Pilot whales

There are two species of pilot whales commonly known as the long-finned and the short-finned pilot whale. Those in the North Atlantic are the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas), and are known to the Faroese as grindahvalur. They occur widely and in large numbers in temperate, sub-arctic waters in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Long-finned pilot whales migrate in schools, or pods, numbering anything from just a few animals to up to a thousand or more. The average length and weight of pilot whales is 420 cm and 879 kg for males and 387 cm and 721 kg for females. Males reach sexual maturity at around the age of 15 and can live to at least 46 years, while females are reproductively mature by around 9 years and can live to at least 59 years.

Pilot whales and various dolphin species occur year round in Faroese waters. Pilot whales both breed and feed in the Faroese area, but the Faroe Plateau is not known to be a primary breeding or feeding area for pilot whales, as they feed and give birth year round and range widely in the Northeast Atlantic.

Dolphins & porpoises

White-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus) bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) are all common species in Faroese waters. Individual animals of the two dolphin species occasionally occur together with schools of pilot whales, while separate schools are also sometimes driven and beached, and they are also fully utilised for human consumption. The driving of dolphins must be carried out in accordance with the same regulations which apply to the pilot whale hunt.

The Scientific Committee of NAMMCO has been requested to provide a comprehensive assessment of these species in the North Atlantic. The emphasis is on analysing results from sightings surveys as a basis for establishing abundance estimates for the stocks, to coordinate research efforts between countries in order to fill identified information gaps, in particular taking advantage of the sampling opportunities provided by Faroese catches, as well as dedicated samples in other areas.

Research on dolphins and porpoises in the Faroes includes sampling of life history parameters (e.g. reproduction and demography) and feeding ecology. Satellite tracking was also carried out on two small groups of white sided dolphins in 2009 and one harbour porpoise in 2008 to monitor movement and distribution, and to contribute data for use in comprehensive assessments of the stocks.

Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus) are an unfamiliar species in Faroese waters. A large group was driven into the bay of Klaksvík on 16 September 2009. After three animals had stranded and it was confirmed that this was not a familiar species, the local authorities stopped the drive and ordered the rest of the group to be driven out again. A small group of Risso’s dolphins taken in Hvalba in April 2010 was initially thought to be bottlenosed dolphins.

In both cases, samples were taken from the stranded animals by the Museum of Natural History for full biological investigation, which will provide new data on a species not previously sampled in this region of the Northeast Atlantic.

Risso’s dolphins are not one of the species of small whales and dolphins for which Faroese regulations permit hunting. There is no intention of amending the regulations to permit the hunting of this species in Faroese waters, as too little is known about Risso’s dolphins in the Faroese area. After the two incidental catches in 2009 and 2010, the relevant district authorities have been advised by the Ministry of Fisheries that particular precaution should be taken to ensure that no further drive hunts of this species are initiated.

Northern bottlenose whale

For centuries, the northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) - or døglingur, as it is known in Faroese - has been a regular visitor to the Faroe Islands. Unlike pilot whales, however, bottlenose whales have only occurred in small numbers over the years - a fact determined more by the whales themselves than by those who make the most of their welcome occurrence.

The bottlenose whale belongs to the group of cetaceans known as odontocetes - or toothed whales. Apart from the sperm whale, the bottlenose is one of the largest of these, averaging about 8 metres in length. The northern bottlenose whale population is distributed across the North Atlantic, with concentrations west and east of Iceland and west of the Faroes. An assessment of this population was carried out by the Scientific Committee of NAMMCO. This was based on historical catch statistics and data from the North Atlantic Sightings Surveys (NASS) of 1987 and 1989, and showed a tentative corrected population estimate of 40,000 bottlenose whales in the North Atlantic.

Regular strandings
Small groups of bottlenose whales, rarely more than two or three, have for centuries been known to strand on an almost annual basis in the Faroes, and most often in the month of September. Long-term statistics indicate that the two neighbouring bays of Hvalba and Sandvík on the southern island of Suðuroy account for a large majority of all bottlenose whale strandings in the entire period for which almost continuous records are available, since 1584.

When fresh, the meat of the bottlenose whale is eaten, while the oil from the blubber, which cannot be consumed, is extracted for use as a highly valued external treatment for a great variety of ailments, from bronchitis to burns. The value of the bottlenose whale to the local communities and the regularity of its occurrence is reflected in the ancient døglingabýti - special customary rules for distributing the meat of the bottlenose whale which differ from the rules for distribution of pilot whales.

