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78 pilot whales were slaughtered near a cruise ship carrying marine conservationists

A group of fisherman drive pilot whales towards the shore during a hunt in the Faroe Islands in May 2019.
Andrija Ilic
AFP via Getty Images
A group of fisherman drive pilot whales towards the shore during a hunt in the Faroe Islands in May 2019.

A cruise line is apologizing to passengers who witnessed the killing of dozens of pilot whales near their docked ship this week in the Faroe Islands.

Passengers aboard the cruise ship Ambition, owned by the U.K.-based Ambassador Cruise Line, had just arrived Sunday in the port of Tórshavn in the Danish territory when they caught the spectacle, part of a long-standing and highly scrutinized local tradition.

Among those passengers were conservationists with ORCA, a marine life advocacy group that seeks to protect whales and dolphins in European waters. Since 2021, Ambassador has paid for ORCA staff to join their cruises in order to educate tourists on marine wildlife and collect data on the animals.

In an account shared by ORCA and confirmed by Ambassador, the conservationists said over 40 small boats and jet skis herded the whales to a beach where 150 people worked to haul the animals ashore with hooks and slaughter them with lances.

In total, the hunt lasted about 20 minutes, ORCA said. Some of the animals, which included nine calves, took over 30 seconds to die.

Ambassador Cruise Line said it was "incredibly disappointed" that the hunt unfolded near the ship and that it continues to "strongly object to this practice." The company asks their guests not to support the hunters by purchasing local whale and dolphin meat.

"We fully appreciate that witnessing this local event would have been distressing for the majority of guests onboard," Ambassador said in a statement to NPR. "Accordingly, we would like to sincerely apologise to them for any undue upset."

A representative for the Faroe Islands government did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment on Sunday's hunt.

Long-finned pilot whales, which are technically a species of dolphin, are a medium-sized marine mammal that dwells in the North Atlantic, known for their bulbous head and sickle-shaped flippers. They're not currently listed as an endangered species, but as a sign their population may be on the decline due to human activity, the species is listed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the U.S..

The mammals live in social pods of up to 20 individuals, organized into a larger school of hundreds of animals — a social structure that makes them easy targets for whalers, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In the Faroe Islands, the hunting of pilot whales is known as the "grindadrap" or "grind." The Faroese view the tradition as central to their cultural identity and a sustainable way to gather food, according to a local government website.

The government says the killing is not highly commercialized. Each catch is "distributed for free in the local community" but "in some supermarkets and on the dockside, whale meat and blubber is occasionally available for sale."

Multiple hunts can occur throughout the year, and each is carried out by people with a required license and supervised by elected officials. Local legislation stipulates the killing must be carried out as "quickly and efficiently as possible."

The government says the average catch is around 800 animals, an insignificant impact on the overall pilot whale population, which it says is around 778,000 animals.

But a record single-day killing of more than 1,400 white-sided dolphins in 2021 brought the practice into intensified scrutiny. The chairman of the Faroese Whalers Association told the BBC that the size of that killing was purely accidental.

That Sunday's slaughter unfolded near the cruise ship made it seem as if the whalers were "flaunting the hunt and taunting the tourists," many of whom were hoping to catch a glimpse of marine life in the wild, ORCA CEO Sally Hamilton said.

"It defies belief that the Faroese authorities allowed this activity to take place in clear sight of a cruise ship packed with passengers," she wrote in a statement shared with NPR. "At some point, the Faroese authorities will have to decide if its marine life is a more attractive tourist proposition when it is alive than when it is being killed."

The cruise ship was docked for a stop in Tórshavn, the main harbor of the 18-island territory between Iceland and the Shetland Islands. While the local government has invested more into its tourism sector, fishing and marine-related industries still remain the region's top economic driver.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.