Whaling – a brief history

On 27 and 28 October 2012, Planet Whale are hosting the Whalefest event at the Hilton Metropole, Brighton. Whilst the main event will be a family friendly affair, with many activities to get involved with, there will also be a major conference involving other conservation groups and politicians designed to achieve a consensus on how to progress with protecting whales in the future.

The conference is set for the 30th anniversary of the decision to suspend whaling world wide. Whilst popular with much of the general public, the ban has proven to be controversial for communities who believe whaling is a traditional way of life, and those countries that feel whaling is an important part of their economy.

Humans have actively been whaling for millennia. There is evidence of harpoons and porpoise hunting from Japan over 10,000 years ago. The oldest archaeological record of active whaling (hunting whales from boats as opposed to butchering beached animals) comes from Korea over 6,000 years ago. Communities in the west satisfied themselves with the occasional beached whale until the 9th Century, when whaling from boats was developed in Norway and the Basque region of modern Spain and France.

North Atlantic Right Whale mother and calf (wikimedia commons)
North Atlantic Right Whale mother and calf (wikimedia commons)

Because of the limitations of maritime technology of the age, whalers were only able to hunt animals that were slow moving and came close to the shore. The main targets for these early whalers were right whales. These large baleen whales are relatively slow moving, feed close to the shore, and float when they were dead. There is a popular suggestion that the whales were named because they were the ‘right’ whale to hunt, but there does not seem to be any proof of this.

Between the 9th and the 14th century, whaling was adopted by coastal communities in many countries, including England and Japan. However, in 1577 the Muscovy Company was awarded a monopoly on fishing and whaling around Spitsbergen (islands north of Norway) by Queen Elizabeth I, based on false claims that the island had been discovered by Hugh Willoughby in 1553. This was the start of British commercial whaling and saw large numbers of ships setting out for the Arctic hunting grounds in search of seals, walruses and whales.

Despite being based on large commercial ships, the whalers still needed to pursue whales from the open top rowing boats that had been traditionally used. A harpoon would be thrown from the boat, and the whale would eventually be slaughtered with a lance. The carcass was then towed to shore and flensed (cut up) at shore stations, where the blubber would be boiled down to produce the oil. At the end of the season, the oil and whalers would be loaded onboard the ships and head back to their home ports.

Competing claims to Spitsbergen lead to open conflict which culminated in French warships capturing 40 Dutch whalers in 1693. However, by this time the Spitsbergen whales had been decimated and most of the large processing plants on shore had closed. With other European nations taking the initiative and moving on to hunting grounds in Greenland and at the Arctic ice margins, England was left to rely on colonial American whalers and to look for new hunting grounds in the South Seas.

Dutch whalers near Spitsbergen (wikimedia commons)
Dutch whalers near Spitsbergen (wikimedia commons)

The first British expeditions to the South Seas continued to rely upon American ships and crews, financed by British merchants and bounties from the crown. The high bounties (up to £2 per barrel of oil) were paid to encourage high numbers of whalers, which in turn provided a ready supply of tough, hardy, well trained sailors who could be pressed into service by the Royal Navy during wartime. The American Revolution and hostility between American merchant shipping and the Royal Navy led to a pause in British whaling until 1786. The trade quickly gathered pace again and in 1788 a 270 ton vessel out of London, the Emilia, became the first ship of any nation to round Cape Horn and start whaling in the Southern Pacific.

The methods used in processing whales had also changed over time. Previously whalers had to remain close to shore in order to cut up and boil down the blubber, but by the 18th century the whale carcass was being tied up alongside the whaler, and crewmen would climb down onto the carcass and cut it up. This could be a hazardous task, as the blood from the whale would attract large numbers of sharks, and getting all the blubber from the carcass often required stepping off the cutting platform onto the slippery whale skin.

A New England whaler (wikimedia commons)
A New England whaler (wikimedia commons)

Although the whales could be butchered while at sea, Captains were not keen to have furnaces burning on board ships made of wood and tar. Portable furnaces were carried
which could be set up on islands, and this allowed the blubber to be processed during the voyage. The development of steam ships allowed for safer methods to process the oil more quickly, allowing a more frequent turnaround, and more voyages per year.  This, combined with the invention of explosive harpoons and other technologies, increased whaling to unsustainable levels. These technologies, along with high speed ships, meant that even the fastest whales, such as the blue whale, could be targeted. Prior to 1864 only occasional blues were taken but by the 1930-31 season 29,400 blues were killed in the Antarctic Ocean alone.

These unsustainable hunting methods led to the near extinction of many species of whale by the 1960s. This, along with the rise of animal welfare organisations, and scientific research showing that whales are highly intelligent animals, has led to a worldwide ban on commercial whaling which has persisted for the past 30 years. Despite this ban, large numbers of whales are still killed every year under the guise of scientific whaling, as well as in traditional hunts by licensed communities. The scientific whaling carried out by some countries is seen as a stealthy way to continue commercial whaling. This is highlighted by the annual Japanese catch of whales for scientific purposes, which is greater than the combined number caught for science in the 31 years prior to the ban.

Blue Whale (wikimedia commons)
Blue Whale (wikimedia commons)

Whilst many people today find whaling abhorrent, it is important to remember that  whale products were historically essential for many purposes including lighting, lubrication for the machines of the industrial revolution, and producing clothing, tools and furniture. Today, however, all products derived from whales have been replaced and often surpassed by modern technologies. Kerosene replaced whale oil in lighting, and has now been surpassed by electric lighting. Flexible plastics and lightweight metals such as aluminium have replaced baleen in all its traditional uses. Finally, whale meat is substituted by farmed meat available to a worldwide community. The arguments for recommencing whaling are typically based upon propping up a dying industry by governments acting on behalf of commercial interest instead of popular demand. This is reflected in a lack of demand for the meat, with much going into pet food, and over 20% of some catches going unsold.

Common Dolphin skeleton – part of Whale display at the Booth Museum
Common Dolphin skeleton – part of Whale display at the Booth Museum

In support of Whalefest and the Planet Whale conference, a small exhibition on whales can be seen at the Booth Museum. The exhibition features a number of whale and dolphin artefacts and some further information on these animals. All whale artefacts in the display are from animals that had died naturally or were caught in the Victorian age.

Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences

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