Whaling and Whale Protection Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Whaling and Whale Protection

5 Conversations

The tail fin of a humpback whale.
There is no humane way to kill a whale at sea.
- Sir David Attenborough.

Whaling is the term used for hunting whales in boats which, nowadays, are armed with exploding harpoon guns. The killing of a whale by even the most modern methods is cruel beyond description. An exploding harpoon, meant to kill quickly, rarely does more than rupture the whale's organs. The stricken creature thrashes and gushes blood through its spout as it begins to drown in its own haemorrhage. The phenomenal blood loss causes the ocean to change colour as the majestic animal slowly bleeds to death. Winched to the side of the whaling ship, a probe is jabbed into the whale and thousands of volts of electricity are run through it in an attempt to kill it faster. The once-mighty ruler of the sea screams as it dies.

The History of Whaling

When whaling first started in the Arctic, there were so many whales that sailors said you could have walked to the shore on their backs. People have been hunting whales for over 2,000 years, and it has been part of the culture of the people of the Faroe Islands since the 10th Century. Inuit people who relied on whaling for subsistence, treated the whale with reverence and respect. Commercial whaling began in New England in 1712, but ceased due to the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, before resuming in 1815.

At the dawn of the industrial age, whales were an important natural resource. American whalers killed right whales at an average of almost 15,000 annually. By 1846 there were 735 US whaling vessels, an 80% share of the worldwide total. Some industries and towns have grown up around whaling: Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire was founded by Quaker whalers from Nantucket, Massachusetts.


The 1851 book Moby-Dick by Herman Melville was said to have been inspired by the sinking of the 240-ton whaler, Essex, which had sailed from Nantucket, Massachusetts, to search for whales in 1820. (It was this book which coined the term Nantucket Sleigh Ride, which refers to the 'ride' the whaling boat gets as the harpooned whale tries to escape.) Some 15 months later the Essex was repeatedly rammed and sunk by an 80-tonne sperm whale in a remote part of the South Pacific. In the same year that Moby-Dick was published, the Ann Alexander was sunk in the Pacific, caused by two head-on charges from a harpooned sperm whale. Nowadays collisions are usually fatal to the whale, because modern ship hulls are stouter than older versions.


The invention of an improved harpoon gun in 1865 gave a new impetus to whaling, and this has culminated in the extraordinary success of operations in the Falkland Islands dependencies and the Ross Sea. This, together with the invention of floating 'factory ships' which allowed the reintroduction and development of pelagic1 whaling by methods more efficient than those formerly practised, has resulted in new dangers for the whales. Experience has shown that whales do not readily return to an old locality, even when they've been free from pursuit for many years.

The Industrial Revolution brought about steam ships, explosive harpoons and the attendant ability to kill thousands more whales. Petroleum was discovered towards the end of the 19th Century and kerosene took the place of whale oil in lamps. Fashions changed and the rise of the car replaced horse-and-buggy transportation. The US ceased whaling2 altogether in 1924.


Worldwide whaling continues due to different market demands: whale oil is used in soap and margarine thanks to the discovery of a process called hydrogenation. Two World Wars were supplied with explosives made from glycerin, a derivative of whale oil.


It is hard to comprehend how the whaling industry allowed its raw material to be so disastrously over-exploited. When they have reduced a species virtually to the point of extinction, they call a halt in the name of 'conservation'. The fact that no species have actually become extinct is more due to good luck than good management. At this moment in history only three species of great whale still exist in sufficient numbers to be hunted at all: sei, fin and sperm.


Whaling ships set sail for the arctic waters from Dundee3 in Scotland between the mid-18th Century and the end of the 19th Century, during which time what was left of the Greenland Right whale species was driven so far north that continuing to hunt them became uneconomical. The last year saw 21 ships return with no catch at all, and 19 failed to return. So they headed southwards towards the oceans of the Antarctic, and carried on whaling until 1962. Two ex-whalers, Don Lennie and George Cummings, were interviewed by Dr Alice Roberts for the BBC series Coast and they described the terrible conditions and harrowing aspects of the job: 'It wasn't a pleasant way to make a living but it was the only job we knew then, we had families to feed. If we'd have heard the whales scream, we wouldn't have been able to stand it'.

'Whale' Meet Again

Due to rationing during and after World War II, whale meat was made available, but it didn't prove popular, as Vera Lynn's popular song 'We'll Meet Again' was jokingly sung by frequent indulgers bemoaning 'Whale Meat Again'.

