Marine Science Chapters


Early Whaling

To begin a chapter on whaling one must begin with a short introduction to ‘whales.’ The group of marine mammals called whales is classified in the group called Cetacea. These cetaceans are warm-blooded air breathers with a large brain who give milk to their young. Cetaceans are further divided into two groups – the mysticetes, or baleen whales, that eat plankton; and the odontocetes, or toothed whales, that eat fish, squid or mammals.

Gray Whale Model
Model of a gray whale, one of the baleen whales.

Baleen whales have no teeth, instead they have numerous plates of baleen hanging from the gums of their upper jaw. These plates are much like fingernails, stacked closely together and frayed on the inside. The baleen whales take a large mouthful of water and squeeze it out through the baleen. The small zooplankters (shrimp-like crustaceans primarily) are stuck on the inside of the baleen and ingested as food.

Sperm Whale Model
Model of a sperm whale, one of the toothed whales.

Toothed whales have peg-like teeth for grasping their prey, however they swallow it whole, without chewing. Some toothed whales have teeth only on one jaw (like the sperm whale with teeth only on the lower jaw) but most have teeth on both the upper and lower jaw (killer whales, dolphins and porpoises).

Since prehistoric times whales have been sources of food and materials for man. In the very early times it was most likely only whales that beached themselves (called stranding) or washed ashore already dead. Scandinavian petroglyphs (rock carvings) from about 4,000 years ago show several whaling scenes. The first written records of whaling started about 900 in Norway. Little is known about the methods or numbers of whales killed from this earliest period.

Fountain with a Whale Tail and Whale Boat
A fountain, in Sandefjord, Norway, of a whale tail and whale boat showing the harpooner with the typical early harpoon attached to a rope.

The Basques are credited with perfecting whaling techniques from small ‘whale boats’ starting about 900. They worked mainly in the area of the Bay of Biscay. Records show they used small open boats (launched from shore) to approach a whale, harpoon it (with a harpoon connected to a long rope), wait for the harpooned whale to become exhausted, then kill it with sharp lances and tow it back to shore.

Sailing ships (equipped with the small whaleboats) were used starting about 1,200 by the Basques. This was probably in response to the decreasing number of whales close to shore. At sea the whale’s body was stripped of its blubber and baleen which was stored on the ship. When the ship was full it would return to land and the blubber was cooked to make oil. This oil was burned in the lamps used by the Basques. The baleen was made into horse whips and ladies corsets.

By 1500 most of the desirable whales in the Bay of Biscay were gone. The large sailing ships ventured further and further away – as far as Newfoundland. During this period most of the whaling centered on only one type of whale that became known as the ‘right whale’ because it did not sink when it was killed. This type of whale was a baleen whale and is a rather slow swimmer so it was the easiest for the Basque’s small open whale boats. But, the main reason it was called a 'right whale' was because it did not sink.

European nations entered whaling primarily in the 1600s. The English, Germans, Dutch, and Danes used the techniques of the Basques but went north into Arctic waters. The ocean surrounding Svalbard became the center of European whaling during this period bringing their catch to shore based stations for rendering. Some of the European countries employed the Basques to whale for them – later learning the techniques themselves. But, by the mid 1700s the Svalbard area had few whales left.

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(Revised 2 June 2009)
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