The History of Whaling

Whaling, the act of humans hunting whales (cetaceans) for their meat, bones and blubber,  has been occurring across the globe for millennia. A once legitimate source of income and nutrition, whaling has now been outlawed in most countries worldwide due to numerous species being hunted to the brink of extinction. It’s still undertaken both legally and illegally in some countries to this day.

Early Whaling – 6000 BC 

The earliest known evidence of whaling dates back to 6000 BC, in the form of ancient rock carvings discovered in South Korea, known as the Bangu-Dae Petroglyphs. Analysis of these rock carvings at Bangu-Dae archaeological site in Ulsan revealed more than 46 depictions of large whales, showing evidence that humans used harpoons, floats and lines to catch their prey, which included sperm whales, right whales and humpbacks. At nearby occupation sites dating to between 5,000 and 1,500 BC, archaeologists also unearthed large quantities of cetacean bones – a sure sign that whales were an important food source for these prehistoric populations 1.

A section of the Petroglyphs: Ulsan Petroglyph Museum

A section of the Petroglyphs: Ulsan Petroglyph Museum

Nearly every part of the whale is known to have been used by humans, with the meat, skin, blubber, and organs consumed as an important source of protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Baleen was woven into baskets and used as fishing line. In warmer climates, baleen was also used as a roofing material. Bones were used primarily for toolmaking and carving ceremonial items such as masks.

Throughout history, several cultures around the world practiced whaling with drogues, a semi-floating object such as a wooden drum or an inflated sealskin which was tied to an arrow or a harpoon. Once the arrow or harpoon had been shot into a whale’s body it was hoped that, after a period of time, the buoyancy and drag from the drogue would cause the whale to tire, allowing it to be approached and killed. The Norse, Inuit, Native Americans, and the Basque people all utilised drogues as a whaling method, with the Norsemen of Scandinavia being responsible for the first commercial whaling trade as early as the 9th century.

Europe – 1059 onwards

The Basques, an ethnic  group mainly inhabiting Basque Country (adjacent areas of Spain and France),  subsequently dominated the commercial whaling trade for centuries (1059-1756), spreading to the far corners of the North Atlantic and even reaching the South Atlantic.  At first, they only hunted the whale they called sarda, or the North Atlantic Right Whale, using watchtowers (known as vigias) to look for their distinctive twin vapour spouts, however as the industry grew, numerous other species were also targeted, specifically the calves as they proved easier to hunt.

Basque whaling peaked in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but was in decline by the late 17th and early 18th centuries. By the 19th century it was moribund as the Atlantic gray whale was extinct, the right whale was nearly extinct and the bowhead whale was decimated.

Basque whaling ship. (Pierre-Jacob Guéroult du Pas, 1710)

Basque whaling ship. (Pierre-Jacob Guéroult du Pas, 1710)

North America – 1800s

Over time, European whaling ventures spread to North America. The origins of commercial whaling in the United States of America date to the 17th century in New England and peaked in 1846-52. American colonists relied on whale oil to light most of their lamps. Whale oil was vital in illuminating homes and businesses throughout the world in the 19th century, and served as a dependable lubricant for the machines powering the Industrial Revolution.

The bulk of the returns of american whalers were in sperm whale oil, almost 40,000 barrels, worth over one million dollars overall 2. Baleen (the long keratin strips that hang from the top of whales’ mouths) was used by manufacturers in the United States and Europe to make consumer goods such as buggy whips, fishing poles, corset stays and dress hoops.

Early whaling efforts were concentrated on right whales and humpbacks, which were found near the American coast. As these populations declined and the market for whale products (especially whale oil) grew, American whalers began hunting the Sperm Whale. The Sperm Whale was particularly prized for the reservoir of spermaceti (a dense waxy substance that burns with an exceedingly bright flame) housed in the spermaceti organ, located forward and above the skull. The head of one sperm whale could yield 2,000 gallons of oil which was used to illuminate 19th century homes. Hunting for the Sperm Whale forced whalers to sail farther from home in search of their quarry, eventually covering the globe, with the hunt for these whales inspiring Melville’s Great American Novel Moby Dick.

