An Introduction to the history of whaling

SEPTEMBER 27th 2007

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An Introduction to the history of whaling

Whales are very valuable mammals. The pattern of exploitation has changed over the years as different species have become the focus of the whalers, (pushing several species to the brink of extinction).

There are important aspects of the biology of whales that have caused them historically to be so valuable and which, alongside certain technological developments, explain the history of their destruction.

1. Many whales are very big - a stranded or hunted whale can provide a substantial quantity of meat and/or oil. (The vast insulating "energy store" of the blubber provides most of the oil.)

2. Many whales are highly migratory - causing predictable concentrations of them to occur in certain waters at certain times - facilitating whaling expeditions.

3. Some whales - the "right whales" - are slow moving and float when harpooned making hunting relatively easy. Humpback whales are slow but sink when struck.

4. Some (smaller) whales are highly social and can be captured by driving them ashore in numbers.


In general, it seems that many baleen (filter feeding) whales undergo long migrations because they need warm waters for the growth and development of their relatively small young, but they also require the food resources concentrated in colder waters to sustain them throughout the year. However, not all baleen whales make long migrations: bowhead whales stay in high latitudes all year round and, similarly, the fin and minke whales may only make short (if any) yearly migrations.

The areas of high plankton productivity have not always been where they are now. The early baleen whales could have evolved alongside zones of high productivity in low latitudes. Then, as these zones moved polewards as oceanic currents and temperatures changed, so the vast migrations of some species (for example blue and humpback whales) evolved.

The cold waters of the Antarctic are now amongst the richest in the world. Water rich in nutrient salts wells up to the surface here and supports the growth of masses of plant plankton. Chief amongst the small animals feeding on this are the krill or Euphausia. About 2 inches long, these shrimp-like animals are found near to the surface and often gather in vast swarms visible as red-brown patches up to a quarter of a mile across.

This super-abundance of food helps to explain the sizes that whales can reach. A fringe of filtering baleen suspended from the upper jaws of baleen whales acts as a sieve, removing krill from the water.

In the slow moving right whales, long baleen plates (8-10 ft) are protected by five-foot high lips rising from the lower jaws. A right whale feeds by ploughing through the water with its mouth open. At intervals, the mouth shuts and the tongue scrapes the accumulated krill off the baleen plates into the throat.

The rorqual whales (such as the blue, fin and minke) have smaller mouths and feed continuously. They have expandable pleats under the head which allows the mouth cavity to be greatly increased. They take in huge gulps of water and then, after closing their mouths, force the water out through the baleen with their tongues.

Some whales are thus slow swimmers and others "smash and grab" gulpers!

Enter the whalers

The history of whaling starts before the beginning of history. We know about the Basque whalers in the 16th century but, in fact, stranded animals were exploited from the earliest times and very early primitive blubber stripped artefacts have been identified.

Primitive hunting in North America was based on thrusting barbed harpoons into the back of a whale. These were attached to floats of sealskin or wood which helped to both tie and mark the whale. When it breached more floats were attached. Not only was the flesh valued but baleen was used for sledge runners by the Inuit people and many other uses were found for the other body parts.

Another method of whale catching that dates back into pre-history is the driving of whales. A semi-circle of boats is used to direct the school. One whale may be lanced when its pod is close to shore, causing the school to panic and go aground on a typically shallow soft-bottomed shore, rather than breaking back out through the boats. This method is still practised in the Faroe Islands where it was once of vital importance to the survival of the community.

The first organised industrial whaling is attributed to the medieval Basque people in the Bay of Biscay. They later taught their whaling skills to the English, Dutch and other nationalities.

From the 10th century, they mainly hunted right whales, which had a migration route that brought them close inshore. Blubber was rendered down to provide oil for lighting and whale bone (or baleen) - which is stiff, but elastic, and which can be moulded after immersion in hot water - was excellent for many things. Whips, fishing rods, chair seats and, most famously, corsets were made from it. Lookouts probably spotted the passing whales from towers and then a flotilla of small boats was sent out to intercept them.

The Basques only took a few whales each year (compare the six taken by them in 1538 with some 60,000 taken each year in the 1950s) but, by the middle of the seventeenth century the catches decreased as the right whales became rare.

