Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sea Shepherd in the Faroe Islands, an article from the Sunday Times

Pammy’s here to harass whalers in 
Faroes baywatch

Article appearing in the Sunday Times, August 3rd, 2014 by Josh Glancey.  It is in reference to Sea Shepherd in the Faroe Islands:

Pammy’s here to harass whalers in Faroes baywatch

The US actress is part of a group that tries to stop the Faroese carrying out their annual cull. Josh Glancy joins them on a stomach-churning rescue mission

PAMELA ANDERSON is angry. Furious in fact. Her rage has brought her and her private jet all the way from sun-drenched California to the perma-fog drizzle of the Faroe Islands, about halfway between Scotland and Iceland.

The former Baywatch star and teen fantasy is here to lend her support to Operation GrindStop, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s campaign to stop the annual Faroese hunting of pilot whales, known as the grind (pronounced “grinned”).

The hunt has been a feature of Faroese life for 500 years. Each summer, pods of pilot whales are herded from the Atlantic into the fjords and up to the “killing beaches”, where local men and boys wait with specially designed knives to cut their spinal cords and turn the water red with blood. A tradition ingrained in the culture of the land, it is done for sport and skill, but also for consumption — the whale meat is dried, cooked and eaten.

“This is a brutal and barbaric act done for entertainment,” says Anderson. She calls the spectacle a “psychotic image that doesn’t teach our children anything — it’s uncivilised. We can make a difference by bringing so much attention to this tradition that people will make the change. It has been done before — as with burning women at the stake.”

Anderson’s eco-warriors versus the islands’ whalers is an extraordinary clash of cultures: a battle between two groups at the opposite ends of western civilisation.

Sea Shepherd, which was formed in America in 1981, says it uses “direct action” to protect marine ecosystems, habitats and species. Its activists tend, like Anderson, to have grown up in places of ease and plenty, sunshine and supermarkets, before deciding that they need to shoulder the world’s burdens. There is a rootlessness about them.

The Faroese, on the other hand, know exactly where they belong. They have been living on this frigid but achingly beautiful archipelago in the far north of the Atlantic for more than a millennium.

The country of 50,000 people, which belongs to Denmark but essentially governs itself, is a treeless tundra and does not support farming other than of fish and some hardy free-range sheep. It rains up to 300 days a year and the average August temperature is just 11C.

In winter the waves can rage 40ft high, so for centuries the islanders survived the dark months almost exclusively on whale meat and schnapps. The sea gives them sustenance and employment, but also makes their lives hard and dangerous.

Anderson says she is “more of an activist than an artist” these days. But is she really the right person to persuade this fierce, proud and stubborn fishing nation that they should give up one of their oldest traditions?

“Coming from someone like me — well, no one wants to hear my input when it comes to these things,” she says, frankly. “But I feel that in this day and age of celebrity I have to speak.”

Anderson knows exactly why she has been roped into this campaign, and she isn’t afraid to say it. “In my position in life I’ve been able to meet a lot of men. I’ve been in a position where I have had some influence over them. I have an opportunity to make a difference, and so I have to.”

Many Faroese are furious at what they see as a foreign attack on their culture. They point out that the pilot whale is not an endangered species.

In an average year the grind will claim the lives of some 800 whales, a sustainable figure in the context of a total population of 800,000. This is a much better fishing ratio than that of the assaults on cod and tuna stocks in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

The Sea Shepherd campaign takes its toll, though. It makes finding and driving the whales difficult, and generates international opprobrium towards a country about which people know little else. The islanders don’t like being portrayed as Viking savages.

Most young people in the Faroes aren’t even that interested in whale meat any more. Because of ocean pollution, levels of mercury in the meat are so high that local doctors advise that it should be eaten only once a month, and not at all by pregnant women.

“Lots of us don’t eat much whale meat,” says Trondur Dalsgaro, a 28-year-old photographer from Torshavn. “But we have a stubborn streak from living out here in the ocean for all these years.

“We don’t necessarily want to eat the whale so much any more, but we don’t like being told what to do, particularly by Pamela Anderson.”

