Whaling is the act of hunting whales for their meat, bones and blubber which are used to make various products and chemicals such as transmission fluid, candles, margarine, jewelry, toys and tools.
While most people think about whaling in recent years the history of whaling dates back to at least 3,000 B.C. with some researchers obtain possible evidence of this practice extending as far back as 6,000 B.C.
Some of this evidence includes observing ancient tools that appear to be early harpoons with ropes or lines attached to them as well as the use of drogues.
One of the oldest methods known for capturing whales was to place several small boats beside a whale and hope to scare it and drive it to shore where it would land on the beach and could be killed.
While whaling has existed for thousands of years it wasn’t until around the 17th century that the whaling industry truly emerged due to an increase in the necessity of goods and advances in technology which improved the hunting and success rates of whale killings.
By the 18th and 19th century whaling became a highly competitive business.
Part of the increased necessity for whale parts was due to the boom of the industrial era as whale oil became increasingly used among both small and large businesses.
In the 20th century the concept of whale harvesting began to grow as well as the introduction of factory ships which could be used to hunt, capture and transport whales much more effectively.
As technology and the demand of whale goods increased stocks of whales began to significantly decrease causing many species to become endangered.
By the late 1930’s 50,000 + whales were being killed annually.
The large decline in whale populations led to growing concerns among groups and organizations that began to worry about various species of whale becoming endangered and possibly even facing extinction.
The phrase “whaling ship” often calls to mind images of tall ships with sails, the nineteenth century and Captain Ahab, but despite these associations, whaling has a long history across many different cultures and eras.
Hunting whales for various purposes dates back to at least 3,000 B.C., and whaling and its effects on global whale populations have evolved tremendously over the centuries.
Whaling even continues today in a more limited form, after the outcry against whaling and the bans on most whaling activities in the latter half of the 20th century.
Generally speaking, a whaling ship is any ocean-going vessel used to hunt whales.
Under this definition, everything from a tiny canoe to a giant industrial factory-ship can be considered a whaling vessel, although in contemporary discussions “whaling ship” is understood to refer to these latter vessels that harvest and process whales on an industrial scale.
Whaling’s origins lie in the small boats used to capture whales as part of the subsistence diet of various traditional cultures.
Most traditional whaling techniques date back thousands of years.
Early human communities living in coastal regions hunted whales first by corralling them with a group of boats and then driving them ashore.
Later, various groups began to hunt using spears or harpoons made of bone or metal.
Whale hunters tied their weapons to some buoyant object or floater, which prevented the whale from diving to escape.
The 17th century saw the onset of industrial whaling in pursuit of the whale’s oil, an important source of light in the era before electricity.
Because of this and other uses of the whale, harvesting began on a massive scale.
The earliest modern whalers, made famous by Melville’s Moby Dick, were large sailing ships that launched small, open boats to pursue and capture the larger whale species.
The whalers then brought the captured whales to the ship and butchered and processed them into oil.
By the late 19th century, fast, maneuverable steamships and cannon-fired harpoons had revolutionized whaling.
No longer limited by the winds or the strength of the harpooners’ arms, whaling ships were able to pursue even the largest whales non-stop and capture them in their thousands.
By 1930, these high-tech whaling fleets were killing some 50,000 whales worldwide every year.
Subsistence whaling from an older era had never captured whales on such a scale.
In 1986, the International Whaling Commission banned almost all whaling, and many of the whale populations have shown substantial recoveries, although their populations remain well below pre-20th century levels, and many species remain vulnerable.
The whaling that continues today falls under two broad categories.
First, local and international authorities permit some communities with a history of subsistence whaling to continue such traditional practices; examples of this include the Inuit in Canada and some groups in Indonesia.
Representatives of these groups claim that whaling represents an integral part of their cultures and provides an important dietary resource.
In these communities, whalers hunt for whales in the traditional fashion in smaller boats, although rifles now often replace harpoons or spears.
The second category includes those hunts permitted by the IWC under its so-called scientific exception, which allows limited whaling for research purposes.
The controversial Japanese whale hunt in Antarctic waters is an example of modern research whaling.
Critics claim that this exception is merely a cover for whaling for meat or oil and that killing whales is unnecessary for research or conservation.
In addition, the IWC rules do not regulate the hunting of small cetacean species such as dolphins and pilot whales, and hunts of this kind continue in certain regions, for instance in Denmark’s Faroe Islands.
While this article is focused on how whales have been affected by extensive hunting during the whaling era it is important to point out that dolphins have also been hunted by poachers looking to sell their meat or use it for bait.
Because dolphins are much smaller than whales they were much less likely to be hunted and attacked during the whaling era as they provided much less oil from their blubber than the larger whale species, however they were and still are hunted for other reasons.
As stated before dolphins may be hunted so that their meat can be sold to local markets.
In some cases dolphin meat has even been found in sold cans of tuna as a filler for tuna meat or mixed in with other types of fish products.
Dolphins have also been hunted so that their meat could be used as bait by fishermen looking to attract other marine animals they were hunting.
And some species were killed by poachers and fishermen that were looking to lower their competition for hunting fish or because the dolphins were interfering with their fishing equipment.
As with the whale species dolphins are now considered a protected species and hunting them is illegal in numerous countries.
Help from the ICRW/IWC
In 1946 agreements were made and signed by the ICRW in Washington D.C. to provide better protection among certain whale populations and monitor the behavior of the whaling industry in an attempt to allow certain whale stocks time to recover from extensive whaling practices, and in 1986 the International Whaling Commission (An organization created to prevent the over-hunting of whales and create policies as to how people are allowed to interact with whales) banned the practice of commercial whaling to provide better protection to all marine mammals and give species affected by the whaling industry time to hopefully rebuild their population.
Those who signed into the international agreement complied to follow its policies, however over the years some countries have disbanded from the agreement and have begun hunting again.
Other countries have adopted their own policies for policing the hunting of whales and limit which species of whale can be hunted and how many of that species can be killed yearly.
While not completely stopping commercial whaling these countries try to create a balance between the whaling industry and the re-population of whales.
And some countries hunt whales regardless of existing policies.
Due to the creation of alternative resources whale blubber is no longer needed for oil so most hunting that does occur today is the result of hunting whales for their meat which is sold to restaurants, meat markets and supermarkets where it can be sold for human consumption.
Fortunately most species of whale still remain in existence today due to the banning of commercial whaling in various parts of the world.
Although unauthorized commercial whaling is likely to continue for a long time it appears that this trend is declining as certain countries continue to lose profits due continually declining interests.
List of hunted whales
This is not a complete list.
- Northern bottlenose whale
- Baird’s beaked whale
- Bowhead whale
- Byrde’s whale
- Fin whale
- Gray whale
- humpback whale
- Minke whale
- Narwhal whale
- Long finned pilot whale
- Pygmy killer whale
- Sperm whale
- Atlantic white sided dolphin
The growth of the whale watching industry
As the commercial whaling industry came to an end during the 20th century a new industry known as whale watching began to emerge.
Since its inception the whale watching industry has grown to a billion dollar annual business hiring thousands of employees and serving millions of customers each year.
Whale watching is act of watching whales live in their natural habitat similar to bird watching.
Whale watchers pay tour boats to bring them out to sea where they can catch a glimpse of these amazing marine mammals living their lives.
In addition to bringing additional capital to numerous economies whale watching has also helped bring awareness about the current condition of whales and some businesses work with organizations to provide additional help and protection for these marine mammals, especially those that are endangered and in threat of facing extinction.