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A history of whaling

Published: 10 February 2022

Using photographs from the Daily Herald Archive, this story looks at the history of whaling, how the industry developed, and the reasons it is still practised today.

Please note: This story contains photographs that some readers may find distressing, including images of beached and dead whales.

Whaling has been a traditional activity among indigenous communities all over the world for thousands of years. It is still practised by some of these small communities today, and can provide food, tools and even a sense of purpose and discipline. In more recent years, whaling has also become a massive commercial industry which has led to a significant devastation of the number of whales in the wild. Despite decades of attempting to protect these beautiful creatures of the sea, 6 out of 13 great whale species are still classified as endangered or vulnerable.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

This story is based on a selection of images from the archive.

Ancient whaling

Humans have been hunting whales for thousands of years. Small communities in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Arctic Ocean were killing and using whale products by 3000 BCE and people in Japan are thought to have practised some kind of whaling during the Jōmon period, 13000–300 BCE.

Small-scale coastal whaling is recorded in places like Norway from the 10th century, and Japan and Iceland from the 12th century. This continued until the 19th century, when these countries became more involved in large-scale commercial whaling.

Ancient archaeological finds show the long and complicated history humans have had with whales. A Neolithic petroglyph in southern Korea showing whales tethered to boats dates from 6000–5000 BCE, and whale remains have been found in Japanese ancient burial mounds.

Similarly, a whalebone figurine depicting a human was found in Scotland in 1850 and is thought to date from between 2900–2400 BCE. This figurine, nicknamed ‘Buddo’, was discovered at Skara Brae but was lost for about 150 years. It was rediscovered in 2016 in the collections at Stromness Museum.

Weaving combs made of whalebone dating from around 400 BCE to 100 CE have also been found in Britain, particularly around Orkney and Somerset.

Ancient whaling - gallery

Whaling for profit: The beginnings

Commercial whaling is the practice of hunting and killing whales for the purpose of selling and trading their meat and other products derived from them. It started in the 11th century with people from Basque Country in Southwest Europe. These communities hunted the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered species of whale today.

The Basque people initially limited their hunting to the Bay of Biscay, but with the introduction of oceangoing ships they were able to search further afield—across to the English Channel and southern Ireland from the 14th century, the North Atlantic in the 16th century, and Iceland by the 17th century.

Whaling gained in popularity across northern Europe in the early 17th century, and these nations relied on the knowledge and experience of the Basques in their first expeditions. This included the English Muscovy Company who sent Basque whalers to the island of Spitsbergen in 1610.

Over the next few decades, whalers from England, the Netherlands, Denmark and France sent regular expeditions to hunt the bowhead whale in the bays around Spitsbergen. Various settlements were established in the area, including Smeerenburg (or ‘Blubbertown’), and territorial disagreements often led to violent conflicts.

Beginnings - gallery

Whaling for profit: The open sea

From the mid-17th century, European whalers started exploring open-sea whaling and opportunities around Iceland and Greenland, then North America, eventually sending expeditions as far as the South Pacific and Antarctica in the 18th century.

The first sperm whale is thought to have been caught in 1712, although some people suggest that Japanese whalers were catching sperm whales long before this date. Sperm whales produce a type of waxy oil called spermaceti, considered to be more valuable than the oil produced by other whales. The popularity of sperm whale oil led to a huge expansion in the industry at the beginning of the 18th century.

While bowhead and North Atlantic right whales tend to live in shallow, coastal waters, sperm whales live in the deep waters of the open ocean. Hunting sperm whales changed the nature of whaling: expeditions became longer and whales could be flensed onboard.

Colonial North Americans started whaling commercially in the 1650s, and grew to become the whaling nation of the world by the 1830s. Whalers started by hunting right whales and humpback whales near the coast, particularly Nantucket, but—like their North European counterparts—they were soon lured further away in search of the sperm whale.

Whaling started to decline towards the end of the 19th century, particularly when the discovery of petroleum in 1859 meant whale oil was no longer needed to make candles. The introduction of vegetable oil, steel bone corsets, gas lamps and eventually electric lights in 1879 all contributed to this decline.

Open sea - gallery

Whaling for profit: Modern times

North American whaling declined on the East Coast in the early 20th century, but continued on a small scale along the West Coast until the 1970s. Today, it is still practised by some small communities, such as the Makah tribe in northwestern America.