The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) - prized by american whalers

The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) – prized by american whalers


At the overall height of the industry in 1846, the American fleet of ships, barks, schooners and brigs numbered 742 vessels. This was a global fishery harvesting whales from all the oceans of the world including the Sea of Okhotsk, the Tasman Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the East Indies, with vessels registered in ports of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Delaware 2. By 1895 the American whaling fleet had dwindled to fifty-one vessels, with only four ports regularly sending out ships. They were New Bedford, Provincetown, San Francisco, and Boston. Boston left the trade in 1903, with San Francisco leaving in 1921. Only New Bedford continued on into the trade, sending out its last whaler, the John R. Mantra, in 1927.

The standard explanations for the decline of whaling in the second half of the century consisted of falling demand (from alternative sources for energy – e.g kerosene) and falling supply (from over-hunting). It is believed between the years of 1835-1872, 292,714 whales were killed by the American whaling fleet 3.

American whalers during the declining phase of the whaling trade in the early 1900s.

American whalers during the declining phase of the whaling trade in the early 1900s.

Scandinavia – 1800s

During the 1800s, colonists introduced commercial whaling to other parts of the world, and numerous whaling stations were set up across Scandinavia including in Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Norway pioneered many new techniques for whaling and introduced them worldwide. Cannon-fired harpoons, strong cables, and steam winches were mounted on maneuverable, steam-powered catcher boats, which made the targeting of large and fast-swimming rorquals (blue, fin, Sei, and Minke whales) possible. The whales would subsequently be taken to shore-based stations for processing. At it’s peak (1892–93 and 1896–98), the Norwegian whaling industry caught between 1,000 and 1,200 whales each year. Only half the number of whales were taken in 1899, and catching continued to decline until 1902, when it improved somewhat. The last station closed down in 1904.

In 1883 the first whaling station was established in Alptafjordur, Iceland. In the first season, using an 84 gross ton whale catcher, only eight whales were caught, but in the following season (1884) twenty-five were caught, all of which were Blue Whales, with the exception of two . Catching peaked in 1902, when 1,305 whales were caught to produce 40,000 barrels of oil. By 1907, only 268 whales were caught, and by 1910 the score stood at a mere 170.

Hestnes whaling station - Norway 1929.

Hestnes whaling station – Norway 1929.

Commercial whaling was established in the Faroe Islands in 1894 by Norwegian Hans Albert Grøn, with forty-six whales caught in the first season, through intercepting whales as they migrated north. Peak catching was reached in 1909, when 773 whales were caught to produce 13,850 barrels of oil. By 1913 the production of oil had dropped to 3,515 barrels. In 1917, with the war and poor catches, whaling was suspended from the islands. Four companies resumed catching in 1920. The results were disappointing; with only one Norwegian company staying at the islands as late as 1930.

In 1903, the Norwegian Christen Christensen sent the first factory ship, the wooden steamship Telegraf (737 gross tons), to Spitsbergen, Norway. She returned to Sandefjord in September with 1,960 barrels of oil produced from a catch of fifty-seven whales—of which forty-two were Blue Whales. He sent a larger ship, the 1,517 gross ton Admiralen, to Spitsbergen the following season (1904). She returned with a cargo of 5,100 barrels from 154 whales. By 1905 there were eight companies operating around Spitsbergen and Bear Island, while seven (using fifteen whale catchers) were there in 1906–07. The peak had been reached in 1905, when 559 whales (337 Blue) were caught to produce 18,660 barrels. Only a quarter of this was produced in 1908. Two companies left in 1907, and another two the following year 4.

A whaling ship surrounded by several dead whales lying in the sea at Spitsbergen, Norway; ca. 1905.

A whaling ship surrounded by several dead whales lying in the sea at Spitsbergen, Norway; ca. 1905.