Bottlenose whale catches - past and present
In former times, whale oil was a valuable export commodity. Bottlenose whales, as well as a number of other species, were caught offshore around the North Atlantic in commercial operations, mostly by Norwegian whalers, who also sold bottlenose meat to the UK as pet food until the market closed in the early 1970s. From 1903 to 1935, Faroese boats shot a total of 61 bottlenose whales offshore, while Norwegian catches in the same period numbered several thousand. An important whaling area was to the northeast of the Faroes, and this is still an area of high abundance, where Faroese fishermen regularly spot bottlenose whales. There has been no commercial catch of bottlenose whales in the North Atlantic since 1972.

The nature of bottlenose whale strandings in the Faroes is rather different from the pilot whale drive. Historical catch records make no distinction between stranded whales and whales which have been actively taken. But it is a well-known fact, which is also reflected in the local literature, that it is almost impossible to drive the bottlenose whale. Bottlenose whales are easily scared and complete silence must be observed when they are approached. Formerly, it was usual to try to ensure that bottlenose whales stranded by carefully urging them ashore or securing them from boats. Today, Faroese regulations only allow the killing of bottlenose whales which have stranded themselves and cannot be driven out again.

The “Prince” of whales
The historical records of bottlenose whale strandings in the Faroe Islands testify to a phenomenon which is so firmly established that it is also the subject of several versions of a Faroese folktale which explains in popular belief why bottlenose whales return to the same place every year.

The Faroese word for the bottlenose whale, døglingur, derives from the Old Norse word dòglingr, which was poetic language for "king" or "prince". The traditional folk belief that the whale had only one eye is most certainly a reference to the one-eyed Norse god, Oðin, king of the gods of Valhalla. In one version of a contest of strength, which results in the bottlenose whale's regular appearance in the Faroes, a troll loses an eye in his fight with a man, and this is likely the remnant of an earlier tale featuring the one-eyed giant, Oðin, the prince of all princes.

The earliest recorded version of this tale is found in the 1673 topographical description of the Faroes by the Danish priest, Lucas Debes. This is reproduced below in the English translation, which was published for the Royal Society in London in 1676. There are also two other versions of this tale, in which a giant, or a troll or huldumaður (the "hidden" people of Faroese belief) offers the bottlenose whales, among other valuable gifts, as the price of defeat in a contest of strength.

Extract from:

Lucas Debes, Færoe & Færoa Reserata: That is a Description of the Islands and Inhabitants of Feroe, Englished by John Sterpin, 1676.  (pp. 183-184)

“....It is very remarkable that this Døgling Whale cometh usually nowhere in Feroe, but in Suderoe, and that specially in Qualboes Inlet, every year about Michaelmas. Here is related a strange story about it, which can be accounted but for a Fable; They say, it happened once during the darkness of Paganism, when Feroe was first inhabited by men, that a Gyant under took to possess himself of the Island of Myggeness, a Sorcerer dwelling on the land would hinder him, wherefore the man did often fight with the Sorcerer, and at last vanquished him; wherefore the Sorcerer made an agreement with him, that if he would not destroy him, but let him have his habitation in the Island, he would yearly procure him a sort of Whales and Fowl in the Land, which were not gotten in other places of Feroe; and that for him and his Successors as long as the world should last; though with this condition, that if any one mocked or derided his Whale, it should never come any more: which condition the man accepted, and since that time there came yearly a particular sort of Whale under the Land; as the Inhabitants relate and have by relation of their Predecessors, the said Whale had but one eye; finally it happened that an indiscreet man, being weary of the labour he had every year by reason of that Whale, did condemn it, for haivng but one eye, wherefore it never came there since; the Inhabitants believing it removed thence to Qualboe in Suderoe, they alone, and almost every year having them, though they have two eyes as other great Fishes. The Fowl wherewith the Sorcerer did present Myggeness, is the Sule [gannet] described above: which is neither found anywhere in this Country except there; this is sold for the price it cost. Though many things happened in those dark times amongst the Children of infidelity, both there and other places, that seem now in this our light, to be very disconsonant and incredible, as yet dayly many things are perpetrated by Witches, which the children of light cannot apprehend, much less imitate them therein.“