In comparison, Norway, Japan and Iceland became much bigger players in commercial whaling during this period. From the 19th century European whalers increased their activity in Iceland, hunting blue and fin whales, while whalers in Japan started to adopt more modern methods of whaling, hunting the North Pacific right, humpback, fin and grey whales. Whalers in Japan became very heavily involved in commercial whaling during the 20th century.

In Norway, Svend Foyn—considered the father of modern whaling—invented, among other things, a steam-powered whale catcher in 1863, and held a monopoly on whaling in Norway between 1873 and 1883. After the monopoly broke, Norwegian whaling competition multiplied and, due to depleted stocks, expanded whaling activities to Iceland and beyond.

With the introduction of new technology in the 20th century, the whaling industry surged, and British and Norwegian whalers dominated the industry. Britain provided a lot of the capital, while Norway organised many of the expeditions and improvements. In the first decade annual catches rose from 2,000 to 20,000. This rose exponentially and reached a peak of 66,000 in 1961.

Floating ship factories, some fitted with aircraft for whale spotting, replaced many shore stations just before the First World War, enabling whalers to reach previously unreachable waters. Early factory ships were converted merchant vessels.

During the 1930s, the number of catchers per factory ship rose from four to eight, and ships became much faster. This enabled whalers to better hunt swimming rorqual whales like the huge blue whale.

Huge factory ships were built after the Second World War, as whale oil and flesh became increasingly important to supplement fat and meat rations. From the 1960s, as whale populations continued to decline, many European companies started to withdraw from the whaling industry. No large factory ships sailed after 1978, but small-scale whaling and whaling for scientific purposes continue to this day.

Modern times - gallery

How were whales captured?

Whales are huge; the blue whale is the largest mammal on the planet. They can grow up to 33 metres long and weigh up to 180 tons. So how can humans, tiny by comparison, overpower these gigantic creatures of the sea?

The method for catching whales has evolved over millennia as humans have moved from small-scale whaling to commercial whaling and have adapted to developments in technology.

Early whalers caught small, coastal whales that came to breed in bays near the coast. Some communities only took whales that had already washed up on shore, usually dead. Early Japanese whalers used nets, while Aleut communities used poisoned spears. Inuit communities were able to go further afield and hunt whales from their boats.

Basque whalers targeted the slow-moving whales that came into the Bay of Biscay, chasing them in small rowboats and striking them when they got close enough. They often sat in watchtowers, called vigias, to try and spot the distinctive twin vapour spouts of the North Atlantic right whale.

The harpoon—a long, spear-like instrument—has been the most common method of killing whales for thousands of years. Early whalers would hand throw harpoons, sometimes several at a time, to prevent the whale from getting away before it could be killed with a more effective instrument at close range.

With commercial whaling came a need for faster, more efficient methods of killing, and soon harpoons could be shot from guns attached to factory ships. If several whales were being pursued at once, they would be inflated with compressed air so they could float before being collected.

Factory ships were fitted with winches attached to claws that would fasten around a whale’s tail and haul it up from the water to the ship’s deck to be dismembered. Breechloader guns were introduced in 1924 and electric harpoons that caused instant death were used from the 1960s. As the widespread slaughter increased in the 20th century, whales became more and more cautious, so aeroplanes were often used during big expeditions to help locate schools of whales.

Catching whales - gallery

Why are whales killed?

Sperm whale on deck of ship Science Museum Group © the rights holder
The marks on this sperm whale’s jaw are from octopus and squid struggling for life, 1938

Early whaling provided food for communities living in coastal regions. Meat, blubber and even organs were seen as a good source of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Some communities continue to eat whale meat today, including the Faroese who eat it fresh or fermented or after it has been dried and salted.

Whale baleen was traditionally used to make fishing lines and could be woven into baskets or even used as roofing material. Bones were typically used to make tools or figurines, and later for corsets and hoop skirts.

Whale oil, from the blubber of right and bowhead whales and the head cavity of sperm whales, was used to make candles and for oil lamps. It is also a source of fat and has been used to make soap and butter or margarine.

From the late 18th century, whale oil was increasingly used to lubricate machinery and, during periods of conflict, could be used to lubricate rifles and other military instruments.

