About Whale Hunting (Whaling)


Whale hunting or whaling is the practice of hunting and killing whales for their meat and blubber.  For some, this topic is a tragic one so reader discretion is advised.

Still reading?  Ok, good, because if you’re not overly familiar with whale hunting, you should find this enlightening, if not very, very sad.

First off, this practice has been taking place for thousands of years. In around the year 825 AD, whaling became a legitimate industry, and there were no activists to or conscientious people to defend or protect the whales in any way.  In other words, killing whales was as normal as anything else.

It wasn’t until recent times that whaling has been banned, or attempts were made to ban it, at any rate.  There are exceptions in some countries where the hunting of whales is considered no big deal, but this fact remains controversial on the global level, as you’d expect.

Around 50,000 whales were killed annually by the late 1930’s, some almost to extinction.  And so, this topic is very emotional for many to this day.  People of the world can’t agree on what to do about whale hunting, as there is a clear value in whaling.  The industry brings in big money, and, on top of that, whale bi-products are used in certain things you may not even know about.

Humpback whale

It wasn’t until 1986, that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling temporarily.  It was all about giving the whales a chance to increase their numbers.

Every year since, Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to hunt whales and ignore the ruling. They justify their actions by claiming that whale hunting is part of their culture and they do this in a sustainable manner.

They use every part of the animal, and there is no waste.  Of the 80 to 90 species composing the suborder cetacea, about ten are exploited for hunting.

The large size of these marine mammals has the advantage of providing considerable amounts of food, but its hunting is particularly dangerous, except with the assistance of modern technical means.

In many parts of the world, tourism is devoted to whale watching and photographic hunting associated with whales. Indeed, whale watching has become more profitable than hunting them in many cases.

This has become a new and sustainable form of this natural resource, but the hunt still goes on. This article looks at the various facets of this controversial practice known as whaling, and we go over quite a lot of information, so buckle up, and use this table of contents to navigate the chapters of this article on whale hunting.

Table of Contents

  • [ps2id url=’#1′ offset=” class=”]History and Prehistory of Whales[/ps2id]
  • [ps2id url=’#2′ offset=” class=”]Traditional Whale Hunting[/ps2id]
  • [ps2id url=’#3′ offset=” class=”]Industrial Hunting of Whales[/ps2id]
  • [ps2id url=’#4′ offset=” class=”]Whales in Literature[/ps2id]
  • [ps2id url=’#5′ offset=” class=”]The Economics of Whaling[/ps2id]
  • [ps2id url=’#6′ offset=” class=”]The Impact of Whaling on Whales[/ps2id]
  • [ps2id url=’#7′ offset=” class=”]The International Whaling Commission[/ps2id]
  • [ps2id url=’#8′ offset=” class=”]JARPA: Japanese Scientific Research Program[/ps2id]
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Let’s first go back into the past to see where and why exactly whaling originated.

Prehistory / History of Whaling

It has long been thought that whale hunting was of prehistoric origin, but without any hard evidence.

In fact, several Paleolithic representations, especially in southwestern France and Spain, were not immediately recognized as such.

The first generally accepted historical traces of whale hunting are documents attesting to the hunting of Basques in the eleventh century, though there are earlier more debated traces as well.

The Basques are an indigenous ethnic group who lived in the Pyrenee mountain region of Europe.  Also, a famous Japanese poet, Misuzu Kaneko, mentioned whale hunting in her poem called, “The Whale Hunt”.

According to historical documents, the whales targeted were:

North Atlantic Right Whale

(Eubalaena glacialis)

Right Whale

Right Whale of the North Pacific

(Eubalaena japonica)

north pacific right whale

There are several species of Right whales.  Not only are the North Atlantic and North Pacific Right whales the rarest of the Right whale family, but, they are very very big.  Their heads and jaws are enormous.  Their bodies are bigger than a city bus.

Right whales are baleen-feeding whales and they have many teeth that comb and strain the food in the water that enters their mouth.  Some of their teeth are 8 feet long.  This creature feeds on zooplankton and tiny organisms that pass into the whale’s mouth as it swims along.


