Vt. man runs up against tradition as he tries to save whalesPhoto by Matt Hart
Danish special forces troops prepare for a practice drill at keeping protesters away from organized whale kills at the Faroe Islands. The photo was taken by a Vermonter on the scene
Matt Hart didn’t get to bepart of a human wall between pilot whales and fishermen intent on slaughtering them in the Faroe Islands — but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Days after his return from the tiny archipelago 200 miles north of Scotland, the Vermonter said he plans to return to the subarctic area next year and hopes to inspire others to go with him.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat next year,” said Hart, 43, a Rutland lawyer who volunteered with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to use civil means to thwart the traditional, government-backed whale kills that literally wash the islands’ “killing beaches” with blood.
“And I want to encourage others to get involved,” Hart said last week. “... I think the biggest thing I would say to people after going there is, ‘Broaden your awareness. The biggest enemy we have is when a mind is closed.’”
Hart, a former member of a Marine recon team and a veteran of combat in several countries, has seen plenty of violence.
But the owner of a canine rescue operation and a supporter of animal rights groups said his true calling from a young age has been to preserve life and fight against outdated traditions and practices that engender cruelty to animals for little or no cause.
In the Faroe islands, Hart was prepared to stand alongside other members of the international nonprofit Sea Shepherd group to block fishermen with harpoons, knives and axes intent on slaughtering whales herded onto beaches by boats.
But during the two weeks he was overseas, Hart and the volunteers he oversaw didn’t have to intervene because bad weather and a lack of pilot whale sightings in the area he was responsible for kept such confrontations from occurring.
In the past, Sea Shepherd teams visiting the islands have come into conflict with some of the native population who say the volunteers are interfering with a 1,000-year-old tradition practiced by their Norse ancestors, who would not have survived if not for the whale hunts known as “grindadràp” in the islands’ dialect.
“Tradition is not a valid argument,” Hart said. “We evolve and there are traditions that need to move into the past. The people on the island have some of the highest standards of living in Europe. They don’t need to do the ‘grinds’ for food or money.”
He said he was prepared for the possibility of vandalism to his temporary residence or his crew’s vehicles, or angry encounters with some of the local population.
What he wasn’t prepared for was the warm reception he said he and his team received.
“Everywhere I went, in every store and restaurant, the locals were very nice,” Hart said. “They would literally come up and shake hands.”
He also discovered that many of the islanders were ambivalent about their tradition.
“I met a 13-year-old who said he loved Sea Shepherd and loved the whales and said we shouldn’t be killing them,” Hart said. “That tells me the younger generation is questioning this tradition.”
And even an older member of that generation, who told him many islanders want to keep the “grindadràp” tradition, shook his hand.
“I could accept the tradition if they did it the way they did it 1,000 years ago with longboats,” Hart said. “But now that they use helicopters, jet skis, motor boats and satellite tracking of whale pods, there’s nothing traditional left. It’s just a killing.”
The Sea Shepherd teams don’t have that kind of technology or personnel at their disposal, he said.
From 6 a.m. to midnight every day, Hart said he directed up to 12 volunteers to watch for pods of whales or activity on the seven designated “killing beaches” on the six islands he was responsible for patrolling.
While Hart and his crews worked the shores, two Sea Shepherd boats assigned to the area patrolled the fjords prepared to disrupt efforts to herd the whales onto the beaches.
While the organization’s resources weren’t used during his stay, Hart said he got a sense of the tensions on the island from the police and military security he saw.
For example, less than 24 hours after he arrived on the island, he said he received a call on his cellphone from the local police chief who knew his name, phone number and military background.
“I think it was my military experience, shaved head and tattoos that got me some attention,” Hart said. “I think he received 17 calls from people wanting to know who I was and I think they knew because there’s only one airline that flies to the island so all they had to do was look down the manifest for the American on board.”
A meeting he subsequently had with the police chief was cordial, Hart said, and they agreed that if they both did their jobs, there would be no problems.
But it was an incident on one of the killing beaches that troubled Hart the most about the direction the island’s authorities might take toward the annual protests.
Passed one day by a speeding police car, Hart said he and another volunteer followed the cruiser and drove through a roadblock that was being hastily erected more than a mile from the beach.
At the beach, Hart said he expected to see whales being driven into the shallows.
Instead, he saw members of a Danish military special forces team training with local police. The soldiers, in fast inflatable boats, were chasing motorboats like those used by Sea Shepherd volunteers and attempting to board them, Hart said.
The Danish government lays claim to the Faroe Islands but allows them to operate autonomously. That independence extends to whaling, which Denmark opposes, Hart said.
“I’m afraid the Danes want this to continue in secret,” he said. “They don’t want it broadcast or published any more. They’re embarrassed by it, I’m pretty sure, but they’re also the country in the best position to make it stop.”
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