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					Hunting Whales in West L.A.
Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber

By Susan Salter Reynolds
Los Angeles Times
April 27, 2003

     1.   Somewhere in the planning of a trip to write about Iceland’s spas, I got to looking
          at maps. My eye tends to travel to the margins of most maps, and it wandered out
          to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where a dim set of specks floats forlornly
          between Iceland and Scotland—the Faeroe Islands.

     2.   I asked my husband, Joel, about the Faeroes. “That’s where they still drive
          whales,” he said. Joel is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense
          Council and head of the environmental organization’s Marine Mammal Protection
          Project. What he remembered most about those beautiful islands and their fishing
          culture were the bloody bays that eco-warrior Paul Watson made famous in the
          1980s. Watson later called the whale hunt “the largest and cruelest sport hunt in
          the world.” Health cures and beauty treatments, cloudberries, hot springs and the
          charms of Reykjavik—it all suddenly seemed less interesting and less important.

     3.   Where we live, on the west side of Los Angeles, no one eats whale meat. Many
          people don’t even eat cheese. Most people I know go to an acupuncturist as well
          as an allopathic doctor. The food they eat is mostly organic. What little meat you
          find in the bright, wide-aisled markets is tucked away or wrapped up tight and
          labeled “Free-Range!” and “No Hormones!” I know a few people who pay a lot of
          money for oxygen vials and various detoxifying regimes that are supposed to rid
          your body of the merest memory of meat.

     4.   People who don’t eat meat are usually not fond of hunters and hunting. They
          don’t see any reason for it when you can just go to the supermarket and buy tofu
          and lentils and generally get your proteins in other ways. They don’t like the

Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                        Page 1
          smell of meat, they don’t like the bloody, fatty mess of it. But lately I had been
          sensing not just distaste, but disapproval from progressive friends for aspects of
          other cultures they find distasteful—breast-feeding babies for three years, for
          example, or arranged marriages. Cultural imperialism is one of those mistakes
          that can make the idealistic left look a whole lot like the ideological right. And we
          Americans, particularly the wealthier ones, have gotten awfully good at it. “I’m
          going to the Faeroe Islands to see a whale hunt and eat some blubber,” I told my
          perplexed husband.

     5.   The Faeroes are one of the rare places, it turns out, where people still eat whale
          blubber and meat, which represents 30% of all meat produced in the Faeroes. This
          meat is not traded commercially. The islanders need every whale they can get,
          because aside from mutton and the potatoes and a few carrots available during the
          serious Faeroese winter, there isn’t a lot of sustenance about. Sometimes I wonder
          if hunters and their sympathizers are a different species from the rapidly evolving
          homo cleanliness. I envy their closeness to nature and animals. I envy their skill at
          reading the weather and the stars and tracks. But by the definition of most animal-
          rights activists, killing animals is barbaric and unnecessary. I wanted to know if
          it’s possible to be both an environmentalist and a hunter.

     6.   These 18 mountainous islands were first settled by Vikings who came from
          Norway and the British Isles 1,100 years ago. Faeroese is a west Nordic language
          most closely related to Icelandic. Through the Middle Ages the islands were
          under Norwegian rule and then, in 1380, fell under Danish rule when Denmark
          took over Norway. By 1856, under a Danish constitution, the islands took their
          first steps toward economic independence. In 1948, the Faeroese were granted
          home rule.

     7.   In the past five years (although it is not the first time the issue has come up) the
          pace of the march toward independence has picked up. When this happens, they
          will join the other 192 sovereign states in the world, only 43 of which are micro-
          states—countries with populations fewer than a million. Among those, about a

Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                        Page 2
           dozen are island nations with populations fewer than 100,000. The Faeroe Islands
           are home to 46,000.

     8.    Leirvik, the village of 850 where Olavur Sjurdarberg lives with his wife,
           Borghild, is about an hour and a half from the capital of the Faeroes, Torshavn.
           To get there, you follow signs to Kollafjördur, and then to Oyrabakki. Streams
           from the fjords run down on all sides of the road. Around stop signs, sheep and
           goats gather like rabble-rousers.

