Commentary

Operation Bloody Fjords Eyewitness Account: Team 2

Saturday, Nov 11, 2017

As part of our ongoing Operation Bloody Fjords campaign to end the slaughter of dolphins and pilot whales in the Danish Faroe Islands, Sea Shepherd coordinated ten weeks of covert land-based patrols from July to early September. Centrally coordinated by Sea Shepherd UK, the crews were based in six different Faroese towns covering 19 designated whaling bays. During the ten weeks our volunteer crew, who used their personal vacation time to blend in with other tourists, managed to document nine separate grindadráp. We are now sharing the personal accounts of six of these teams and the images they recorded, one each day for six days.

Team 2, based in Tórshavn, witnessed the Hvannasund grindadráp of 17th July 2017 (191 long-finned pilot whales killed). Read the original version in French here.

"Hell in Paradise. Let’s not beat about the bush: the only thing heavenly about the Faroe Islands is the glorious light that sometimes shines on the distinctive black and green cliffs that rise up from the sea. Yet, for anyone who goes there with the intention of defending the lives of thousands of innocents, it is no doubt this contradiction that epitomises what it feels like to be there.

Before I left, we were already aware that this year was particularly difficult for dolphins off the islands’ coast. There had already been several hunts (or grindadráp), notably around Hvannasund, but I could scarcely have imagined how difficult it would be. The idea of documenting a massacre is not something to delight in, but it is an experience that takes you to a whole new dimension, one that differs radically from simply viewing pictures and videos, however shocking they might be, thousands of kilometres away behind your computer screen.

 

At 4:30pm on July 17, my mission manager sent my partner and I a message: a Faroese website had just published an article stating that a hundred-strong group of pilot whales were being pursued by hunters near Hvannasund. I left Torshavn as quickly as I could and headed for the small town more than an hour’s drive east across the islands. The journey felt endless as all I could think about was getting there as quickly as possible, so I didn’t miss anything: the aim was to document acts of cruelty towards dolphins for legal purposes; that seems sadly ironic when you know the fate that awaits them.

I finally emerged from the second ‘tunnel of death’ (the name we gave to the two long, narrow, gloomy tunnels that take us there) and turned left. From there, we looked down upon the town and even from there, I could tell that the bay’s water was not its usual colour, but was covered with a bright red substance: the grindadráp had already taken place. A couple of tourists had stopped on the side of the road and were looking across at the beach on the other side of the bay. I noticed the woman’s expression of disgust; she seemed to be thinking, "Oh God, how horrific". I kept asking myself how I was going to do it, remembering my supervisors’ advice: "Get as close as possible. Just pretend to be a tourist and everything will be fine."

I crossed the small road that leads down to the bay and went down to the beach where the dolphins had been slaughtered. I approached the crowd. Given the size of it, it looked like the whole town was there. I neared the edge of the beach. There were dozens and dozens of corpses lined up, piled up. I had no idea how many dead dolphins lay before me. Just one would have been too many, but this was a bloodbath. As I went along the beach, I got my first close-up view of these huge, magnificent members of the dolphin family – so huge that we call them "whales". They all had a deep slash cut through much of their head. Strangely, I didn’t feel anything at that point. It was only later that the real shock hit. I was probably too focused on the task at hand, or perhaps I simply had to keep a grip on things. The GoPro was running, seeking out suspicious marks on the bodies.

In fact, the crowd hardly noticed me. A few people glanced over but most of them were laughing and smiling, which made anger rise from inside. Further along the beach, I spotted some dolphins that were still alive. They wouldn’t remain so for long: the men swiftly speared them, severing their spine. Then the dolphins rolled onto their side and bled to death. As I went on, I heard two boats heading out to sea, a few hundred metres away in the fjord. Black fins emerged from the water – three then four small ones, followed by a fifth, much larger one. A small group had survived, but for how long? They stayed where they were, swimming around in circles. Deep down, I wanted to call out and tell them to flee but instead I hurried to the end of the beach for a better viewpoint. From there, I watched how relentlessly the men pursued their victims. With so many huge dolphins already drowning in their blood just a few metres away, I simply could not understand their obstinacy before these five dolphins. It was a vision that no rational logic can explain. A small ferry that links the town to the capital arrived and in a manoeuvre that you would simply not see anywhere else in the world, it raced towards the small group of survivors. The ensuing scenes of ruthless violence, against a background of joy and laughter among the participants, were an incredibly shocking contrast to the beauty of these great mammals. Fortunately, and despite their so-called experience in killing dolphins handed down over centuries, the four boats attacking the group of survivors gave up, admitting defeat. What a relief!

