Faroe islanders have been hunting for pilot whales for centuries, giving them valuable food stocks for the winter. But to animal rights activists, the kill is cruel and unnecessary. The BBC's Nick Haslam witnessed a whale hunt.
Sea turns pink with whale blood during the kill (Image: Sue Dobson)
As we crested the hill, the mist cleared and there below lay the sea and the rooftops of Torshavn, the capital of the Faroes.
Earlier that day, only two battered Russian trawlers lay at anchor in the bay. Now, countless small boats, in a crescent-shaped curve, were motoring towards a beach below the town.
In front of them, the sea heaved and boiled, the occasional black shape emerging from the water.
Samal, the driver, knew immediately what was happening. "The whales have come at last," he said.
For centuries the people of the Faroes, an isolated archipelago halfway between Scotland and Iceland, have hunted the pilot whale.
Highly social animals, the whales travel in pods of up to 200, following their favourite prey of squid, whiting and mackerel.
Once a group is sighted in the narrow channels and fjords of the Faroes, islanders drop whatever they are doing and rush to their boats to encircle the whales and drive them onto a beach.
Here, in the shallows, men dispatch the animals in a welter of blood and spray by severing their spinal cords with sharp knives in a spectacle strictly not for the squeamish.
We drove on down to the shore where the sea was already bright pink with whale blood.
Lying along the edge of the beach were rows of black carcasses, some more than five metres long and each with a gaping wound just behind the head.
Whale meat is never sold ... it is divided out amongst people in the community
Crowds of people looked on, small children climbing onto the dead whales, which had grinning mouths lined with small sharp teeth.
There was a sudden flurry of activity, and a black tail arched up - amidst a group of men standing up to their waists in the freezing water - to splash back finally into the sea with a spray of bloody foam.
The last whale of the pod had been killed and now, surprisingly quickly, the corpses were tied to boats to be towed to the harbour of Torshavn.
The crowd, looking slightly subdued I thought, dispersed, wending their way home in the soft summer twilight of the high northern latitudes.
One man looked at my camera and asked suspiciously: "You're not from Greenpeace are you?"
Animal rights activists have called for Faroese whaling to be banned, and make frequent attempts to disrupt the hunt.
Next morning at 0600, more than 1,000 people gathered on the quay where the whales lay in rows, each now numbered neatly with Roman numerals cut into the thick blubber.
Whale meat is never sold on the Faroes, for the catch is divided out amongst people in the community and any surplus given to hospitals and old people's homes.
Working in small family groups, the grisly process of butchering the whales began, the black skin and white blubber peeling away to reveal dark red meat which steamed in the chill air.
In less than three hours, 138 whales, from babies to mature adults, were neatly dissected. Then bulldozers arrived to remove the bones left on the quay.
There was very little waste, one man told me as he stacked his share into a pickup, for more than 90% of each animal was consumed.
He was, he said, going to dry his portion of whale meat in the traditional way so it could be eaten by his family over the winter.
That night I sat with Faroese friends and tried some dried whale meat from a previous hunt. It was almost black and very chewy with a slight oily after-taste.
What, I wondered, did they think of the attempts by animal rights activists to ban whale hunting outright?
They had no doubts. With 800,000 pilot whales in the North Atlantic and with rarely more than 2,000 a year taken in the Faroes, the whale population was not under threat.
Had I, they asked pointedly, ever gone to an abattoir in my country and seen the industrial daily slaughter of thousands of farm animals?
Ironically, rights activists and Faroese do agree on one thing.
The recent discovery of high levels of mercury, insecticides and other toxins in pilot whales means that whale meat consumption may have to be reduced. Pregnant mothers on the islands have been counselled not to eat it.
Surely, my friends pointed out, rather than attempting to block a traditional and sustainable harvest, environmentalists would better focus their energies on preventing the slow poisoning of the seas, which in the long run pose a far greater threat to the whales, and to us all.