Whale Parts

  • Baleen: Baleen are the plankton-straining ribs in the mouths of most whales (except the sperm whale). They used to be used for corset stays; skirt hoops; carriage springs; horse-whips; brushes; ornaments; umbrella spokes; and fishing rods.

  • Bone: Bone from the body of the whale is generally ground up and used as fertiliser.

  • Ambergris: Ambergris is known as 'floating gold' because of its high value. It forms in the whale's intestine, perhaps due to some irritation, and is released into the sea when the whale vomits, in the form of lumps, and it can travel thousands of miles as it floats for up to a decade in the ocean. Because it is effectively whale effluvia, it is unknown whether whales would have been killed specifically for this product. The largest piece ever found, weighing 400kg, was taken from the intestine of a whale which had been harpooned. Normally, the lumps are rarely more than 20cm in diameter. It requires a lengthy period being washed around in the sea to make it valuable, as it starts off white, sticky, and foul-smelling, just as you would imagine whale vomit to be.

    The action of sun and salt water over a long period of time - years in some cases - turns it dark grey and brings out the scents that makes it valuable to the perfume industry. The perfumers say that the product isn't used as a matter of course in any perfumes these days, but when available it does feature in some of the more expensive brands.

    In August 2006, a family on holiday in North Wales found a lump of ambergris on the beach which could be worth £3,500, as the current market value is £10 per gram (£280 an ounce).

  • Spermaceti: Spermaceti is an oil found only in the nose of the sperm whale. Smokeless candles are made from the congealed oil, and are thought to be the finest quality candles ever made.

  • Whale Meat: Whale Meat is edible and some cultures relish it as a delicacy. Whale meat used to be used in the manufacture of petfood in the UK but this was discontinued in 1972.

  • Whale Oil: Whale Oil was extracted from the blubber. It was highly-prized as the best quality oil for lamps and was used in later manufacture of soap, ice cream, cosmetics and margarine; by-products include glycerin.

Space Oil

When NASA discovered that sperm whale oil did not freeze in outer space, they used it as a lubricant in their space programme, including the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) for expeditions to the Moon and Mars, where the surface temperature is very cold indeed. The discovery was so significant that Sir Patrick Moore devoted a whole programme of The Sky At Night to talk about the implications, and invited marine biologists and cetacean experts to join the discussion.


The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in 1946, and it banned commercial whaling completely in 1986, except for subsistence hunting by the native peoples of Alaska and Siberia. Whaling was outlawed in the 20th Century because there were fears that whale-hunting was driving many species to extinction. The West Pacific grey whale was the most threatened, as the species teetered on the brink of extinction with only around 100 of them remaining alive. In 2005, grey whales numbered around 26,000, and the species is no longer on the endangered species list. There are still some countries hunting whales for 'scientific research', which is allowed through a loophole in the original ban. Those countries are:


The IWC received a proposal in 2005 from the Japanese whaling research programme to almost double its catch of minke whales and start hunting humpback and fin whales. Every year Japan already kills hundreds of sperm whales, minke whales, sei whales and Bryde's whales4. Over 90% of the female minke whales caught and killed in 2005 were pregnant.

Officially, Japan only hunts whales for scientific purposes, but as far as anybody actually knows, the only scientific experiments involved are what happens when a harpoon interacts with a whale. Additionally, any whale that is killed in a science experiment has to be disposed of. Whale meat costs about the same as pork or beef in Japan, so the next step is to dispose of the remains via the food chain, a market valued at four billion yen (£18million) per annum.

There is a need to increase whale-hunting activities in order to analyse the ecosystem of the Antarctic Ocean.
- Kyodo news agency bulletin.

Izu is the third peninsula from the right on the bottom of the main island of Japan and once a year the fishermen round up all the sea mammals in their area and kill them with spears and clubs.


The country of Norway is a bit of an enigma. They have a whale-watching programme, to bring in the tourists. They also hunt whales, flouting the IWC ban. Norwegian whalers didn't do much to boost the image of their country's tourism industry in July 2006, when they speared a whale before the eyes of Cetacean-spotters on a whale-watching expedition. Around 80 tourists had paid for the trip from Andenes, in northern Norway, but while they were admiring one of the great mammals of the sea, a Norwegian whaling boat approached and speared the whale in front of their eyes.

It was a fantastic sight to see a whale swimming and breaching. On the way back to Andenes, though, we saw the whale shot and raised onto the deck. The blood was running, it wasn't a pretty sight. I know that's part of life, but I don't think we expected to see anything like that.
- A whale-watcher who witnessed the whale's death.