Whalers referred to them as the “Right” whale to hunt, because of the amount of oil and baleen they had.

Baleen was very popular during the 1600’s to the 1800’s especially in a women’s corset.

Baleen is made of keratin, a substance from the upper jaw of the whale. It is a strong rigid material that would keep a women’s posture perfect.

Women’s corsets were elaborately decorated with many symbols regarding their love for a certain man.  Women wore the corsets with the token inside on special occasions.

baleen tokens for corsets

Female whales sexually mature after 10 years when a single whale calf would be born after a year long pregnancy. Populations grow slowly because of this.

International protection of Right whales has been around since 1949.  There has been some success with the Southern Right whales, but Northern Right whales are the most at-risk of all large whales.

Because these animals swim slowly, humans can catch up to them easily.  The carcasses of the Right whales float naturally on the surface, giving yet another advantage for hunters to focus on these whales.

In 2004, an ancient rock engraving several thousands of years old was found in South Korea at the Bangudae archeological site in Ulsan Bay on the Sea of Japan depicting whale hunting.Ancient Japanese rock engraving features whale hunting

There is much evidence that whale hunting disappeared from Korea upon the arrival of Buddhism. Royal decrees prohibit the killing of living creatures as early as the sixth century.

Some whale specialists even believe that the first traces of whaling occurred around the fifth millennium BC – far early than the Basques.

Watch this interesting video, outlining the history of whaling in America. This provides valuable context as to the history of this long-standing and much argued practice.

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Next, we’ll be taking a look at traditional whale hunting and what that involves, exactly.

Traditional Whale Hunting

Whale hunting, as a tradition, is still taking place today in two small villages on a remote island called Lembata in Indonesia.

lamaleran whale hunting

The Lamalerans still hunt whales the traditional way — in a wooden boat, with a harpoon.

For more than 600 years, in a remote corner of Indonesia, a group of indigenous people are spearing and landing sperm whales with harpoons.

Whale hunting for these people has been threatened by missionaries, their changing economy, a Catholic education system, and the world at large complaining about what they are doing.

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling still allows some indigenous people to hunt whales.

Even though commercial whaling was banned in 1986 by the ICRW, the Lamalerans still have permission to hunt whales.

The Indonesian government gave these people permission to continue with their whaling tradition as long as they consume what they kill and don’t try to sell the whale in any way.

These 2 Lamaleran clans hold fast to their traditions and to this day have kept groups like World Wildlife at bay. Lamalerans believe that whales are gifts from their ancestors.

lamalerans whale hunting with harpoon

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Now we’ll be taking a look at the industrial hunting of whales, which is far different both technically and morally than any kind of more traditional hunting methods.  It does have its defenders, as well, and that includes even people who enjoy the products created from these efforts.

Industrial Whale Hunting

Whale hunting was taking place around the world long before the arrival of whaling as an industry.

Bernard Germain de Lacépède (1756-1825) was a famous French naturalist who predicted a massacre of whales worldwide, which would threaten the cetacean species.

“This is how the giant giants fell under his arms; and as his genius is immortal, and his knowledge is now imperishable, because he has been able to multiply without limits the copies of his thought, they will not cease to be the victims of his interest, only when these enormous species have ceased to exist.  It is in vain that they flee before him: his art transports him to the ends of the earth; they have no more asylum than in nothingness.” – Bernard Germain de Lacépède, History of Cetaceans, 1804

As early as the 16th century, whaling was one of the major reasons for the Basque colonization of the Americas, particularly around Labrador, and the island of Newfoundland.

The practice of whaling increased significantly with the implementation of considerable industrial resources, especially fleets of whaling ships from Europe and Russia, in the nineteenth century.

Whaling ship from Russia

Whale oil was the main product of this hunt, serving primarily for public lighting, before the invention of gas lighting or oil lamps. Whale oil was also used for oiling wool before combing sheep, as a machine lubricant, or for the manufacture of margarine and soap.

By the 1930s, the value of sperm whale oil, used as a lubricant, and that of baleen, had become negligible. Bones and flesh were used on a large scale to make fertilizer, and flesh was used as fodder for cattle. Let’s not forget the bones for making charcoal.