Early 20th Century

The 20th century saw the massive growth of whale harvesting with the introduction of factory ships that could be used to hunt, capture and transport whales much more effectively.  These floating processing plants were able to process up to 40,000 whales per year. In 1904, full-scale modern whaling started in Japan with construction of a modern whaling station in Ayukawa, where primarily humpback, right and grey whales were targeted.

The advances in technology, coupled with the extreme depletion of whales in the rest of the world, led to the spread of hunting to the Antarctic, where huge concentrations of feeding whales made large-scale whaling highly profitable. In 1909, the first British Antarctic whaling station was established on West Falkland Island and factory ships set out across the Antarctic. The number of whales killed in the Antarctic rose drastically over the next 20 years, with the whale kill for the 1927 season reaching 13,775. By 1929, seasonal whale kill numbers had skyrocketed  to 40, 201, with thirty-eight factory ships and 184 catchers, mostly British and Norwegian, operating in the Antarctic at this time 5.

Antarctic whaling grew in the early 20th century, with the introduction of factory ships and advanced harpoons

Antarctic whaling grew with the introduction of factory ships and advanced harpoon guns

Since whales migrate world-wide through both coastal waters and the open oceans, the need for international co-operation in their conservation became evident. By 1925, the League of Nations recognised that whales were over-exploited and that there was a need to regulate whaling activities. In 1930, the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics was set up in order to keep track of catches.

In 1939, the the first international attempt to regulate the whaling industry was carried out through the signing of the Geneva Convention for the Regulation of Whaling by 22 nations.  That same year, an all-time record 29,410 blue whales are killed in the Antarctic 5.  Various nations met throughout the 1930s attempting to bring order to the industry, as 80% of the great whale species were hunted to the verge of extinction 6. In 1939, the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling is signed in London. The next season following the enforcement of the ICRW,  46,039 whales are killed in the Antarctic, the highest total ever 5.  The commercial whaling industry all but disappeared with the start of World War 2, but began to gradually commence in the years following.

Finally, in Washington, D.C., United States, on 2 December 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was signed. The Preamble states that:

Recognising the interest of the nations of the world in safeguarding for future generations the great natural resources represented by the whale stocks…..having decided to conclude a convention to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry“.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established as its decision-making body, originally with 15 member states. The role of the Commission was to periodically review and revise the Schedule to the Convention, controlling the conduct of whaling by setting the protection of certain species; designating areas as whale sanctuaries; setting limits on the numbers and size of catches; prescribing open and closed seasons and areas for whaling; methods and intensity of whaling, types of gear to be used, methods of measurement and maximum catch returns. However, the first catch quotas restricting international trade in whales issued by the IWC were largely ineffective due to the lack of differentiation between species at the time.

Member states of the International Whaling Commission (in blue)

Member states of the International Whaling Commission (in blue)

By 1963, the UK had ceased all whaling activity and only Japanese and German whalers still operated in the Antarctic. In 1966 Blue whale hunting was completely banned by the IWC due to the dwindling population numbers remaining and illegal whaling by the Soviet Union finally halted in the 1970s. By this time 330,000 blue whales had been caught in the Antarctic, 33,000 in the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, 8,200 in the North Pacific, and 7,000 in the North Atlantic 7. The largest original population, in the Antarctic, had been reduced to 0.15% of their initial numbers 7.

Ban on commercial whaling – 1982 onwards 

The 1970s saw the beginning of the global anti-whaling movement. In 1972 the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm adopted a proposal that recommended a ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling to allow whale stocks to recover. The reports of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1977 and 1981 identified many species of whales as being in danger of extinction. A number of non-whaling and anti-whaling states began to join the IWC and eventually gained a majority over the whaling nations. Some countries who were previously major whaling forces, like the United States, became strong proponents of the anti-whaling cause.