Geir Maan, captain of the whale-watching boat Reine, called the incident 'unfortunate'. He said he was surprised when the whalers went ahead and shot a whale so close to his tourist vessel. Jan Kristiansen, representing the whalers, said:

Many of the whaling boats had been tied up at the dock for several days, waiting for better weather. When it finally came, we had to make the most of it. We don't have anything against the whale safari (watching) boats, but it's important you understand that it's the extreme opponents of whaling that travel out to see the whales. We can't prevent them from being against the hunt, and they can't prevent us from hunting.

Norwegians currently catch 800 north Atlantic minke whales a season in waters adjacent to Scotland, which are an important summer feeding ground for the minke whale. The Norwegians are not subject to the IWC ban, because their representatives objected to the introduction of it. They have future plans to raise their seasonal haul to 1,800 whales.


In 2003, Iceland, under the name of 'scientific whaling', hunted and killed 38 minke whales, and 61 minke whales have been caught since then. The Icelandic Government proposed to resume commercial whaling and intended to catch 500 (200 minke, 200 fin and 100 sei) whales over the next two years, but cut back its quota after home and worldwide protests, though the government also took into account that commercially-sold whale meat had been left uneaten in the nation's freezers.

Iceland and Eco-tourism

Iceland is an island of almost 40,000 square miles, and it is now one of Europe's most popular travel destinations, thanks to its history and culture. It offers a wealth of natural wonders, and is a hotspot of geothermal activity with plenty of natural hot water springs. Icelanders have recently taken responsibility for preserving nature after seeing the effects of deforestation and soil erosion.

Eco-tourism - such as ornithology and whale-watching - has become one of the nation's most important sources of income. Therefore, a way to stop Iceland resuming whaling for income from export is to visit the country, where you can also enjoy hiking, rafting, bicycling, sport-fishing, horse-riding and skiing. If you're not a sporty-type, you can visit one of the 100 fjords along the coastline, see how many of the 10,000 waterfalls you can count, or just look up and gaze in awe and wonder at the magnificent Aurora Borealis.


The countries which used to have whaling fleets but no longer hunt whales commercially are: the USA; Australia; Brazil; Peru; Spain and Great Britain. William Scoresby, Britain's most prolific whaler, was responsible for the deaths of over 500 Arctic whales during his career.


Whaling fleets were responsible for the slaughter of 29,000 blue whales in one year in the 1930s. That species is now protected, but not before its numbers had dropped from 200,000 to 6,000. Australia continued to hunt whales until 1978, processing them at Cheyne's Beach whaling station at Frenchman's Bay, Albany in Western Australia, and Byron Bay in New South Wales. Since 1980 the capture, injury or interference with any cetacean within Australia's 200-nautical-mile fishing zone has been illegal, and the importation of whale products has been banned since 1981. Since the whaling ban, the number of humpback whales spotted migrating up the east coast of Australia has quadrupled.

Whale and Dolphin Conservationists

  • The Sea Watch Foundation is an organisation that was set up to find out more about whales and dolphins in British and Irish waters by involving the public in the study of living wild animals.

  • Earthtrust is a US-based non-profit organisation which runs a number of programmes related to whale and dolphin conservation.

  • The Mammal Society is an organisation that is dedicated to the preservation of UK mammals. The website has details of how some of the whales and dolphins around the UK's coasts can be seen.

  • The Marine Connection is a London-based charity is working towards the welfare, conservation and protection of dolphins and whales worldwide.

  • The Marine Conservation Society is leading environmental UK charity dedicated solely to protecting the marine environment and the creatures who live there.

  • The Ocean Alliance includes the Whale Conservation Institute and the Voyage of the Odyssey, and is dedicated to the welfare, protection and conservation of whales and the preservation of their marine environment.

Countries can promote whale conservation by creating sanctuaries and providing tourists with access to them, thus garnering additional income. The Dominican Republic makes £3.3million per annum from eco-tourism, and the recent creation of the Silver Bank Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary has boosted their tourist industry substantially. The Mexican government has established whale sanctuaries and the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve.

The US has proposed a new speed limit for boats in corridors where right whales are sighted:

Ship strikes are the most significant human impact on right whales. Each year there at least one or two strikes. The planned rule calls for ships that are 65 feet (20 meters) or longer to reduce their speed to 10 knots — about 11.5 miles (18.5 kilometers) an hour — on specific routes during calving season.
- Donna Wieting, deputy director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Protected Resources.