In the mid-nineteenth century, more than 150 American whalers sailed in the Arctic Ocean, collecting more than 200,000 barrels of oil in a single season.

The American fishery, however, was gradually declining, in particular for the benefit of Norwegians, who in the 1930s supplied 70% of the world’s whale oil production.

In March 1929, the Norwegian whaler Sir James Clark Ross landed in New York after a seven month journey in the Antarctic Ocean, bringing back a record  51,000 tons of oil, valued at one and a half million dollars at the time.

He was the largest whaler of the time, followed by Larsen, named after the Norwegian whaler Carl Anton Larsen (1860-1924), the founder of the Grytviken base in South Georgia, and the Compañía Argentina de Pesca, as well as NT Nielsen-Alonso.

Whales Killed Per Year

During this period of the early 20th century, whaling became more and more industrial and massive. It is estimated that about a thousand whales were killed in 1900, against 15 000 – 20 000 on the eve of the First World War, a figure that then rose in the mid 1920’s, to 20 000-30 000 whales per year.

This prompted the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea to study the question, in collaboration with the League of Nations (SDN), and to consider, as early as the end of the 1920s, an international convention, which wouldn’t see  daylight before 1946 with the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

The Russo-Japanese war in 1895, changed the balance of power between the two countries. As Russian whalers were driven out of the waters around the Korean peninsula, Japan developed its fleet, giving it access to the whaling resources of the South Sea,  and part of the North West Pacific.

On the other hand, in 1920 the Spitsbergen Treaty, which recognized Norway’s sovereignty over Spitsbergen, contained various provisions on fishing rights.  Nine years later, Jean Mayen Island, 500 km from Greenland, was also annexed by Norway.

During this period, we see significant changes that affected whale hunting such as …

•  steam sailboats, such as the Aurora, built in Glasgow in 1876 for the Dundee Seal and Whale Fishing Company
•  vessels likely to attack whales in the high seas 
•  setting up fleets to optimize the exploitation of particularly rich areas or migration areas
•  use of the powered harpoon
•  the use of the explosive-headed harpoon, patented in 1870 by the Norwegian Svend Foyn (1809-1894)
•  the invention of floating plants, in order to make whale oil out at sea, without the need of a base on land.

These changes facilitated whale hunting especially by allowing whaling stations to be set up in remote places.

While whaling stations remained useful to their respective owners, they created conflicts among numerous nations over remote lands such as the Antarctica, New Zealand, islands near United Kingdom (South Georgia), South Shetland, and the South Sandwich Islands.

Argentina, the United Kingdom and Norway were all claiming these remote places as their own, so that they could use the land for their respective whaling industries.

Countries like England justified the usefulness of whale products for dealing with potential war needs.

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Clearly, whaling is a contentious business.  Next we will take a glimpse of whales in literature.

Whales in Literature

Herman Melville was a famous renaissance American novelist of the 1800’s who was always in search of a “mighty” story.

His 1851 story called, “Moby Dick” or “The Whale” is probably the most famous whale hunting story ever.  Most people will remember Ahab’s battle with Moby Dick!

moby dick book

Humans have always been mesmerized by the whale – the “mighty” giants of the deep.  There was a time when they were deeply mysterious, and were thought of as monsters.  Today, we know exactly what they are, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting to us.

Whales appeared in the mythology of most cultures on Earth which were connect to the oceans. These creatures were worshipped and protected because they were desperately needed by humans.

The Inuits of the far north and the Chinese and coastal communities all over the world, needed whales for survival.

On one hand, we idolize whales for their size and overall majesty, but on the other hand, we still to this day, as a global culture, have turned the practice of killing whales into a business, above all else.

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This next section focuses on the economy of whaling.

The Economy of Whaling

Now we get into the nuts and bolts of whaling, and why it is such a prevalent practice.  As much as it is offensive to the sensibilities of some (understandably), we must also acknowledge the various uses for whales. This is the reality of the situation, and it’s not pretty.

Let us rewind once again.  The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 18th century and then spread worldwide.

