Two activist ships are racing to the Faroe Islands, in the North Atlantic to attempt to stop the "barbaric" annual slaughter of hundreds of whales and dolphins currently taking place in the autonomous Danish province.
Two vessels, the Sam Simon and the Bob Barker which are owned by the militant conservation group Sea Shepherd, set sail yesterday from Bremen in Germany and are due to reach the area by Friday.
The hunt, known as the 'grindadráp' or 'grind' which can happen at any time during the year, is defended by Faroe islanders who say it is part of their cultural heritage and is a tradition stretching back over hundreds of years.
The whales and dolphins are herded into bays by small boats. Until last year, the animals were then killed by locals using hooks and knives, with hunters cutting through the animal's neck to break its spinal cord, according to AFP. However, earlier this year, Faroese officials introduced a "regulation spinal lance", designed by a Faroese veterinarian. The officials say the lance is inserted through the animal's neck to break its spinal cord and ensures that the whales lose consciousness and die within a few seconds. Often entire villages take part in the hunts, including children. It takes a few seconds to kill each whale, and the entire pod is normally killed in less than ten minutes
The whale meat and blubber are eaten by locals and considered delicacies, although consumption has declined in recent years after growing concerns over heavy metal toxins in the flesh.
According to Sea Shepherd, this year's killing season has already begun, with 154 pilot whales reportedly being slaughtered in a single day on Miðvágur beach on the island of Vágar at the beginning of June. The hunts usually take place between May and October, when the sea animals migrate to the area for food.
"Our hope is that compassion will prevail over cruelty, that the beautiful bays and beaches of the Faroe Islands will stop running red with the blood of highly intelligent, sentient and social mammals," said Captain MacLean, in a statement published on the group's website.
"There are no starving Faroe islanders who need whale meat," argues Robert Read, head of Sea Shepherd UK's operations. "The actual grind is almost like a national honour sport, yet is very different from so many other hunts around the world, in the sense that nothing escapes. If there is a pod of dolphins they will kill every single one, wiping out entire genetic pools."
However, many Faroese defend the practice as an important source of food and pride. According to the government of the Faroe Islands: "The use of locally available wildlife is a natural part of life in the Faroe Islands. The pilot whale hunt is dramatic and bloody by its nature. Entire pods of whales are killed on shores and in shallow bays at open sight. Naturally, this results in a lot of blood in the water."
"The government of the Faroe Islands states that it is the right of the Faroese people to use its natural resources. The pilot whale hunt is regulated and sustainable, and a natural part of Faroe Island life."
"It [is] important for us to protect our ways," Bjarki Dalsgarŏ, a 28-year-old Faroese who has participated in grinds, told the National Geographic last year. He also said he resented "these people telling us how to do or not do things."
According to Read, in 2013, 1,534 pilot whales and dolphins were killed in total, and on one day 340 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were slaughtered.
This year's efforts by Sea Shepherd will be much more sea-based than last year's campaign, which resulted in 14 arrests, with the group intending to steer the dolphins and whales away from the islands while they are still relatively far out at sea, in order to prevent the migrating sea creatures from swimming too close to the land.
Correction: This article originally stated that the whales and dolphins were killed using hooks and knives. Newsweek has subsequently been informed that a "regulation spinal lancet" is now used, as of earlier this year.
The article was also changed to clarify that although the hunt happens once a year, the "grindadráp" may take place whenever the whales come close to shore, which can happen at any time of year.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers