Into the Heart of Whaling


By Andrew Darby

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From one-hundred-fifty-ton barnacled Blues to the sleek, embattled Minke, whales have been hunted worldwide to near extinction. Despite efforts to halt the killing, the future of these majestic mammals-known as “mind in the water”-is again in jeopardy. With passion and engaging detail, Andrew Darby profiles each species of whale and its place in this great drama. From the wooden harpoons of aboriginals in “cockleshell” vessels, to the high-tech killing machines of today's lawless Russian whalers and smooth-talking Japanese “scientific” crews, Darby chronicles the evolving pursuit of whales and its significance to our humanity. Fans of well-written history, as well as those fascinated by whales and the fierce international conflict surrounding them, will be swept into the very heart of whaling.






For Sally,
Heather and Geoff


(Balaenoptera physalus)


This much we know. The first Fin whale to be harpooned in the Antarctic for 30 years was a 19-metre long male.

It was of a species facing a very high risk of extinction and it was killed to the north of Prydz Bay, eastern Antarctica, in a whale sanctuary. It was just big enough to be sexually mature, and close to the upper limi t for handling on a factory ship where it was processed in the name of science.

Some of the death we can piece together. We can see the gunner standing in a slight crouch high on the open bow of the grey chaser. The deck is a-tilt on the Southern Ocean and his feet are apart for balance. His face is hidden from freezing wind blast beneath an earmuffed cap as he stares along a gunsight above the barrel of his cannon. Tracking the whale, he shifts across the deck lightly, like a boxer, swinging the cannon by its handle as he does.

The fast-moving Fin breaks the surface and the gunner squeezes a trigger that looks as harmless as a bicycle handbrake. A grenade-tipped harpoon weighing 45 kilograms blasts out of the cannon’s muzzle at 113 metres per second and hits an animal that has the mass of a laden semi-trailer. As the blunt-headed weapon drives in, four steel claws are released, a fuse trips, and milliseconds later the grenade’s high intensity penthrite explodes. The line trailing back from the harpoon to the ship strains, and the barbed claws pull open inside the whale, holding it fast.

We do not know why this particular Fin was chosen. We do not know how long it took to chase the whale down, nor whether it was hit with the first shot. We don’t know how many harpoons were needed to kill the whale, nor how long it remained alive. Neither do we know who the gunner was, nor the name of the chaser; how difficult it was to process; where its meat was sold, when, nor for what value.

None of this information went to the organisation that rules on the life and death of whales, the International Whaling Commission (IWC). We do know this was the moment, on 3 February 2006, when the only factory fleet afloat began again to collect the whale meat favoured by some Japanese.

Most things about the Fin whale are unknown to us. They are the secrets of an open ocean whale, rarely seen off populated coasts, which lives in the shadow of the Blue as the second largest animal ever to breathe. It grows up to 27 metres long, can weigh 120 tonnes, and outpace normal ships. We don’t see a Fin so much as we see where it has been. The rise and dip of its passage is marked by slick pools that linger on the surface after a high blow puffs in the distance. There went a Fin.

This scale and speed make it a hemisphere cruiser. In the north a radiotagged Fin cantered 2095 kilometres in less than ten days. Fuel for the giant is an overriding need. A 48-tonne Fin, about the size of the 3 February animal, must eat nearly three times its weight in krill over a four-month south polar season to build up enough fat reserves for the remainder of its year.

Organising this banquet needs special skills and Fins have been observed at depth lunge-feeding, taking in tonnes of water and fish at a time. The species also has a unique physical aid: it is asymmetrical. A Fin’s right side is whiter than the left, and may flash as a contrasting barrier in the water, helping to concentrate swarming prey, ready for the gulp.

In the twentieth century, the era of industrial whaling, more Fins were killed in their Southern Hemisphere stronghold than any other whale species. Nearly three quarters of a million were routed out of the far south, and the last Fins whaled were taken by Soviets in the Pacific off southern Chile in 1975–76. This is what the adventure of whaling became. Any sense of human daring was fake nostalgia. There was no equality, only the arithmetic of overwhelming mechanical force. The great hunt became the great hurt.

Attempts to heal this deep injury included enactment of the 1986 global moratorium on commercial whaling, and creation of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary for whales, where this Fin swam. Despite these changes, around 28 500 whales since 1986 had been harpooned for sale before this Fin. Whaling was not over, it was growing. Norway and Iceland were raising the number of their kills in the North Atlantic, and Japan was operating at an industrial scale in the Antarctic and North Pacific.

The Fin was Red-listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union, IUCN, but was shot under a scientific permit issued by the Japanese Government, which fabricated a ‘shift in baleen whale dominance’ in the Antarctic. In the Japanese world, Humpbacks began to outrank Minkes in 1997–98, and the Fin’s habitat was expanding. Minkes were thinner and maturing younger under this pressure, according to its fisheries scientists. These changes might even block recovery of Blues. To find out about this phenomenon, whalers had to begin killing Humpbacks and Fins, and oddly, many more Minkes.

Other scientists said between the lines of their critiques that this was shallow artifice, not logical method. Overall whale numbers were a small and threatened fraction of their pre-industrial whaling size. It was plain wrong just to assume that whales competed directly with each other, or that killing Minkes would help Blues. Among other things, seals and seabirds chased the same food. The implacable Japanese whalers set out to kill as many whales every two years as the rest of the world had done in 50 years of scientific whaling. The new kills would move on to Humpbacks, but their techniques would be tried out with Fins.

To reconstruct the fate of these giants it helps to look to Greenland where a few Fins are still taken in an indigenous hunt. From the Green - landers’ experience we can see how hard it might be to kill the second largest whale ever. In a recent season their exploding harpoons rendered only five of their quota of ten senseless within five minutes. One killing was a harrowing two-hour saga. The initial grenade did not explode. The large, strong, maddened animal broke the line, was chased down and harpooned again with a grenade that blew but failed to kill. Finally the Fin succumbed to a third, grenadeless, harpoon.

At least the Greenlanders were prepared to disclose what had happened. Japan said data on whale killing methods was used only to criticise whaling, so it would not be provided.

We do know a little about the Japanese record on Fins. When they last hunted them in the 1973–74 season it took an average of nearly six minutes to kill a Fin using a less efficient grenade. Though none of the current generation had shot one, we should expect they were trained thoroughly. Their trainer, Shogo Tanaka, was an Antarctic veteran who wrote his own little red book setting out the geometry of whale killing, with logarithmic tables and precise drawings.

To him the art of harpooning lay in adjusting for movement of the chaser ship and whale. The challenge was to anticipate where all this movement would lead in the half second it took for the harpoon to travel from cannon to target. If the gunner got it wrong, the point of aim and the point where the harpoon landed would be strangers. ‘So, biggest problem is to narrow the differences between these two points,’ Tanaka said. His best students memorised the tables and drawings and turned them into an instinctive response to a moving whale. He considered his protégés to be strong, adaptable, diligent and calm men. ‘Most gunners are dedicated to their work,’ he said. ‘Once you become a gunner, you are a gunner for a very long time.’

Their weapon was a 75-millimetre calibre cannon made by Miroku Manufacturing of Kochi in southern Japan. Miroku makes shotguns and rifles for the US brands, Browning and Winchester. Its own .22 rifle was favoured by rabbit shooters in Australia, and it started making whaling cannons in 1934. Drilled and cut from a solid piece of chromium nickel steel, the 124-centimetre-long barrel of the current model was good for 10 000 shots.

The steel harpoons were also made by Miroku, I was told by Hiroshisa Shigemune, a manager of the Kyodo Senpaku whaling company, as he showed me the real thing. I was surprised to see that it did not have a sharp point but a blunt, conical head, that was cupped at the tip. This stopped the harpoon from skipping on the water’s surface, Shigemune explained. I had trouble contemplating whether a conical head would be more, or less, painful as it punched into a whale. The harpoon, a big, clanking contraption, took a strong man to lift, or more likely several. Shigemune asked me to try raising one off the floor—a trap for a young player. He gave a friendly chuckle when I could barely raise the shaft, which is loosely coupled to the head.

The same yellow-painted harpoon was stacked in crates on the low foredeck of the 700-tonne chasers that were an emphatic manifestation of Japan’s passion for whaling. The whalers’ little navy of grey ships were of a design basically unchanged in a century, intended for wet oceanic work, and the latest would be launched only in 2007.

Rails needed to be low to the sea, where kills were lashed alongside before transfer to the factory ship using a line trailed out of its stern ramp. The chaser also had to be watertight against some of the worst ocean swells in the world. In the centre of the hull was a long steel island of enclosed living and working space, and surmounting this was a main bridge deck below an open-air flying bridge, with a lookout ‘barrel’ even higher up. A catwalk ran from the main bridge to the bow for the gunner and his assistants.

An historic hierarchy remained intact. The crew took their cue from the gunner. His shot triggered a dash to the bow by others to reload and handle lines, and his hand signals were watched from the flying bridge to determine whether to pay out more line or winch it in. He was also the rifleman to finish a still-living Minke brought close to the ship.

When the time came to kill Fins, the same cannon and harpoon were used on whales at least six times bigger than Minkes. To pull off this kill an extra 20 grams of penthrite was added to the 30 grams already in the grenade, and the gunners needed all of Tanaka’s accuracy, otherwise they would have to use the cannon again to complete the kill. And then, possibly, again.

A Norwegian vet who specialises in whale killing methods, Egil Ole Øen, assured me he had seen a 22.4-metre Fin killed instantly with 22 grams of penthrite. ‘He was hit here,’ Øen said, holding a finger up to his neck and pointing at his brain. ‘He did not move any more. It was a very good shot. It’s not the body mass itself. It’s the placement of the detonation.’

