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The Blood Red Sea

20/06/2014 11:50 BST | Updated 19/08/2014 10:59 BST

Opposing forces have dug themselves in for a bitter summer-long battle in the most unlikely of war zones. The normally tranquil Faroe Islands, that remote outpost of the North Atlantic, has become the subject of a tense standoff between islanders and invading environmentalists.

At dispute is the centuries-old Faroese tradition of the grindadrap - the whale hunt - and the phoney war could be replaced by a real one at any moment.

Around 500 members of the Sea Shepherd marine conservation organisation landed on the Faroes - 18 islands positioned halfway between Iceland and Scotland - a few days ago armed with hi-tech equipment and a zealous determination. They are intent on disrupting, and ultimately stopping, the slaughter of pilot whales which take place on the island's beaches.

Their plan is to achieve this by any means possible. This will lead not only to confrontation with the locals but will ensure it happening in front of a global audience. Which is exactly what they want.

The very nature of the grind helps them towards this end as it is an undoubtedly dramatic and brutal sight. When a pod of whales is spotted off the coast, islanders get behind it in boats and slowly turn the animals towards the shore until they are beached. The local men then wade waist and chest high into the surf to perform the kill. They sever the whale's spinal cords and the sea turns a dark and bloody red.

Mindless murder or a tradition that the world should not meddle with? Minds are already made up on both sides and this will not be a philosophical debate.

I know a bit about the argument because my latest novel, The Last Refuge, is set on the Faroes and includes scenes centred round the grind. I visited the islands for research and talked to those who passionately support the hunt - and that's most of the people there.

Sea Shepherd is going to employ drones and livestream video as they harness everything at their disposal. This means direct action by land, sea and air in order to place themselves between the whales and their would-be killers.

The group relish their image as eco-terrorists, even flying a skull and cross bones on a black flag as self-styled pirates of the sea, fighting the good fight and convinced that the end justifies the means. So it is that they shine laser lights into whaler's eyes, cut drift nets, board boats and throw bottles of putrid acid onto vessels.

So what of the islanders that they are lined up against? They are a stoic breed, generally undemonstrative, friendly and welcoming. Yet they are also fiercely patriotic and stout in defence of their traditions.

Little of what I saw in the people I met there squares with what is seen on their faces as they prepare for the kill. There is a raw and disquieting calm about them then, something primal as they steel themselves for what they're about to do.

If you ask them, they will tell you that they do it because it is the way it has always been. That their ancestors had no choice but to forage in the sea so that they and their families could eat. They point out this is not a commercial enterprise as it is in Japan. They eat what they kill, the whale meat being divided equally among the islanders by the police. It is also, they believe, no one else's business.

None of this, of course, washes with Sea Shepherd who sees cold, simple slaughter. The drones which they have taken with them to the Faroes will allow them to monitor the 23 bays around the islands in which the grind can legally take place. As soon as they see any activity suggesting a hunt is underway, they will act and they say they are prepared to go to jail if necessary

The Faroese will not take it lying down. My contacts have already told me of local hotheads talking about shooting down the drones. There is bitterness at Sea Shepherd activists reportedly confronting drunken teenagers on Saturday night in order to get angry film footage. There is talk too of throwing the pirates into the sea.

The Sea Shepherd volunteers are far from welcome on the islands and there is zero visible support for them there. Instead, resentment grows daily - on both sides. Conflict seems inevitable. In this war between tradition and conservation, blood will be spilled one way or another.