This was a time when people changed from an agrarian economy of handicrafts to a machine manufacturing economy.

Man soon discovered that they needed a lot of oil to maintain their machines, and whales were the best source for that oil.

Dead whales could make people lots of money!  A single whale brings several tons of meat (usually eaten salty,) which represents significant amounts of protein and fat.

Whale oil was used for heating and lighting homes, cooking, and in the clothing industry.

It didn’t take long for people to realize that lots of money could be made by killing whales.

Sperm whale oil was used to lubricate machines working at high speeds. The Fin whale oil was used for public lighting. A twenty-six meter Blue whale produced about 27 tons of oil.

The bones of whales were carved into cutlery and the whale’s baleen, thanks to its resistance and flexibility, became umbrellas.

The industrialized world meant that humans would re-organize their societies for the purpose of manufacturing things like women’s corsets with whale baleen in them.

If you wore a corset, which included whale baleen, you became more important.

Sperm whales were very sought after for many reasons.

Spermaceti, a chemical compound was extracted from the skull of the Sperm whale, and used to make candles, soaps, and even margarine for your toast in the morning.

There was even a company called Dartz, that would offer whale penis skin car seats.

Dartz whale penis car seats


But let’s end this disgusting discussion of how people can be so unreasonable and cruel by mentioning Ambergris.

Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance produced in the guts of a Sperm whale.

The whale either vomited or pooped it out into the ocean and it was collected and made that into perfume and aphrodisiacs.

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Next, we’ll look at the impact of whaling on whales, which is, as you can imagine, fairly disruptive to their natural lives.

Impact of Whaling on Whales

Killing whales to meet the demands of our industrialized world caused this species to decline drastically.

For example, before 1880, approximately 1500 whales were killed annually.  Between 1880 and 1890, the numbers rose to 10,000 a year.  As time past, the numbers went up to 50,000 between 1910 and 1930,

The Right whale from Greenland was considered endangered, in the early 1900’s.  Today only 450 remain.

North Atlantic Right whale

It is estimated that today there are about 25000 Blue Whales left in the world.  The whaling industry has brought the numbers down from 250,000 in a fairly short period of time.

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Now we’ll discuss an important entity when it comes to whales and whaling…

International Whaling Commission

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was signed on December 2, 1946, by fifteen nations.

Its purpose is to enable the judicious conservation of whale populations and the orderly development of the whaling industry.

The International Whaling Commission was established in 1948.  Its first plenary meeting was held in 1949 in London.

As a result, rules were made to protect whales, such as the Right whales and the Grey whales.  These first management measures for whaling were disastrous.

For example, the conversion system called “Blue Whale Unit” (BWU), which establishes equivalencies between different species of baleen whales, according to the average amount of oil that can be drawn. i.e. 1 Blue whale = 2 Fin whales = 2.5 Humpback whales = 6 Rudolphi whales …was a flop.

The establishment of a global quota for all whaling nations was also a flop.

It was not until the 1960s that country quotas were adopted, and in 1972 the Blue Whale Unit was abolished.

These changes will force some nations to abandon hunting altogether such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.  If they follow the rules, their whaling industry will no longer be profitable.

In the 1970s, only Japan and the USSR continued to hunt in Antarctica. The CBI then uses a management system inherited from other fisheries called the New Management Procedure (NMP).

This procedure allows the progressive protection of endangered species such as Fin whales in 1975 to actually work.

In 1982, a ban on commercial whaling was adopted by most of the IWC members. Japan, Norway, USSR, and Peru objected.

Japan finally accepts the new rules in 1987.  Then almost immediately, Japan engages in a controversial scientific research program on cetaceans in Antarctica. Japan continued to whale hunt.  It seems like they became addicted to the monies that whaling provided them.

In 1993, Norway, which had ceased its whaling activities, resumed commercial hunting of Minke whales off its coast.  Norway also needed the money obviously.

Whale experts are very concerned!  Not only do some countries refuse to stop the killing but ocean pollution is on the rise and adding to the destruction of this magnificent animal.

plastic Hanoi

Today only a few countries still practice whaling, like Japan, Norway, and Iceland.  Some Inuit communities continue to whale hunt, claiming their aboriginal rights.