     9.    I found Olavur on the Internet. Browsing around about Iceland, I came across the
           Web site of a whaling organization called High North Alliance. In its pages I
           found an interview with Olavur. He grew up in Kirka, on Fugloy, the most far-
           flung, northeastern of the islands. Today, only 12 people live there year-round. He
           killed his first whale when he was 17. Many say that he has helped kill as many
           pilot whales as anyone in the Faeroes. Much training is involved. I called
           information in his hometown and got his number. Later, when I made my hotel
           reservation in Torshavn, also on the phone, the pleasant proprietor asked when I
           would be driving out to see Olavur. He had heard about my visit from his sister,
           who lives in Leirvik. It is a very small country.

     10.   Olavur is the headmaster at the elementary school in Leirvik and the foreman of
           one of the six whaling districts throughout the islands. He is square of shape and
           speaks many languages, including English, with a quiet, gentle voice that, it
           seems to me, I have heard in other hunters. When I first called him from Los
           Angeles, trying to arrange a meeting in the Faeroes, he stayed on the phone for a
           long time. It was 10 p.m. there, and Olavur was curious about the Southern
           California weather. Could I swim in the ocean? Did it rain? What was the
           temperature, in the morning, in the evening? Distance also interested him. How
           long would it take me to get to the Faeroes? Would I change planes? What was
           the exact time difference? Each phone conversation had this essential weight to it,
           a sort of common ground, covered gravely, that established conclusively the
           difference in our worlds.

Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                        Page 3
     11.   Only one plane a week flew from Reykjavik, Iceland, to the Faeroe Islands in
           early October of the year I first visited. It was a parabola of hilarity, this flight.
           Before we boarded, somber adults filed into the duty-free shop with its exit so
           narrow that only one man, wool pockets full of schnapps, could squeeze through
           at a time. They were all here: Dorete “Whale Woman” Bloch, the island’s
           preeminent zoologist and a Gertrude Stein look-alike who stubbed her cigar out
           on the runway; Eydun Andreassen, a professor of literature and a folklorist from
           the University of the Faeroe Islands in his lime-green sports coat; Kate Sanderson,
           the fierce, neat, blond Faeroese representative to NAMMCO (North Atlantic
           Marine Mammal Commission, an organization of whale hunters in the far north).

     12.   Jokes flew freely through the cabin. The Faeroese stewardess, whom everyone
           had known since she was a girl, was teased mercilessly for her professional
           demeanor as she moved down the aisle in her new uniform. It was a kind of
           hazing, common in small countries when citizens burst the boundaries.

     13.   I checked into my hotel in Torshavn, got in my rental car and drove for 45
           minutes along roads that wind around mountains and streams and through tunnels,
           heading to Leirvik to meet Olavur. Within 10 minutes we were on his small boat
           fishing for cod. Olavur changes when he is on a boat. On land, he seems heavier,
           uncomfortable and less sure of his footing. On a boat he has impeccable balance
           and grace. He handed me a line with several hooks. I was supposed to pull up if I
           felt a tug. “Can you feel it?” he kept asking me, but I couldn’t. I think he felt sorry
           for me.

     14.   In person, Olavur says things quite suddenly, such as, “The sea is our garden,” or
           “All creatures are beautiful, fish are beautiful. We do not hunt for fun.” He likens
           whale hunting to killing cows or sheep or pigs, but reminds me how removed we
           are from the killing of our food, particularly in cities.

     15.   Children in the Faeroes grow up eating whale blubber, often in thin slices. Parents
           always insist that their children eat blubber, though adults usually eat it as a snack
           on rye bread or with a piece of fish. There has been much talk and many studies in
           the past few years about high levels of mercury in whale meat, and other toxins in

Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                        Page 4
           the blubber. Recent studies of Faeroese children suggest a correlation between
           high levels of mercury intake and some subtle aspects of neurological
           development. The Faeroese stopped eating the livers and kidneys of whales—
           once considered delicacies—after studies in the late 1970s found high levels of
           toxins in those organs. Still, island parents are suspicious of reports from
           countries that have pleaded with the Faeroese for years to stop hunting whales,
           vilifying them in the world’s press and shaming them in front of younger
           generations. Now they profess concern for their children?