Bowhead Whales

Bowhead whales are thought to be the longest-living mammals on Earth. Alaskan native whale hunters have recovered from bowhead whale carcasses both ivory harpoons with metal tipped blades, and also some stone points, neither of which have been in use for at least 100 years. Using a method of determining the age of living things by studying changes in levels of aspartic acid, an amino acid found in the eye lens and teeth, it has been determined that one particular specimen would have been between 177 to 245 years old when it died.

Orca - the Social Whales

Almost 60 orca 'killer' whales were captured or killed between 1965 and 1976. Removing a significant portion of the population, estimated at one-third to one-half of the entire community, devastated the group, leading to its current tenuous existence as it struggles to recover.

Orcas usually feed on penguins, seals and sealions, sometimes tossing them high out of the water before eating them, as if playing with their food. Yet, in a remarkable piece of film footage taken by the National Geographic, an orca was filmed 'escorting' an unharmed sealion pup back to the colony on the shoreline, then swimming off.

Orcas can be sociable with humans: in March 2006 the late orca Luna was killed by a tugboat. Suzanne Chisholm of Mountainside Films and her husband Michael Parfit spent more than two years with Luna in Nootka Sound, working on a book and documentary about the friendly creature.

The Southern Resident Community of orca whales was given the highest level of protection in November 2005 by NOAA Fisheries when they were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The Most Famous Sperm Whale Ever

Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet...
- Douglas Adams  The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Those Opposed to Whaling

The World Wildlife Fund

The WWF identifies the great whales as a flagship species. It campaigns to stop illegal whaling and monitors the trade in whale meat. The WWF also runs a marine conservation programme to address other issues relating to the health of the world's oceans.


Greenpeace fights to stop commercial whaling through political work, peaceful public demonstrations, and by taking non-violent direct action against the whaling boats at sea. Greenpeace members support the creation of whale sanctuaries where whale pods can breed, feed and continue their slow recovery. Greenpeace spokespersons reject the claims by nations who say they hunt whales to conserve their fish stocks.

For millions of years,fish and whales have co-existed quite happily. In recent years vast armadas of factory fishing fleets have collapsed global fish stocks. Drift nets, bottom-trawling and long lines scour and devour everything in their paths. Blaming whales for collapsing fisheries is like blaming woodpeckers for deforestation.
- Greenpeace spokesperson.

Ben Bradshaw

At the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in June 2006, after a vote led by Japan, Iceland and Norway to reverse the 20-year ban on commercial whaling, Britain's Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw described it as 'a wake-up call to the world'.

Star Trek IV

Star Trek - The Original Series characters starred in several movies, and the fourth film involves whaling. In the 23rd Century, an alien probe disables all Earth's technological systems and the outlook is grim. Spock manages to interpret the probe's language as whalesong, and as all the whales on Earth have been hunted to extinction, there can be no reply to send the probe on its way. The Enterprise crew, on board a Klingon Bird-of-Prey, travel back in time to 1986 to retrieve the only creatures that can save 23rd Century Earth - a pair of humpback whales named George and Gracie, and the crew save the whales from a whaling ship in the nick of time.

If you haven't seen the film, Captain Kirk and his crew lose the Enterprise at the end of Star Trek III when the Klingons board, and, rather than have the Enterprise fall into enemy hands, they set it to self-destruct. The crew survive by 'beaming' over to the Klingons' ship, and escape to the planet Vulcan with Spock, whose mind, which is being looked after by CMO Leonard 'Bones' McCoy inside his own head, can be rejoined with Spock's body.

Just Before Whales Leave the Planet

When staunch Elvis Presley fan Junichiro Koizumi, the Prime Minister of Japan, was visiting Gracelands with US President George W Bush, anti-whaling protestors dressed as Elvis impersonators and sang a protest song about whaling to the tune of 'Don't Be Cruel':

You know I won't be found,
Swimming in the deep blue sea,
The Japanese are coming 'round,
They're going to harpoon me.
Don't be cruel to a whale that's true.
Baby, it makes me sad
My blubber's not so tasty
Why treat whales so bad?
To risk extinction is crazy
Don't be cruel...
To a whale that's true.
Please don't kill for blubber
Baby it's the planet I'm... thinking of.

Tom Smith

In June 2003 New Zealander Tom Smith, 38, attempted to rescue a trapped humpback whale which had been caught up in a craypot line. This wasn't his first rescue attempt, and he had been taught safety procedures. However, while trying to cut the line to free the whale, it brought its tail down on top of its would-be rescuer and he was killed.

