Eating Whale Blubber in Greenland: Politely Partake or Politically Pass Up?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | October 25th, 2013 | 5 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Greenland

Throughout human history, the sharing and exchange of local food between people of different cultures has cemented social bonds and sealed agreements. Feasts often brought people from far-off places and varying ways of life together.

Today, whether you’re in a friend’s home or visiting a foreign land, partaking of your host’s served meal is considered polite — or, at least, that’s what I have been taught. So, when I recently traveled to Greenland and visited an Inuit community, I happily agreed to taste the traditional foods offered, including raw whale blubber, dried cod and simmered seal stew.

Wanting to share my adventure with friends, I posted a photo of myself eating the uncooked blubber on a social media site. To my surprise, I was met with strong disapproval by an acquaintance who works at an environmental organization.

When traveling, should you indulge in the traditional foods offered, even though eating them may not be “politically correct” in your own country?

Commercial whaling

Inuit kayaker

Native Greenlanders have been eating whale sustainably for centuries. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

It is well known that overexploitation by the whaling industry led to serious declines in many of the world’s whale populations, although thankfully — according to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) — no species was brought to extinction. Many are now in the process of recovering (although not all). Whale hunting, which started in the 1700s, was a very big business until about 60 years ago.

Whales were sought for their blubber, which could be burned as fuel in oil lamps and used to make candles and soap. The plates from baleen whales were employed in making such items as women’s clothing (like waist-nipping corsets), umbrellas and fishing rods. Over the centuries as technology progressed, whalers were able to hunt faster whales and to conduct their hunts throughout the world’s oceans. Some whale populations became so small that it became apparent that some sort of management was needed. In 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was established. By 1986, an international ban on commercial whaling had been enacted.

Whale populations around the world are still threatened, however, due to other dangers, including entanglements with fishing gear, degradation of habitat and collisions with ships.

Subsistence whaling

It’s important to note that commercial whalers decimated whale populations, not native peoples. Indigenous hunters have been taking whales sustainably for centuries. Since its inception, the International Whaling Commission has recognized that indigenous or “aboriginal subsistence whaling” is of a different nature than commercial whaling. It is thus not subject to the international moratorium. According to the commission, aboriginal subsistence whaling:

  • ensures that risks of extinction are not seriously increased by whaling;
  • enables native peoples to hunt whales at levels appropriate to their cultural and nutritional requirements (also called “need”); and
  • moves populations towards and then maintains them at healthy levels.

    raw whale blubber

    When visiting an Inuit village in Greenland, would you partake of whale blubber? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Aboriginal subsistence whaling is recognized by the IWC for Denmark (Greenland: fin, bowhead, humpback and minke whales), the Russian Federation (Siberia: gray and bowhead whales), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (Bequia: humpback whales) and the USA (Alaska: bowhead whales; Washington State: gray whales). National governments must provide the commission with evidence of the cultural and subsistence needs of their people, while the Scientific Committee of the IWC provides advice on safe-catch limits. Based on both the needs and the scientific advice, the commission then sets the catch limits (recently, in five-year blocks).

In Greenland, the government divvies up the International Whaling Commission quotas among the towns. The meat is then sold in village stalls to feed the local population.

Is it immoral eating or gracious acceptance?

Because I travel with reputable ecotourism companies, I asked my Greenland tour provider about the reasons behind the Inuit traditional-food-tasting event. According to Bill Davis, vice president of operations for Quark Expeditions, “Purchasing souvenirs made from endangered species is discouraged and not supported by Quark. This can lead to ‘headhunting,’ where a market is created by tourist demand. However, our food tasting was organized locally using food taken from the local market in very small quantities. The amount of meat we use doesn’t cause a shortage for local consumption and doesn’t create a demand to feed the tourists. Therefore, no ‘headhunting need’ is created. Arrangements are made with local representatives and leaders of communities several months in advance of our visits, and we always conform to their wishes, requests, and local rules and regulations. There is as much interest by the locals to educate us in their way of life as there is by us to learn it. There is nothing illegal or immoral.”

When I travel, as an outsider and guest of the countries I visit, I try not to judge whether or not local customs, such as what people eat, are acceptable or not. For me, tasting local fare that I might not ever consider eating at home is all part of the adventure.

Would you eat traditional foods offered by your native hosts in a foreign country, even if they were not considered palatable or politically correct in your own nation or culture?

Happy trails,

Candy

Feature photo: Because Greenland has so little soil in which to grow food, much of the traditional fare comes from the sea. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


TravelerVoice

Comments

  1. Given the circumstances you describe in your article, yes I would partake. The only time I’d allow “political correctness” to come into play would be purchasing it commercially, s/a a restaurant. Shark fin soup in South East Asian restaurants is an example of where I have drawn the line, and I doubt too many village households make it. For any travel journalist, especially for a culinary writer, the line is thin & difficult and does require more thought than just the wholesale imposition of one’s beliefs on another culture. Good article and thanks for raising the question.

    Marc d'Entremont | October 28th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  2. I “accidentally” ate some minke whale during a tour I was leading to Iceland when my local guide told me it was beef. In this circumstance I would have not knowingly done so. Whaling in Iceland is still commercial whaling and is done primarily for the tourist market. Tourists believe they are sampling local traditional food, and yet whales were not a large part of the diet there. My response was to have that restaurant taken off the itinerary for the next year. In this case I believe tourists are being misled and that fuels the commercial slaughter. It sounds like your experience was partaking with locals of their local food. As long as that scenario does not drive the slaughtering of more whales beyond their indigenous use, then you have had a polite cultural interaction. Each circumstance is different and should be looked at individually.

    Sherry kirkvold | October 28th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  3. Yes , I would eat the traditional food of the people I visited . Whether it’s a friend here or if I were visiting a foreign land .

    John H. Gaukel | October 28th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  4. I was also in Greenland this summer and was offered whale blubber and whale meat as part of a “local specialties tasting” at a Qaqortoq hotel. I chose NOT to eat the whale products, although I did eat seal paté and various fish preparations. My refusal wasn’t so much a reasoned decision as a visceral reaction, I suppose: knowing that cetaceans are very intelligent and emotionally complex creatures (and also making a distinction – perhaps illogical – between wild creatures and those that would not even exist were they not bred by humans for consumption), I was as unable to eat whale as I would be to eat bush meat in Africa.

    The Expedition Leader of our Lindblad trip later apologized to the group, saying she’d been blindsided by the inclusion of these dishes on the buffet and that whale was NOT supposed to have been on the menu. Indeed, at a similar tasting later in the trip, at Ilulissat, whale was not offered in any form,

    Of course, Candy, my situation was quite different from yours – this was a buffet served by a commercial tourist establishment. Had I been offered whale when I was a guest in someone’s home, I would have choked it down out of politeness. But given all we know about whales as well as the brutal history of whaling and the fact that I have neither a deep custom nor subsistence need to consume whales, I found myself repulsed by the prospect.

    Joan Campbell | October 28th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  5. Yes, without fail I would have tried it. These indigenous cultures have been eating this way since before giant fleets nearly wiped out whales to satisfy commercial, non-survival needs. For westerners to get on their high horse about something like this is, honestly, a form of historical hypocrisy.

    Mike Luque | October 29th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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