It’s a History of Whales & Whaling…
For many millions of years, Cetaceans have graced our planet. Their recent history, and exploitation has seen much pain…
Early whales, living on land, begin to return to water. Whales moved freely between land and sea. Indeed, the earliest known whales, which date back as far as 50 million years ago, had well-developed hindlimbs and are believed by most paleontologists to have evolved from four-legged terrestrial mammals.
Cetaceans are thought to have evolved during the Eocene or earlier, sharing a closest common ancestor with hippopotamuses. Being mammals, they surface to breathe air; they have 5 finger bones (even-toed) in their fins; they nurse their young; and, despite their fully aquatic life style, they retain many skeletal features from their terrestrial ancestors. Mysticeti (baleen whales) and Odontoceti (toothed whales) – are thought to have separated from each other around 28-33 million years ago.
Humans have engaged in whaling since prehistoric times. Early depictions of whaling at the Neolithic Bangudae site in Korea, unearthed by researchers from Kyungpook National University, may date back to 6000 BCE.
The legend of travelling monk, St Brendan was well known in the High Middle Ages: He set off, with followers, from Ireland in 512 for the Land of Promise. On the journey, the monks met demons, were chased by sea serpents and a griffin – and landed on the back of a whale, mistaking it for an island. They celebrate Easter on the sleeping giant’s back, but awaken it when they light their campfire.
Whaling as an industry began around the 11th Century when the Basques started hunting and trading the products from the northern right whale (now one of the most endangered of the great whales). They were followed first by the Dutch and the British, and later by the Americans, Norwegians and many other nations.
Reports of Bowhead Whales around the Spitsbergen Archipelago by explorer William Barents draws hundreds of whale-ships to the Northern waters.
With the arrival of The Mayflower in Massachusetts, Whaling becomes an important part of the New England economy.
King’s Lynn ships join others from Britain in Arctic waters, hunting for whales. The era of organised whaling begins.
The Greenland Fishery house in King’s Lynn becomes a tavern, home to the town’s whalers.
After experiencing life aboard a whaling ship, American writer Herman Melville writes the classic Moby Dick, or The Whale is a novel. The book is sailor Ishmael’s narrative of the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaling ship Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, the giant white sperm whale that on the ship’s previous voyage bit off Ahab’s leg at the knee.
Melville’s story was probably inspired by that of the whaler Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in an 1820 incident. The true story of depravation, cannibalism and the sentient whale captures the contemporary imagination of the dangers in whaling.
The rocket-powered explosive harpoon is invented by Sven Foyn and Thomas Roys. More species are exposed to exploitation.
As technology advances, the carnage increases. Factory whaling ships, with stern slipways and explosive harpoons make killing whales so much easier. And the conversion of whale oil to margarine begins, opening a whole new market for whale products.
In 1930, Right Whales are the first to be protected from commercial whaling.
And in 1931 the Blue Whale Unit was introduced to measure and ultimately regulate nations’ quotas for whaling. One blue whale unit can be expressed in terms of: one blue whale, two fin whales, two and a half humpback whale, or six sei whales. The ratios are roughly based on the relative amounts of oil that each species yields.
The IWC was set up in 1946, and it took 20 years for the countries involved to agree to stop killing blue whales because there were virtually none left. As the biggest of the whales, they had been relentlessly hunted out first. It was the first global ban on any whaling to happen.
Then, in the mid 1970s, Greenpeace’s early whaling campaign shone a spotlight on the industry in a way that had never happened before; showing the public images of whales being killed sparked a movement and a sea-change in popular opinion against whaling.
IWC had to change. After over a decade of committed campaigning the ‘Save the Whales’ movement triumphed when the IWC voted in 1982 for a moratorium (ban) commercial whaling.
That ban came into force in 1986 and is one of the defining conservation successes of the last hundred years; marking the virtual end of large-scale whaling around the world.
Commercial whaling is banned. Yet every year, Japan, Norway and Iceland kill around 1,500 whales. Thousands more dolphins and small whales are slaughtered in bloody hunts in countries around the world.
Reluctant to give up the market for whale meat and products, Japan, Iceland and Norway continue to hunt and kill fin, minke and sei whales every year. All three nations believe they have a right to hunt whales: Japan claims its objective is scientific research, whilst Norway objects to the ban and Iceland hunts under a dubious ‘reservation’ to the whaling ban.
How long might it go on?