The Islands and the Whales Asks: People or Whales?

By Nastassja Salem

Director Mike Day’s film the Islands and the Whales offers a stunning portrayal of a multi-layered ethical dilemma. In a world where many different facets of life collide, we are faced with an assessment of what we value most preserving traditional human cultures, or nature itself.

The Islands and the Whales documents a traditional way of life in the Faroe Islands that’s under threat by environmental and health considerations beyond its control. It masterfully weaves through personal and universal concerns to paint a rather familiar scenario of an old versus new mentality.

The hunters of the Faroe Islands, which lie between Iceland and Norway, have been eating whale meat in all its various forms since before they can remember. As the land yields little vegetation, whales and seabirds have been a staple of the diet for centuries. Your first guess may be that whaling is the core concern of this documentary, but the issue goes deeper: “If the whales are not endangered, if it’s sustainable, why should we stop?” asks  a member of the community, which is currently feeling much pressure to stop their indigenous way of living.  

Of course, the answer to that is that whales are highly intelligent, and are indeed, in many cases, endangered. But the islanders counter: are dolphins also not very intelligent? Tens of thousands are caught in nets as a byproduct of fishing every year. And what about the billions of pigs that are eaten each year around the world, though they are just as smart as dogs (if not even more so)?

Marine wildlife conservation organization Sea Shepherd firmly believes there is no excuse to eat whales, and has been actively interfering with the whale hunting in the name of conservation. The Faroese complain about this as remote control by foreigners, regarding it as a form of cultural imperialism.

the islands and the whales

Then there are the elders, who talk of the Icelandic folklore of the Huldufolk, the elves that are believed to live in rocks and which are said to oppose general advancements, such as the bringing of electricity, to Faroese society. Of course, the elders who believe in Huldufolk are against the interference of foreigners in their way of life

We end with a gripping observation: whale meat is no longer fit for human consumption, anyway. Scientists have been documenting mercury levels of the Faroese, and concluded that islanders have been dying prematurely due to ingesting this lethal substance from whales – which are also dying in droves, from unknown causes. The presences of mercury in the water is actually a result of industrial pollution on a massive scale from the same developed countries opposing the whale hunt. So who’s really to blame here for the demise of the whale? 

There are so many elements woven into this story, whose apt complexity reflects many different issues facing our world today: should we all be vegans? Who should truly take responsibility for the impact of industrial pollution? Which is more important: preserving indigenous peoples’ ways of life, or the lives of helpless animals? There are no easy answers, but surely many a conversation will be had after watching this thought-provoking documentary.

Nastassja Salem
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