Whale oil lamp made of pewter with a single wick, c.1840
© Science Museum Group Collection More information about Whale oil lamp made of pewter with a single wick, c.1840

Make do and eat whale meat

During the Second World War, whale meat was consumed to supplement the British diet during a long period of rationing. Food was rationed from 1940 and restrictions on butter, cheese and meat lasted until 1954. Food shortages started to increase towards the end of the war and so rationing was much stricter in the late 1940s.

The first post-war whaling expedition set off from Southampton in October 1946 after a stop in Norway to enlist sailors for the trip. The whaling factory ship called Balaena sailed first to Cape Town, South Africa, then on to Antarctica. The whalers were accompanied by scientists working for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to test the food value of whale meat for the British diet.

The expedition was a success, and several thousand tons were imported to Britain from 1947. The government promoted whale meat as an unrationed alternative to beef, claiming that it tasted the same and had similar health benefits. Corned whale meat—or ‘Whacon’ as it was called—was then introduced in 1951 as an alternative to corned beef. However, despite attempts by the Ministry of Food to encourage consumption through inventive recipes, it was never a popular dish.

Whale meat - gallery

Save the whales

By the early 20th century, severe overfishing left many species of whale nearly extinct. Responding to concerns from whalers and conservators, the League of Nations proposed an international conference in 1927 on whale conservation. The conference was rejected by many nations and ultimately never went ahead; nevertheless, this development marked the first step towards whaling regulation. Then in 1931, several nations signed an agreement called the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, although it was very limited and eventually superseded in 1937.

Finally, in 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was established, with the International Whaling Commission (IWC) as its decision-making body. Effective from 1948, the IWC initially came together with 15 whaling nations. It continued to grow, and has a current membership of 88 countries across the world. 

The IWC set several restrictions in 1946, including a prohibition on killing grey, humpback and right whales and a seasonal limit of killing whales in the Antarctic region. Hunting seasons were fixed and a maximum quota of 16,000 was also set for the ‘blue whale unit’ (or BWU; one unit could include 2 fin, 2.5 humpback or 6 sei whales).

Despite good intentions, these restrictions actually served to increase competition between whaling countries. They encouraged a period of intensive whaling as whalers sought to reach their quotas within a smaller timeframe. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, quotas were set but exceeded—or sometimes not set at all—and there was a lot of backlash, with some countries leaving the IWC.

By 1970, many species of whale were severely depleted. The anti-whaling movement gained a lot more support following the release of an album in 1970: Songs of the Humpback Whale by biologist Roger Payne. This album featured some of the first recordings of vocalisations made by humpback whales using a hydrophone (an underwater device for the recording of ocean sounds). It showed that whales didn’t just make noises, but had their own language and could communicate with each other. The album was very popular and went on to sell over 100,000 copies.

Save the whales - gallery

Are whales still hunted?

Commercial whaling was finally banned by the IWC during the seasons 1986–90. This moratorium still holds today, though it is not honoured by all countries.

Norway formally objected to the ban in 1986 and continued whaling, citing ‘scientific purposes’ at first. However, they soon resumed commercial whaling and it continues today. Japan continued to hunt whales after the ban, also citing ‘scientific purposes’. It then left the IWC in 2019 and resumed commercial whaling.

Iceland accepted the ban on commercial whaling at first, but continued a small-scale whaling programme, again citing ‘scientific purposes’. Iceland left the IWC in 1992 but rejoined in 2002 with a ‘reservation’ against the ban, continuing to hunt commercially between 2006 and 2018. Whaling in Iceland paused in 2019 but may resume in 2022.

Group of men handling stranded whales © Science Museum Group Collection
Fishermen kill 65 stranded whales in Jutland, Denmark, usually caught near the Faroe Islands, 1954

Every year, roughly 600–800 pilot whales are killed in the Faore Islands as part of ‘the grind’, a ritual dating back over 1,000 years. On 12 September 2021, there was outcry from international audiences and local residents when 1,428 Atlantic white-sided dolphin were killed during one drive hunt. The scale of the slaughter forced the government of the Faroe Islands to re-evaluate some of its practices.

Similarly, concern among locals and health authorities about the high levels of certain contaminants found in whales, such as mercury and PCBs, are causing more and more people to question this ancient tradition.

Crowd watching as whales swim close to harbour wall Science Museum Group © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Inhabitants of Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands watch a battle between two men and a whale close to the harbour wall, 1960

Further reading

Whaling, general

Whaling in Japan

Whaling in Norway

The Grind

Rationing and whale meat during the Second World War

The Balaena