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Learn more about the themes in our exhibition ‘All Mortal Greatness is but Disease’

The Hunting of Whales

Whaling has been documented as early as the Neolithic period (4000 – 2000 BCE) but it wasn’t until the 1800s that whale populations began to decline globally. Modern hunting, aided by advanced weaponry and ships, nearly decimated many of the world’s whale populations within a century. Demand for whale products remained high through WWII when it was used in nitro glycerine explosives and in margarine across Europe. This period also saw the beginning of cetacean (whale) research, which was funded by the whaling companies, to sustain the industry.

By the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t the public’s growing concern for whales that ended this industry, but the fact that it was no longer profitable. Many whale species were threatened by extinction, and they were difficult to find and expensive to process. Ultimately, it was economics and science that ended the whaling industry because substitute products were cheaper and easier to get. Today, Japan, Iceland and Norway are the only nations who continue to practice commercial whale hunting.

Industrial whaling is now considered to be one of the cruelest and most gruesome industries, with a huge environmental impact, killing 1.6 million whales in the Antarctic alone. Scotland’s substantial role in this industry is all but forgotten, as are the stories of the men for whom whaling provided an unrivalled opportunity for prosperity and adventure.

The Whaling Industry

Whaling practices were introduced to Scotland 1000 years ago by the Vikings, who hunted in the North Atlantic. These practices continued in the Hebrides until the 1800s. Not long after, modern whaling stations were established in the Shetland Islands with company fleets in Dundee and Leith. In the preceding centuries, early commercial whaling was driven by profit but was also about exploration and research, with whaling fleets contributing to mapping coastlines and changing topography. Scotland’s harbours were key to these developments.

Whale-derived products were extremely valuable and started gaining popularity during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the 18th—19th century, they established themselves as essential commodities in newly industrialised societies. It was the new urban market of the 1600s that largely spurred early industrial whaling and by the 1740s whale oil fuelled London’s 5000 streetlamps alone. Whale oil was used in soaps, perfumes, and nitro glycerine, to soften Dundee’s jute fibres and crucially for industrialisation, to lubricate machinery. Similarly, baleen (or whalebone) was widely valued for its strength and flexibility. Baleen is the filter-feeding system inside the mouths of baleen whales and was used in products such as corsets, parasols, cutlery, and decorations.

Early in the 20th century, the Scottish shipping company Salvesen of Leith, were leaders in the whaling industry. At the time, food oils and other products from the Antarctic were considered an unlimited resource. In the mid-20th century, Salvesen owned the two whaling ships Southern Harvester and Southern Venturer. These vessels were floating factories and were key in whaling expeditions. They were equipped with an onboard hangar, housing a Westland Whirlwind helicopter used for whale spotting.

South Georgia: the heart of industrial whaling

In open ocean whaling, whales were killed and processed at sea and much of the carcass was wasted. The whalers used studded shoes to walk across the body as a platform while butchering it. While the oil and baleen were valuable, the meat rotted quickly without refrigeration, so the body was left to decompose in the ocean.

However, in shore-based whaling, nothing was wasted: most of the body would be reduced to oil, baleen would be extracted for materials and the leftover ‘fenks’ of blubber became manure. On whaling stations, processing was called ‘working up.’ While western commercial whaling used only what was profitable, many nations such as the Inuit of North America used the meat for food, the blubber for oil and the bones for building. When whaling companies overhunted in the Arctic Archipelago, many Inuit nations suffered from the loss of this essential resource.

After the decimation of whale ‘stocks’ in the Arctic, massive whale populations were discovered in the Antarctic. There were seven whaling stations on South Georgia Island operated mostly by British and Norwegian whalers. Grytviken, Husvik, Stromness and Leith Harbour were some of them with Grytviken being the earliest founded by the Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen in 1904. This period coincides with The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration when explorers such as Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton led multiple expeditions contributing to scientific and geographical knowledge. From South Georgia, Scottish whaling ships brought back to its ports nearly 4 million seals skins and blubber from at least 20,000 whales.

Whaling on South Georgia island continued until 1965 when the whales’ population had decreased too much for the industry to be profitable. The period of intense hunting and oil overproduction had caused a crash in its price, also affecting the industry’s value. Today, most of the stations on the island are off limits due to collapsing structures and asbestos, which has largely been reclaimed by local penguin and seal populations. Invasive reindeer and rats, introduced via whaling ships and for sport hunting, have devastated indigenous flora and fauna ecosystems. It took nearly 50 years since the island was abandoned for these species to be eradicated.

The Meat of it: whaling stations and floating factories

Whales are the largest mammals on the planet which makes them particularly difficult to catch and kill. Whaling is an extremely cruel practice with whalers ‘playing the whale’ until it died. This includes chasing them until exhaustion before harpooning them, using exploding harpoons and other brutal weapons which are often not fatal, and the animal needs to be struck multiple times. A whale was hauled to the stations’ massive processing plants where it was “like peeling a banana,” the blubber was stripped from the carcasses and the materials processed for further commodity production. A whale the size of a railway carriage could be deconstructed in 20 minutes.

The first harpoon rarely kills. Two, three, up to six, harpoons have to be used before some animals die. […] As it tried to dislodge the harpoon from its body it tears itself to pieces. Slowly it dies a cruel death. – WRD McLaughlin

One of the most dramatic and devastating advances in whaling was the shift to factory ships that processed whales on the open ocean. This moved whaling into previously inaccessible waters with larger populations of whales. Factory ships could be 170 metres long (about 1.5 football fields) and could have crews of up to 4,000 men. They consisted of whale catchers, buoy boats, tugboats for catching, rounding up, holding and towing the whales. Many would have their own meat and oil processing plants onboard and could process up to 200 whales per day. By the 1950s, whaling would employ research, sonar, helicopters, and electric and explosive harpoons for wholesale slaughter. The hunting of whales was more precise and efficient, and whales were no longer the unknown monsters of the deep, as in the time of Moby Dick, but were seen as a resource for sought-after commodities.

