The Crimson Shore

July 28, 2016

Tossing and turning in a scarlet sea, the dozens of pilot whales cannot escape the knife blows raining down. Driven into the shallows, where they are forced to bathe in the blood of their relatives and companions, their distress is palpable as hunters hack at their smooth sides.

Once they are dead — or, at least, dying — hooks and ropes haul their bodies ashore, where crowds of people, many of them children, have gathered to watch this bloodthirsty spectacle.

Tragically, the whales, the victims of this brutal human behaviour, are here as a result of their innate sense of loyalty. Such is their devotion to their extended family that if one member becomes stranded on land, the rest of the pod will remain with the stricken animal, even if they endanger themselves.

But this same loyalty drives them all towards the lances that await them on the shore. The whales stick together, so they die together.

This week, the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic witnessed the latest grindadrap, or grind, as these hunts are called.

A pod of whales was sighted off the islands and 25 boats set out in pursuit. In the course of two hours, the men herded the whales inshore and eventually caused something called — in a euphemism a politician would envy — an ‘assisted stranding’.

There, on Hvannasund Beach, the Faroese were waiting with their weapons. Of the 200 whales in the pod, 120 were killed.

Pause to consider pilot whales. With distinctive dome-shaped heads, they come in two species hard to tell apart, long-finned and short-finned, and they can be found just about anywhere in the ocean.

They are often collectively referred to as blackfish because of their colouring — although they are not fish but mammals like us. As whales go, they are not large; five metres is about the maximum length.

They are renowned for the intense and close nature of their society — unusually, females and males stay in the same group as their mothers. They display something close to grief when members of their pod die: pilot whales in the North Atlantic have been spotted forming a protective circle around one adult and a dead calf.

Certainly, they seem to have an emotional life. Volunteers who have helped them when they became stranded on Scottish beaches have talked of the creatures ‘following’ them with their eyes, and making plaintive cries. Remarkably, when they were in distress, the animals responded positively to female voices, particularly when the volunteers sang. They seemed to find the sounds soothing.

Observers have noted, too, that pilot whales seem to enjoy annoying sperm whales, bumping and nipping the huge yet timid animals for no discernible purpose.

These intelligent and curious animals are, like many whales and dolphins, very vocal. Early research revealed that pods — their large family groups — develop their own traditions, such as distinctive diets, even when several pods live in the same area, and unique calls. The newborns within a group soon learn to mimic their elders’ clicks and whistles.

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