Still, last week during Olavsoka, the country’s biggest annual festival, which commemorates the death of Saint Olaf in 1030, there was plenty of whale meat on display for the special occasion.

The entire country embarked on a mammoth boozing session, and after midnight on the second day linked arms in their thousands for a chain dance and to sing an ancient ballad about love, whaling and island life.

At each house that I visited, I was welcomed with a glass of schnapps and a whale-meat platter. It is thick and meaty, and tastes of the deep, salty ocean. The blubber is slimy, chewy and rather difficult to keep down.

“If we don’t stop the pollution, the grind may die out,” said Hans Hermanson, a veteran whaler. “The main question is: how will it happen? Is it because Big Brother Sea Shepherd is watching us and telling us? Or will we be allowed to live as we have done for many years, adapting to modern civilisation slowly?”

This is Sea Shepherd’s fifth campaign on the islands, the first having taken place in 1985. The activists haven’t stopped the grind yet, but between them and the mercury poisoning it does feel as if its days may finally be numbered.

Operation GrindStop is their biggest Faroes campaign to date, and will see 500 volunteers coming to the islands over the summer to fight the whale slaughter. Sea Shepherd is well funded and has developed sophisticated tactics. It has a large land force of spotters dotted around the island, searching for whales or any signs of unusual fishing activity in the bays and fjords. Activists use a drone to cover some of the impassable terrain on the islands, and they claim to have a mole in the Faroese whaling community who feeds them information about the hunts.

Their elite force is at sea, where a command boat and four speedboats comb the coastal waters for whales, which they try to drive off using whale irritants such as bad underwater music. If they interrupt a whale drive in progress, they try to interfere with it, although at this point they’re entering rather murky legal waters.

Recognisable by the skull and crossbones-like logo emblazoned on their hoodies, Sea Shepherd members are not famed for moderation. The organisation’s charismatic founder, Paul Watson, who broke away from Greenpeace and has twice been the target of an Interpol “red notice” requesting his arrest, once reportedly drew a comparison between Faroese whaling and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer. He also suggested Japan’s 2011 tsunami was Neptune’s retribution for its annual dolphin slaughter.

Many volunteers have devoted their entire lives to the movement. Each repeats the same mantra: “I’m not here for me. I’m here for the whales.”

“I would give up family, friends, girlfriends for this,” said Guilherme Pira, a 27-year-old volunteer from Rio de Janeiro, who gave up a career as a graphic designer to join the movement. “I’m saving lives — there is nothing more important than life.”

The days spent scouring the seas for whales to save are long and dreary. They are followed by a quick debrief, a Quorn burger and an early night. “There is no time for fun,” says Pira. “This is a campaign.”

For now at least, the campaign seems to be working. Since they arrived in June there has not been a killing, as in 2011, when their “Ferocious Isles” campaign helped to ensure a grind-free summer.

Although the whales are not endangered, the activists believe they should be given protection to ensure they do not become so. But ultimately their appeal against the grind is an emotional one. “Whales are graceful, intelligent, socially complex animals,” says Lamya Essemlali, head of the Sea Shepherd offshore operation. “To kill them in this way for a psychotic, almost sexual pleasure is not acceptable.”

My conversation with Essemlali is cut short when she receives news of a pod of whales being tracked close to the shore on the other side of the islands. We pile into a four-wheel-drive car and hurtle at terrifying speed through pounding rain to get to the action along the narrow and winding island roads.

The conditions are so appalling that the Faroese have decided the seas are too rough to attempt a grind. But Essemlali and her boat crew are determined to drive the whales out to sea anyway, to ensure their safety.

So we jump on board two tiny aluminium speedboats and hurtle through the seething fjords to find the whales. We do, eventually, and they decide to push out to sea, perhaps irritated by our buzzing boats, or maybe just bored with playing in the fjords. We can now go back to shore.

I stagger back onto land and discreetly vomit behind a shed. The Sea Shepherds are all hugging and crying. Here, on a lonely Nordic pier out in the deep ocean in a full-blown Atlantic storm, this motley collection of international misfits have won a victory.

“They may try again tomorrow,” says Essemlali. “So we will be back at 6am. Every day that we need to, we will be back.”

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