘abhorrent’ whale hunt is part of that culture, and arguments against Grindadráp always fail against the geopolitical reasoning.
Trying to punish the Faroe Islands by striking their economy over such an event is paramount to diplomatic suicide. India doesn’t boycott the UK purely because we consume cows, which are sacred on Indian soil. If Ermentrude murdered your family in cold blood over there, she’d get away with it.
They understand that our culture is different, but not everyone possesses the required dollop of ethnic compassion. For instance, conservationists have lobbied the British government to cease trade with the Faroe Island until Grindadráp is relegated to the history books, and everyone becomes vegan.
Ministers blanked these calls by signing a £5.5m agreement permitting UK and Faroese fishing boats to operate in areas of each other’s waters. It remains very clear that the economy comes first, especially when backed up by historic traditions.
So, where does that leave Ambassador?
“We were incredibly disappointed that this hunt occurred at the time that our ship was in port,” they said.
“We strongly object to this outdated practice, and have been working with our partner, ORCA, a charity dedicated to studying and protecting whales, dolphins, and porpoises in UK and European waters, to encourage change since 2021.”
Christian Verhounig, Ambassador’s CEO, said: “We are extremely disappointed that this has happened after weeks of trying to open constructive dialogue with the Faroese government and Visit Faroes on these issues.
“We continue to educate our guests and crew not to buy or eat any whale or dolphin meat and stand against any profiteering from commercial whaling and dolphin hunts.”
This is great, as Ambassador shines a spotlight on the matter. They are completely within their right to hold such a stance, and they successfully walk a fine and diplomatic line between cultural understanding and an environmental matter close to their heart.
Yet, it does pose an unanswerable question. How can they keep both sides of the debate happy without bias?
If they opted to boycott the Faroe Islands, that would likely result in a negative hit to their books and strip the local economy of financial well-being. Cruise-goers also yearn to travel there – the scenery, the atmosphere, and the culture remains a lucrative draw. However, by not acting, are they then ‘inadvertently supporting’ Grindadráp?
Personally, I think Ambassador has a tough gig on its hands. As demonstrated, the Faroese depend on the whale hunt to feed themselves, but that doesn’t sit well with everyone.
It's all down to communication from here on out. Kudos to Ambassador for trying to arrange governmental talks that prevent their ships from arriving when the active hunt is displayed. It’s the correct approach, even if it hasn’t quite worked out this time around.
Where it goes from here can only be speculated – it’s a case of tourism versus tradition and economics. Watch this space.