Whale Strandings

In Victorian times a whale stranding was rare, like the one which ended up on Cleethorpes beach. In 2004, some 780 whales ended up stranded on Britain's beaches, with most of them dying. A decade previously, the reports of beached whales was half that figure. Even if a whale can be successfully steered back out to sea, it usually beaches itself further up the shore. Explanations for this behaviour range from global warming; navigational error (confusion of the whale); military sonar; and high-tech fishing nets.

We believe that the numbers of animals we see stranded probably represent 10% of what is being killed out there [at sea].
- Richard Sabin, of the Natural History Museum, London.

If you find a dead stranded whale or dolphin:

  • In England: Wildlife Trust/Seawatch volunteers usually do the initial assessment. The Natural History Museum should be contacted and they may take the corpse away for analysis. Tel: 020 794 25 155. In 2006 the UK Government announced plans to reduce the funding for post-mortems on cetacean carcasses washed up on British shores.
  • In Scotland: The Scottish Agricultural College Tel: 01463 243 030.
  • In Wales: The Marine Environmental Monitoring Tel: 01348 875 000.

The authorities will deal with the remains - times have moved on since the unfortunate incident in 1970 in Portland, Oregon, and whale carcasses are no longer blown up.

If you find a live stranded whale or dolphin contact:

  • In England and Wales: BDMLR Tel: 01825 765546 or the RSPCA Tel: 0870 5555999.
  • In Scotland: The Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit Tel: 01261 851696 or the SSPCA Tel: 08707 377722.

The Thames Whale

On Friday, 20 January, 2006, a man on a train called the RNLI from his mobile phone and told them that he had just seen a whale in the River Thames, but was unsure whether or not he was hallucinating5. He wasn't. Once the media got hold of the story, it became worldwide news. Witnesses stated the Northern bottle-nosed whale, an endangered species which is usually found in the north Atlantic, was an adult measuring up to 18 feet (six metres) long. Guessing the creature weighed about seven tonnes, they realised a rescue attempt was an almost impossible task, but a two-day battle ensued. The British Divers Marine Life Rescue led the rescue operation, while a vet from the RSPCA monitored the whale's vital signs.

This is particularly bizarre. Last November I was out in New Zealand to do some whale-watching; we saw a couple of whales but never got as good a view as the one I've seen in London.
Eyewitness Vincent Petersen.

Tragically, as in many similar such cases, the whale could not be saved. It died after suffering convulsions soon after it had been winched onto a barge which was to transport it back to deeper waters.


In Devon and Cornwall, Seaquest organises regular cetacean surveys, and often run events in collaboration with the Wildlife Trusts. It's not uncommon to get a good sighting of whales from high vantage points above the sea such as Berry Head or at Marsland Mouth. Whales, orcas, porpoises and dolphins have been spotted from Spurn Point on the Humber Estuary and there is an appeal for volunteers to set up a Humber Whale Watch group to log them.

Many people think whaling has no place in the 21st Century, but some people and communities rely on its practise for survival. Without conservation, the Earth's oceans may end up with no whales at all, an unbelievably cruel legacy to bequeath to our descendants. There are ways that whale conservation can be maintained while still allowing people to earn a living.

The only sustainable whaling industry is whale-watching. There are organised whale-watching trips from Tobermory, a fishing port which now relies heavily on tourism, on the north of the Isle of Mull, Argyll, Scotland. Remember though, that the whales are in the wild and may be a little camera-shy.

Tourism is a lucrative industry; people who go places to whale-watch will also spend their holiday money in that country, and so will boost their economy. This would be a legacy our great-grandchildren could be proud of, because they would also be able to go whale-watching. One photographer, Doc White, who managed to capture images of a blue whale, the largest animal that has ever lived, described the experience as:

The closest to the Holy Grail I have come.
1Pertaining to (or found in) open sea, or near the surface of the sea.2It is estimated that when whaling missions dipped towards the end of the 19th Century, the worldwide population of right whales was 50,000.3The ship Discovery, which was used by Scott and Shackleton on their first Antarctic expedition, was constructed in Dundee as it had to be crafted by men with expertise in building vessels which could withstand the most extreme polar conditions.4The Bryde's whale was named after a Norwegian whaler.5It was the first such sighting since records began nearly a century ago.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:


h2g2 Entries

External Links

Not Panicking Ltd is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more