I went back the other way, watching the men as they tied ropes to the dolphins’ tails and dragged them with their boats before hoisting them out of the water by crane and dumping them in trucks (the animals can weigh several tons). Children threw stones into the water and onto the lifeless bodies. Other people took selfies, grinning widely before the corpses. Apart from the five survivors, no other member of the Delphinidae family – young or old, male or female – had been spared.

Yet I still had work to do. We now had to follow the trucks and find out where they would take the bodies. We headed towards Klaksvik, the nearest port able to accommodate that many dolphins. They were easy enough to follow as they had left a blood-red strip along the middle of the road between the two towns. Ten kilometres further in Klaksvik, the bloody trail turned right towards the port. I parked up and as I approached the boats, I saw that the bodies had been placed at the end of the wharf. A dozen or so old Faroe residents were there, talking. People were walking towards them, watching. After hesitating for a moment or two – and another misadventure – I decided to go down. I went past a group of people who glanced inquisitively at us but nothing more. We were now close enough to see that the dolphins have been gutted. We slowly made it to the end of the pier, taking time to observe the bodies, now out of the water, one by one. Six or seven of the females were pregnant. The placentas lying on the concrete were not broken, but one of them was torn, revealing the tiny eye of a foetus. I counted around forty pilot whales in all. That did not seem much compared to the number of bodies seen on the beach earlier in Hvannasund. Little did I know at the time but in fact, the largest wharf of the harbour is over on the other side of the bay… There was nothing left for us to do and as the sun was setting and we didn’t want to arouse the locals’ curiosity, we decided to go home. The return journey was extremely hard as everything we had seen during the day was replayed in my mind, and the horror and emotion caught up with me.

Back home, it was time to debrief and back up the photos and videos. We decided to return very early the next day to look for any kind of clues as to what happens to all the bodies, all the meat, especially since several grindadráp had already taken place. At 4 am, the alarm clock rang but I struggled to open my eyes. That was a short nap! I got to Klaksvik around 5 am. I logically returned to the same dock as the day before. All the bodies were there, but the placentas were gone. I inspected the area, but there was no trace of them in the containers or rubbish bins. What could they possibly do with them? I left the port and decided to drive around town to learn my way around the streets: it could come in useful later in the day. As it is a small town with few streets, it was quite easy to take in the landmarks. However, I again missed the western entrance to the port. One road leads to the heights above the town so I went up there to get a broader view. From there, I could see the entire bay, the wharf to the right (east) where I had been … and then the western wharf. There was some movement down there, so I took out my telephoto lens and that is when I spotted the innumerable black mounds, lined up one behind the other. I went straight down there. By the time I got there, a small crowd had gathered at the entrance to the western wharf. A man arrived and started talking to the crowd. It was time to share their spoils. Dozens and dozens of people came with wheelbarrows, rubbish bins or large bags. I tried to follow the crowd for a look around this area that I had missed the day before. But I was being stared at, being made to understand I shouldn’t be there. I did, however, stay long enough to see how the meat and fat were cut. Compared to the size of the dolphin, only a thin layer was taken. A large mass of meat remained on the corpse and gulls flocked down to peck on it on the quayside.

As I couldn’t stay there very long, I decided to go back to the other side of the bay. There, the bodies were still intact (and we never found out what happened to them). I found a spot nearby in a quiet street with a relatively good view on what was happening across the bay. I slipped into the back of the car, where the windows were tinted, and took out my lens. Quite by chance, just below I spotted a white lorry that was starting up. As it went by, I saw that it was carrying several pilot whales, still intact (apart from being gutted). Intrigued, I decided to follow him. It was easy enough on the islands’ few roads. A hundred metres or so along the road, I met it as it turned onto the main road, just in front of me. We headed to the western wharf. The driver turned on the wharf and I carried straight on. When I came back, I could see the truck parked near the entrance, I decided to go over there and parked between two cars in a car park 50 metres away. I watched the driver. He made a phone call, got out of the truck, turned around in circles, spoke to someone, got back in, reversed the truck, then got out again. He clearly didn’t know what to do. After 10 minutes or so of this, he started the engine and headed into a building, where I lost sight of him. The minutes went by but nothing happened. I decided to return to my viewing point on the other side of the bay, above the east wharf. The same sorry scenes were being played out. I spotted small boats arriving across the bay. They took a few pieces and set off again. I couldn’t tell whether or not the same boats came back several times. 

Then the white truck came back out! He drove past a red lorry which I had previously failed to notice parked near the wharf where the 150 carcasses were lined up. Then I spotted a forklift moving. It lifted up a huge whale, still intact, with just its guts removed (everything was filmed). As the forklift and dolphin approached the truck, the mammal slipped and fell from the forks, its body bouncing as it hit the ground. Even though I knew it was dead, it was immensely painful see it treated that way. The forklift managed to pick it back up after a couple of attempts and dropped it into the red truck’s dumpster.