     16.   For several years, my husband fought to persuade the Mexican government,
           which was in partnership with Mitsubishi Corp., not to build the world’s largest
           saltworks in San Ignacio Lagoon, a bay in southern Baja where gray whales come
           each year to breed and calve and nurse their young (an argument he ultimately
           won). Each year, we visited the lagoon where the gray whales swim up to the
           little dories, called pangas. The mothers push their new babies up to the pangas
           and let you touch them, pat them, sometimes even put your arm in their mouths
           and scratch their hairy, smelly tongues. We slept in tents and listened to them at
           night. We took our son Sam when he was 6. The wind in their blowholes sounds
           like wooden flutes.

     17.   Pilot whales—the kind the Faeroese eat—are among the largest of the lesser,
           toothed whales. Males are 13 feet to 23 feet long and weigh as much as 3 tons.
           Females can be 11 feet to 17 feet long and weigh as much as a ton and a half.
           They are black, with bulbous heads and a dark gray saddle behind the dorsal fin
           and a dark gray spot behind each eye. They are gregarious and have been seen in
           groups of thousands. When not feeding, they lie floating together. They eat cod
           and squid and octopus. They are often accompanied, like the day I watched, by
           white beaked dolphins. They can live as long as 60 years.

     18.   The islands have 22 bays into which a pod might be herded. Once a pod is
           spotted, the grind, or whale hunt, begins. The sheriff notifies the six publicly
           elected foremen from the district. They in turn alert the boats, first the large boats,
           which form a semicircle and drive the whales toward the beach, then the smaller

Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                        Page 5
           boats, which are able to get closer to shore. When whales get close enough, men
           from the small boats wade into the water. A call goes out on the radio. Inhabitants
           arrive, buckets in hand, to receive their portion of meat and blubber . Statistics in
           each town’s records go back as far as 1585. Results of each catch also are printed
           in the paper, and have been for centuries.

     19.   Most hunting takes place in July and August. For decades the annual catch has
           averaged 1,000 whales from a total Northeast Atlantic population of 778,000.
           That catch provides 500 tons of meat and blubber. Even if you kill a whale by
           yourself, it belongs to the entire community, including nursing homes and day-
           care centers.

     20.   I stopped to watch a group of six whales being driven up on a black, pebbly
           beach. It was a beautiful, warm day. The men formed a killing line on the beach,
           using gaffs to pull the whales up on the sand by the back or blowhole. The noise
           the whales made was sharp and piercing, like machinery, like unoiled wheels
           grating through their gears. It’s not a noise that anyone could like.

     21.   Once the whales were beached, the men moved quickly from whale to whale with
           their 7-inch-long curved knives, called grindknivers, which they used to sever the
           whale’s carotid artery and spinal cord. This cut the flow of blood to the whale’s
           brain. Two veterinarians stood with stopwatches on either side of the row of men,
           making sure the killing was done efficiently. It generally takes less than 20
           seconds for a whale to die, and if anyone on the line was not working fast enough,
           the veterinarians had them removed. The water in the bay filled with blood. The
           eyes of the whales turned from dark bottomless pools of ocean to milky doors,
           shut. A foreman measured each whale and placed a number on each carcass.