On 23 July 1982, members of the IWC voted by the necessary three-quarters majority to implement a pause on commercial whaling to come into effect in 1986. Japan, Norway, Peru, and the Soviet Union (later replaced by Russia) lodged formal objections to the ban. The official ban states:

“Notwithstanding the other provisions of paragraph 10, catch limits for the killing for commercial purposes of whales from all stocks for the 1986 coastal and the 1985/86 pelagic seasons and thereafter shall be zero. This provision will be kept under review, based upon the best scientific advice, and by 1990 at the latest the Commission will undertake a comprehensive assessment of the effects of this decision on whale stocks and consider modification of this provision and the establishment of other catch limits”

As the moratorium applies only to commercial whaling, whaling under the scientific-research and aboriginal-subsistence provisions of the ICRW is still allowed. Since 1994, Norway, has been whaling commercially and Iceland resumed commercial whaling in September 2006. The US and several other nations are whaling under aboriginal whaling auspices, meaning a designated number of certain whale species can be caught annually to provide for inuit communities who depend on whale harvests for differing reasons.

Since 1986, Japan has been whaling under scientific research permits however anti-whaling countries and lobbies accuse Japan’s scientific whaling of being a front for commercial whaling.

A study published in the March 4 issue of “Marine Fisheries Review” shows that, between 1900 and 1999, a staggering 2.9 million whales were killed commercially for food, oil or bone.

Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006 despite twenty-five nations delivering a formal diplomatic protest

Iceland resumed commercial whaling despite twenty-five nations delivering a formal diplomatic protest

Japanese Whaling – 1986 to present

After the IWC ban on commercial whaling, Japan continued to hunt whales using the scientific research provision in the agreement, with Japanese whaling currently conducted by the Institute of Cetacean Research. Although this is allowed under IWC rules, most IWC members oppose it.  Japan carries out its whaling in two areas: the North-West Pacific Ocean (JARPN II) and the Antarctic Ocean (JARPA) Southern Hemisphere catch. The 2007/08 JARPA mission had a self-imposed quota of 900 minke whales and 50 fin whales. Japan currently kills between 650 to 1,000 whales each year and then sells the whale meat for consumption 8. Whale meat is sold in Japanese food markets illegally and up until recently was a large part of their diets and culture.

Whale meat sold as food in Japanese markets

Whale meat sold as food in Japanese markets

On March 31, 2014 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated its decision (by 12-4 votes) the Japan’s whaling program was not for scientific purposes. The Court ordered that “Japan revoke any extant authorisation, permit or licence to kill, take or treat whales” and refrain from granting any further permits relating to their JARPA II programme 8.

It is though around 2,000 kilos of stock whale meat is sitting in storage at any given time in Japan as the product struggles to sell in the present day 9. Despite this, the Japan Whaling Association contends that asking Japan to abandon its whaling culture is comparable to “Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers and the English being asked to go without fish and chips.” 10 It would seem that whaling is becoming a dying tradition in Japan rooted in nostalgia, with the majority of the Japanese youth not eating whale or dolphin meat anymore 9.


A whale and a calf being loaded aboard a factory ship, the Nisshin Maru. The sign above the slipway reads, “Legal research under the ICRW”.

In November 2014, Japan announced that it would resume hunting whales in the Southern Ocean in 2015, but that it would reduce its catch target by two-thirds. Japan’s Fisheries Agency said that Japan intends to catch 333 minke whales each year between 2015 and 2027, down from 935 minke and 50 fin whales. It said the hunts were needed for collecting scientific data and were exempt from a 1986 international ban on commercial whaling, despite the ICJ ruling.

For more information on modern day whaling and to see how you can make a difference, visit Save the Whales  and Greenpeace 


– JK


1. Kim, Won-yong. Art and Archaeology of Ancient Korea. Taekwang, Seoul, 1986.



4. Tønnessen & Johnsen (1982), p.98



7. Branch, T. A.; Matsuoka, K.; Miyashita, T. (2004). “Evidence for increases in Antarctic blue whales based on Bayesian modelling”. Marine Mammal Science 20 (4): 726–754. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2004.tb01190.x

8. . “The Court finds that Japan’s whaling programme in the Antarctic (JARPA II) is not in accordance with three provisions of the Schedule to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling” (PDF), Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v. Japan: New Zealand intervening)(PDF), The Hague, Netherlands: International Court of Justice, March 31, 2014



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