At the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission on June 18, 2006, small island states in the Caribbean and the Pacific, supported Japan,Norway, Iceland, and Denmark, in their quest to continue to hunt whales.

Australia and New Zealand, fierce defenders of the moratorium on whales, alongside other countries such as France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, have denounced these countries virulently.

These whaling countries are supporting one another because they need financial aid.

Japan is observing the moratorium but is doing, like Iceland, whaling for “scientific research,” which is disputed by environmentalists. Norway has chosen to ignore the moratorium. These three countries collected 1,500 whales in 2009,  and 1,179 whales in 2013.

Bob Brownell, of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, believes that this scientific hunt is nothing but commercial whaling in disguise.

At the committee meeting in 2012, South Korea announced that it wanted to resume whaling as part of “scientific research.”

South Korea already allows the sale of whales accidentally caught in fishing nets, but the high rate of these captures has environmental groups  are saying that animals are deliberately killed. A hundred whales, mostly Minke whales, would be caught every year.

Japan continues to hunt whales and has withdrawn from the International Whaling Commission.

The Japanese government indicates, however, that the fishery will not invade the waters of the Antarctic and Southern Hemisphere.

They will not exceed the limits of Japan’s territorial waters while respecting the quotas calculated by the IWC in order not to deplete resources.

This decision remains largely criticized by, among others, Greenpeace or Australian politicians.

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The latter, however, welcome the withdrawal from Antarctica, since a project promising the creation of a sanctuary has been dragging on for 20 years following the blockades of Japan, Norway, and Iceland.

JARPA: Japanese scientific research program

Japan’s goal is the resumption of commercial whaling, and its policy is based on scientific arguments, international law, and cultural diversity. Japanese research programs employ lethal methods that meet strong opposition.

Japan believes that these oppositions are emotional and anti-whaling reactions, based on misunderstanding and misinformation.  It considers that they undermine the holding of international negotiations, causing dysfunctions and conflicts within the IWC.

From 1987 to 2006, 182 scientific papers were submitted to the IWC by the Japanese, and 91 articles were published.

The JARPA program involved the Minke Whale hunt.  Japan is launching the JARPA II program in 2005, which adds quotas for two new species: Humpback whales and Fin whales.

The Japanese government, however, will agree to suspend the quota for Humpback whales as long as discussions on the “Future of IWC” are under way.

In 2004/2005, the annual harvest from Japanese scientific research was about 400 specimens of Antarctic Minke whales, for a total catch of about 6,777 since 1987.

Based on the results of its research, Japan has unsuccessfully called for the lifting of the moratorium on commercial whaling and has expressed the intention to increase its scientific harvesting to 850 Antarctic Minke whales per year.

This research involves capturing a specimen and then taking tissue samples.

The rest of the animal is debited, and its flesh is marketed in Japan, or simply destroyed, under the direction of the government, according to Article 8.2 of the IWC Convention.

The funds thus raised are used to cover the costs of the research programs.

On 31 March 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered the Japanese to stop whaling in the Antarctic Ocean.

In his opinion, Judge Peter Tomka explains: “Special permits are not issued for scientific research purposes. Financial considerations, rather than purely scientific ones, were involved in the design of the program. Japan has stated that it will respect the Court’s decision.

On April 3, the Japanese Fisheries Agency confirms that it is abandoning its next campaign in Antarctica, for the first time in 27 years, but will continue to hunt whales in the North Pacific Ocean.

The authorities also announced that they would submit to the International Whaling Commission “by the end of 2014” a new scientific program for the 2015-2016 season, JARPA III.  This campaign thus resumes on December 1, 2015.

In 2017, nearly 177 whales were killed and there seems to be no end to whaling in sight!

Please leave us your comments – we’re interested in hearing your opinion on this matter.


About the author: Robert is a former teacher and travel buff, and has spent the last 30 years travelling to different parts of the world including all over North America, South America, Africa, and Europe.  He loves trying new cultural cuisine, zip-lining through the Amazon jungle, and his cat, Twyla-Mae.

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