     22.   The whole thing was hard work and grim, although I’m told there’s excitement
           when the whales are first spotted, and a sense of pride if you come from a district
           that is especially successful in rounding up whales. But there seemed no joy in the
           killing. Back in the 1980s, the International Fund for Animal Welfare sent several
           staff members to the Faeroes, some pretending to be journalists. Emphasizing the
           violence and bloodiness of the hunt, they shot video footage and started a boycott

Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                        Page 6
           against Faeroese products—mainly fish, but also woolens—in Europe. These
           protesters introduced a new element into Faeroese life: shame. Village shops that
           used to carry postcards of the hunt quickly got rid of them. People became wary
           whenever an outsider expressed an interest in their way of life. I noticed not only
           wariness but also weariness, as if there was no hope that any outsider would try to
           understand how they felt.

     23.   My test came at Olavur’s mother-in-law’s house. First, Olavur cut some whale
           meat for me from a wind-dried piece. He put it on a small wooden plate with
           bread and butter. Whale meat looks a lot like beef and tastes deeply of fish, big
           fish, or gamy meat. I could get used to it. The entire family, a few visitors and
           relatives watched, waiting to see if I liked it. Then we adjourned to the basement
           to kill a ram, the other primary source of protein on the islands.

     24.   Like whales, rams must be herded, driven and caught before they can be killed.
           Men drag the ram to a special room, usually a basement, shoot it in the head and
           drain the blood. The skin is then removed by hand. Faeroese children are
           sometimes given a knife and pieces of the carcass to practice their cutting. Again,
           there’s blood everywhere. The work is hard. It makes the men nervous, even sad,
           especially the elders who are charged with caring for the sheep and rams. But it is

     25.   The Faeroese do not have a sentimental relationship to nature; their relationship is
           one of mystical, spiritual respect. One sure shortcut to good luck—in the form of
           fat sheep, good crops or large whale kills—is paying due respect to the Huldufolk,
           or hidden people, who according to myth live in rocky fjords and caves. The
           hidden folk are said to have disappeared in the 1950s, when electricity came to
           the islands. They do not like churches. They are not fond of crosses. They often
           dress only in gray. The nervousness with which the Faeroese people speak of the
           Huldufolk makes me believe they are real.

     26.   When I asked Eydun Andreassen, the folklorist at the University of the Faroe
           Islands, whether the pilot whale figures largely in the culture’s songs, poems and
           paintings, he asked me if Americans typically write songs to sliced bread. Eydun

Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                        Page 7
           was sorry he could not oblige me with some deep religious connection. All he
           could do was conjure a bank sign he saw somewhere with a whale tail on it. “It’s
           just food,” he said with a shrug. Trondur Patursson, the most famous painter in
           the Faeroes, creates, among other things, paintings of the grind that are shown
           around the world. The hunt, like a good day fishing, he explained, creates a “red
           feeling.” The sea, a “blue feeling.” But that’s about it.

     27.   I had dinner with Kate Sanderson—who works in the prime minister’s office and
           used to be the general secretary of NAMMCO—and her husband, who is a poet.
           Kate was concerned about the bad publicity the Faeroese received because of
           whaling, baffled by all the hand-wringing about the famous killer whale, Keiko,
           who at the time was being kept in a $7-million-plus pen in the Westman Islands
           off Iceland’s south coast—an absurd attempt, she said, to return the star of the
           “Free Willy” movie to the wild. (“How much would it cost to return me to the
           wild?” she asked at her kitchen sink, knife in hand, slicing halibut.)

     28.   Both Kate and her husband believe the interest animal-rights activists and
           environmentalists have in saving whales is, if anything, an indication of how far
           removed people in urban societies have come from nature. Kate’s husband
           thought of our fascination with whales as a kind of chess game: The kings of the
           earth meet the kings of the ocean. They both think people who profess to love
           whales are suffering from middle-class guilt who want to do something for the
           environment, but they don’t want to do it in their backyards. Whales are far, far
           away, and therefore safe to care about.

     29.   The night before I left, I dreamed that I took my children to swim in a public pool
           in a foreign country. At noon the lifeguards blew their whistles to clear the pool
           so that several very large, warty, barnacle-covered and somehow deformed
           whales could have a swim. We crowded on the sidelines in our suits. I worried
           that my children would fall in and catch the deformity from the lumpen whales,
           once kings, now swimming in frustrated circles in a public pool. As I remember
           this dream, it seems that there is a lack of respect for the dignity of other species

Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                        Page 8
           and of other cultures. We make the world smaller when we poison it, not just with
           our garbage, but with our judgments and assumptions.