In the 16th century, the Basques set off to fish for cod in the Grand Bank area Of Westfoundland and discovered concentrations of whales there which they were swift to talk advantage of. Similarly, English and Dutch explorers discovered the Greenland right whales and they, plus Germans, set sail to exploit these "riches". At first they hired Basques to capture and cut up the whales. Ships in these early ventures were only 100-200 feet long but still carried crews of up to 50.

Smaller boats were used to harpoon the whales with a multi-barbed harpoon. This was attached to the boat with stout rope which was slowly played out as the struck whale tried to get away. Keeping the boat and the whale close together, allowed a lance to be thrown. The lances were six-foot long steel rods tipped with sharp blades and fitted into a twelve-foot long wooden shaft. The intention was to strike a vital blood vessel - a whale spouting blood was a sure sign that the end was near. It could take anything from fifteen minutes to forty hours between the harpooning and the killing of a whale. The carcass then had to be rowed back to the ship for processing before it decayed or the weather deteriorated.

In the early years of the Greenland whale-fishery, bodies were towed to shore where each nation had a factory. The blubber was processed to make a thick viscid oil for lighting, lubrication or, later, the manufacture of soap and paint. Oil and whalebone (the baleen plates) were sent home in barrels. This inshore whaling peaked in about 1636. After this, the whales became scarce here too. The whale ships then had to venture further, and the ability to process the whales on board became more of a necessity. By 1720, the Greenland "fishery" was dead - there were no more whales. The whalers now moved to the ice-edge to the east of Greenland, Baffin Bay and up the Davis Straits.

At the same time, the colonists in the New World started to exploit the whales near their shores. Inshore there were humpback and right whales and, offshore sperm whales which later became the main American quarry - after (so legend has it) a whaling boat was blown offshore in 1712 and discovered them. The American whalers pushed ever further out to sea - reaching the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, the Azores and Africa.

The next major breakthrough was the discovery of the "new" whaling grounds in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

New England whaling peaked in 1846. Each whale population responded in a predictable way - bowheads and right whales in the north Atlantic had declined significantly by the late 1700s and similar declines occurred during the mid-1800s in the north Pacific. (British arctic whaling ceased in 1912.)

The next important developments in whaling - the ones that brought the fast moving and huge rorqual whales within the whalers' reach - were the explosive harpoon, fired by canon, and the motorised whale catcher. Both arrived in about 1870 and, forty years later, highly effective factory boats allowed the dense concentrations of whales that occurred in Antarctica to be exploited. Now, whale carcasses could be processed with relative ease on board. In the 1907-1908 season, some 2000 whales were taken in the Southern Ocean. In 1937-38, the last season before World War Two, the number was about 46,000 (85% of the whales caught world-wide).

Initially Britain and the Norwegians monopolised Antarctic whaling but by the late 1930s, Germany and Japan had joined the hunt there.

Following the collapse of one whale stock after another, the nations of the world tried to manage whaling to make it sustainable. Whilst some species had already been hunted to near extinction, the new technology now meant that the whalers could catch and potentially threaten all whale species. The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (also known as the Washington Convention, 1946) was the culmination of a series of agreements begun in the 1930s to try to conserve whale stocks.

By 1972, the "allowable catch" in Antarctica had been reduced to less than 25% of that agreed by the IWC when it was first established. Blues and humpbacks had been placed on the endangered list and the fin whale joined them three years later.

Meanwhile, the decline in Antarctic stocks coupled with the falling price of whale oil persuaded one nation after another to cease whaling. By 1969, only Japan and the Soviet Union were whaling in Antarctica. Japan's domestic meat market then (as now) provided it with incentive and the USSR was perhaps motivated for geopolitical reasons.

In 1973-74, the total whale catch was about 32,000. Three years later it had dropped to some 22,000. In 1982, the IWC agreed to a total "moratorium" on commercial whaling by agreeing to zero commercial quotas. Norway, Peru, Japan and the USSR all used their right to formally object to this - meaning that they would not be bound by the moratorium. Japan and Peru later withdrew their objections and the USSR (and its Russian successor at the IWC) have never used their objection to whale. Norway, however, resumed whaling, in 1993.

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