I had to make a decision on the spot: either to leave immediately to try and find the white truck; that was a bit of a risk since I had lost sight of it by then. Or stay and watch the red truck. I decided to stay. The forklift went back to the dock, picked up another big whale and dropped it in the dumpster, without incident this time. The driver may have dropped the first one, but he must have been very familiar with the balance of the bodies of these large cetaceans, which weigh in at several tons, to be able to pick one up with the two forks of a lift truck and manoeuvre them so quickly. The red truck started up again. With not a minute to lose, I started up and headed for the roundabout on the edge of the town, where the truck was sure to pass. He had no choice: regardless of the direction in which it was heading, it would have to go around the roundabout. Gotcha! I saw him go past as I was about to turn down the road towards the roundabout. A few metres down the road, I was surprised to see that the white truck had been waiting for him, so I was about to follow not one, but two trucks loaded with whole pilot whale bodies.

We drove on and as the white truck was going pretty fast despite its load, it moved further ahead. The weight of the cetaceans made itself felt on the uphill sections where the trucks struggled to climb, at a speed of barely 40 km/h. It gradually became clear that the trucks were heading west. At the final roundabout that links to the road to Vagar, the trucks turned left. We were undoubtedly heading for the capital. We eventually make it to Torshavn. The white lorry, which was still travelling faster, had already gone past the city’s first few roundabouts and I had lost sight of it. With the traffic and the number of cars, I decided to play it safe and stick right behind the red truck so nothing could get between it and me. The truck turned right and … went into a service station. I hadn’t planned on that! There was no way I could pull up beside it, so I carried on, drove past the station and turned around at the next roundabout, back in the direction I’d come from, a knot in my stomach as I feared losing the truck. It was still there! I pulled into a parking space outside the service station and waited there for about ten minutes before the driver came back out. He had stopped to eat! And then we were off again.

I stayed as close as possible behind him, but I started to wonder whether the driver had realised that the same car had been behind him for more than an hour. I kept telling myself that he probably couldn’t imagine being followed in a million years. Then the truck put on its indicator to turn left, and moved over to turn into the road on the left. I did the same thing. The cars opposite stopped and suddenly, instead of turning as expected, the truck sped up and went straight on. Needless to say, my initial doubts were heightened by the truck’s manoeuvres! But then again, maybe he had simply gone the wrong way, perhaps remembering that there were roadworks in the city centre? In any case, there was no way I was going to lose his trail now, so I decided to turn around as soon as possible, wait at the light and head back in the truck’s direction. I looked all around: nothing. I looked down every street to see where the truck might have turned, and finally I spotted it at the bottom end of a street. I turned and finally managed to catch up with it. It was like a movie car chase! Having learned my lesson, I kept a bit more distance between us this time and managed to follow it without difficulty up to the shipyard entrance. I had already scouted around that area on foot a few days earlier and I knew our chase would end there. I kept my distance and saw the truck pull up in front of the gates. There was a sign on the gates and a man with an orange jacket. I paused to think. What should I do? I was alone in the car, I don’t look like a native at all, I had my gear, my films… I could either follow him into this place, even though it looked like access was restricted, and who knows what might happen after that, especially if the driver had actually spotted my car. Or I could drive off. I mulled it over for a second or two and, in a move I now regret, as the truck moved forward and turned left, I decided to drive across the harbour to get a view over the dock.

What a mistake! I could still see the red truck beside the buildings on the quayside, but it moved forward and disappeared behind huge trawlers that blocked my view. I’d lost sight of the truck and of the whales! I decided to go back over there on foot. However, I realised that there were only two buildings where the truck could stop. The first was the boat repair yard, the second a building with a United Seafood logo. The building where fishermen unload their fish. In other words, his most likely destination was a seafood sales company! Given this, how can we deny the existence of a dolphin meat trade (whether sold directly or processed)?

I stayed there, watching, for several hours. I didn’t see any other trucks arrive, nor the white or red one leave. So that is the end of my account and, even if there is no longer any doubt, unfortunately I have no tangible proof of the bodies entering the building. I left the island, as always, with an immense feeling of frustration but also with the slightest hope that I have somehow helped to advance the fight against the pilot whale massacres."

2017 has proved to be one of the worst years for the grindadrap since the mid 1990's with 1203 pilot whales and 488 dolphins killed during 24 individual hunts in the Danish Faroe Islands.

Check back tomorrow for the second report and images from Team 5.

Read the introduction article"Operation Bloody Fjords update: Covert patrols documenting the slaughter go completely undetected by the Faroese government"

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