     30.   Once home, I am keenly aware of humans as animals. I feel we don’t have
           enough territory in the city, enough space around us. We don’t have enough
           silence and, like animals, we are crazed by loud noises. Our sense of smell is
           confused. I worry that my children will grow up cramped and frightened. Sam,
           who is 11, gets his share of hermetically sealed environmental education. There’s
           more emphasis on activism than on learning to live in nature, which is perhaps
           appropriate for these desperate times, in which every corner of the natural world
           is threatened. It is hard for these children to imagine other cultures, though they
           live side by side with them. I decide to take Sam back with me to the Faeroes, just
           eight months after my first trip. He worries that he will have to eat whale meat,
           and I assure him that he won’t have to. I just want to see it all through his eyes.

     31.   On the plane, Sam arranges his collectible Magic cards on the seat beside him.
           There are warriors and goblins with spears, and dragons and other legacies of
           Celtic mythology. The GameBoy, my nemesis, vies with me for Sam’s attention.
           Warriors with spears kill other warriors on its tiny colorless screen. With all this
           preparation for battle, you’d think the possibility of seeing a whale hunt would be
           exciting. But it isn’t. He seems nonchalant. He’s never had to actually kill

     32.   There are very few whales in late June, which is perhaps a blessing. It allows us to
           learn more about the lives of the Faeroese. Sam came away struck by the
           smallness of the community, its pace and the length of time it took to buy stuff,
           since everyone in a store is interested in what’s happening in everyone else’s life.
           When we go east with Olavur, to his home village of Fugloy, however, we go
           with the men on a puffin hunt. Sam watches a beautiful brown cormorant pulled
           into the boat with a net. He watches Olavur’s uncle wrench its neck. He sees it on
           the table several hours later, set with cutlery no one will use because using fingers
           are better to get every piece of meat. He eats it. Would he rather have a Big Mac?

Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                        Page 9
           You bet. Ultimately, this child whose favorite movie is “The Mummy Returns”
           concludes, “I don’t like to watch things die in real life.”

     33.   Back again in Los Angeles, I receive e-mails from Olavur in which he repeatedly
           unites words that describe seasons and the weather, like “winterdarkness” and
           “winterpreparings” and “fishingcatch.” To me, his words reveal a deeper
           grammar, as though the seasons and what we do in them were all one thought, not
           to be interrupted, taken for granted as one thing.

     34.   My husband believes in the enforcement of environmental laws, which makes him
           a fierce advocate for threatened places and endangered species. Once he holds a
           principle dear, like the value of the life of a single whale, he cleaves to it in theory
           and practice. I feel that you have to experience a place and the people and the
           animals before you can form an opinion.

     35.   I expected more interest from my friends when I got back. But talking to an
           overly handsome actor at a party one night, I tell him I have just been to Iceland
           and the Faeroe Islands. He is engaged. Why were you there? “I went to see a
           whale hunt,” I tell him. He steps back and scans the room. He expresses sympathy
           and the hope that I didn’t have to eat any whale meat. When I tell him that I did,
           and begin to describe the taste, he turns abruptly and walks away.

     36.   For months after the trips to the Faeroes, I carried in my bag the pictures of
           people I’d met there. “The whole world seems smaller from a boat,” Olavur had
           told me in a conversation about nautical maps. I felt homesick for a place where
           life is lived closer to the bone, closer to the wind and the ocean. Closer, as odd as
           it may seem, to the whales.

The URL for this text is:,1,1090361.story

Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                      Page 10
Reynolds, Susan Salter (2003). “Hunting Whales in West L.A.: Political Correctness, Cultural Imperialism and the Long, Long
Journey for the Real Taste of Blubber.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2003.
                                                                                                                      Page 11

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