A Whaler’s Life

The boys enlisted to the whaling companies were promised adventure and fortune and spent from 6 months to 3-4 years on whaling ships. Many whalers came from crofting or fishing families in the Scottish isles for whom the amount earned over these long months would be enough for a house many times over. The young men who were recruited were attracted by the opportunity to leave the island and see the world. Older whalers were viewed as well off, daring and impressive but the new recruits had little idea of the exhausting, dangerous work and desolation they would face on the seas or in the Antarctic.

Whaling stations on South Georgia were essentially small towns. They hosted cinemas, in Norwegian and English, had shops, libraries and ski jumps. Time on the stations alternated between brutal conditions processing whales and periods of extreme boredom over long winters, called ‘overwintering’. At sea, earnings were dependent on the number of whales caught, so crews were driven relentlessly to slaughter. The whalers were there for money and a chance at a prosperous future. Despite this, many acknowledge the internal struggle in hunting the creatures:

When we killed the sei whales, they used to make a noise, like a crying noise. They seemed so friendly, and they’d come round and they’d make a noise, and when you hit them, they cried really. I didn’t think it was really nice to do that. Everybody talked about it at the time I suppose, but it was money. At the end of the day that’s what counted at the time.” – Roddy Morrison

Processing the whales was gruelling and difficult work. Men would work in small armies in 12-hour shifts. Blubber was stripped, the meat was processed in giant cookers for fertilizer, bones were cut using steam saw and boiled for their oil. For many men, it was best to work with fresh kills, as they could warm their hands in the blood. However, it wasn’t unusual to have to work on and nearly inside week old rotting corpses too.

Demise of the Industry

Whaling as an industry had begun to decline as early as the 1840s, when North Atlantic and Arctic whale populations were depleted from overfishing. Not long after, crude oil derived products such as petroleum and hydrogenated fats, gas lamps and steel and plastic became cheaper alternatives to whale products.

Once whaling depleted both Antarctic and pelagic whale populations, and whale by-products became increasingly redundant, whaling companies funded some of the earliest cetacean (whale) research. This, along with the creation of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) aimed to lobby governments to restrict whaling. By this time, all steps were being taken in vain to save a dying industry with ‘stocks’ such as the right and humpback whales near extinction.

In the 70s and 80s, the IWC shifted its attention to conservation to allow stocks to grow for more profitable whaling. This was supported by the Moratorium on commercial whaling implemented by IWC in 1982. The ban was voluntary with Japan, Norway, Iceland, Peru, and USSR objecting and not being bound by it. In 2018, Japan eventually left the IWC and along with several countries maintains the practice as ‘scientific’ whaling.

Threats to Whales Today

Besides limited commercial whaling, IWC permits whaling on protected species when it is practiced by certain indigenous groups and is performed to satisfy subsistence needs. The Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) allows for “aborigines” to hunt some baleen whale species “exclusively for local consumption” because it recognises their cultural, subsistence and nutritional needs related to whales. IWC allocates ASW quotas and limits every six years to allow whaling by indigenous communities in Greenland, the Russian Federation, the United States and by people on the island of Bequia in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (the Caribbean).. However, there are concerns that the conditions of ASW are widely not being fulfilled. Some of these contestations relate to the traditional tools and hunting methods used, which struggle to achieve the efficacy of industrial weaponry and therefore prologue the suffering of the animal.

Today, some whales’ populations have seen recovery, particularly Humpbacks and Blue Whales, but the animals are threatened by other industry-driven human effects. Climate change is significantly impacting marine ecosystems, causing environmental changes such as warming oceans, rising seas and ocean acidification. Whales are especially vulnerable to these effect since they are felt stronger by species towards the top of the food web. North Pacific Right Whales are one of the rarest large species of whales, and it is estimated that there are only 30 left in the eastern population.

Climate change is the most significant threat to their habitat in the Pacific Ocean because it impacts the availability of their food – zooplankton. Warmer oceans and melting ice shelves are affecting the migration routes of Beluga Whales, while high levels of sea pollution are decreasing the growth and migration of Chinook salmon, which is the main food source of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Whales are also significantly impacted by the fishing industry, collisions with ships and noise pollution. This destruction unjustly effects small island nations and indigenous tribes whose traditional guardianship and knowledge may provide a way forward that allows whales and other marine populations to thrive.

Further Resources:

Whale Oil – an overview

Oral history – South Georgia Heritage Trust

South Georgia Museum – News & Blog

Britain’s Whale Hunters: The Untold Story – BBC 4

Scotland’s Whaling History by Graeme Strachan

An Ancient Bond with the Land: Arctic Whalers – Canadian Museum of History

The Link Between Scotland and the Inuit – Historia Magazine

Archived photographs help to return an Inuit Gaze – Nunatsiaq News

When the Whalers were up North: Inuit Memories from the Eastern Arctic by Dorothy Eber

Iceland to end whaling in 2024 as demand dwindles – The Guardian

A Deep Dive into Sea Shanties by Stephen Winick 

Two Years before the Mast: A Personal Narrative by Richard Henry Dana Jr.

Whale Songs: Shanties drag mysteries of whaling life back from the deep – The Guardian 

Broadside ballad entitled ‘The King of the Cannibal Islands’

The Coast of Peru – English Folk and Other Good Music

A narrative on the whaling industry: as told through a whale catch log-book and other items in the Salvesen Archive – The University of Edinburgh Archives

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