Before Japan stopped disclosing them, its records showed that in the Antarctic in 2004–05, its whalers killed fewer than half of their Minkes instantly, and the record was worse in the North Pacific for the larger Sei whales, also an endangered species. Most took several minutes to die. In the Southern Ocean the whalers were more likely to encounter difficult seas, and Tanaka’s protégés were dealing with a whale species they had never killed before.

We may never know, but on balance the death of the first Fin taken in a generation was likely to have been prolonged. It was followed up the stern ramp of the factory ship Nisshin Maru by nine more, harpooned close to the ice edge south-west of Australia during February and March of 2006. The largest of these was a 61.5-tonne female; two others were pregnant. They made a total of 268.9 tonnes of meat for a Japanese market where Fin was once a favoured food.

Shogo Tanaka was not the kind of man to rave about food, but he did believe Fin tasted best. ‘I like it because I like it,’ he said. ‘The tail resembles high class beef, with a high proportion of fat. It has the finest meat texture, followed by the Blue or Humpback.’ He asked me to understand that the Japanese vitally depended on marine resources for food.

Hiroshisa Shigemune, the whaling company manager, also had a question: ‘Do Australians see us as merciless?’

I said they did.

There was quiet, and then Tanaka sighed.


We have an insistent need to take our measure in the world from other living things. Whales seem to me as good a way as any to do this. They have always been out there. At first regarded as monstrous—until they became useable. Then exploited and nearly annihilated. Now argued over, reappraised, even loved. Still and always larger than us. No matter how much we exceed them mechanically, they remain the greatest physical expressions of individual animal scale and power that we know. Our lives with them tell us much about the role we have chosen for ourselves on earth and its consequences, intended or not.

This book was written on the island of Tasmania, Australia, at the edge of whales’ most successful domain: the Southern Ocean. There, in its vastness, the ancestors of modern Cetaceans flourished in the absence of predatory marine reptiles and the presence of abundant food. Through evolutionary epochs they divided into two great lineages—the toothed and the baleen filter feeders—and spread through all the oceans.

They were long hunted in the far north for food, then from the sixteenth century for European and Japanese industry. Whales swam unmolested in most oceans until their riches were realized by the steely fortune hunters exemplified by nineteenth-century American whalers. No attention was paid to them in the Antarctic until an evolutionary minute ago.

In the twentieth century, this domain for millions of whales was reduced to a hiding place for frightened fractions of them. There was often no good purpose to their slaughter. The harpoon did not guarantee a quick or painless death. The indispensable uses of whale oil for lighting a family home, or oiling the industrial revolution, rapidly passed. Useable parts of whales were repeatedly exceeded by wasted parts.

The control of whaling became what it remains today: a struggle between the best and worst of human nature. Great hopes, held out when the International Whaling Commission was founded, were gradually crushed. Rules offered in optimism, in practice, encouraged cheating. The abuse was most flagrant in the far south. Poor regulations at first encouraged excessive kills and, when tightened, were treacherously ignored by illegal Soviet whaling concerns. A lineal descendant of that treachery today is the disguise of Japanese scientific whaling.

Earlier than other wildlife exploitation, the consequences of whaling gave us a clear lesson about the planet’s limits. Very soon after the birth of environmental protest it was apparent that the whale issue was a standard for change. The movement to save the whales was a pioneer of green politics, from the button seller to the international deal maker. This wild ride is thirty-four years old, and it’s not over. The whalers are still being chased through the Southern Ocean.

The reader will come to know the great variety among Harpoon’s central characters. While all breathe through blowholes, some are ugly and infested, others graceful and sleek. All, in their own way. inspire. In the early twenty-first century we are at a privileged time to understand them. The wealth of good science done on whales in recent decades offers a much clearer prism through which to look at the past, to understand the value of what was lost, and to chart a future for what remains.

Some of the great whale species readily stand as metaphors for change, and in this book each of those are described: The lugubrious right whale once batted around most temperate coastlines of the world. Its near extermination by the end of the nineteenth century robbed the New England coast, Bay of Biscay, and Tasmania of a familiar giant, providing a daily caution against the hubris of man. No larger single life has existed than the blue. How worryingly apposite it is that we almost cleared the oceans of them in the era of industrial whaling. In the Antarctic they remain perilously few. Yet they are still there, still mysterious. What do they say when they call across ocean basins?

The sperm is, of course, the universal whale, symbolic nemesis of man the hunter, and a cosmopolitan species. We have had a more complex relationship with the sperm than any other. It was targeted by colonial oceanic adventurers, and then again when the larger baleen whales were exhausted. It was the first that whale savers looked in the eye, and the only whale still being taken in large numbers at the time of a watershed achievement in global species conservation, the IWC’s moratorium on commercial whaling.

The smallest, the quick and boisterous minke, became the continuing victim and is the illustration of all that is bad about whaling now. The sustained killing of this species showed the feeble logic of whaling and the determination of those who would keep the remnant industry alive. Other players swim onto this cetacean stage: the environmentally harried gray, and the largest whale that it is possible to “tame,” the orca. But to me it is the humpback that illuminates our future with whales. As we look out from the coast, it is the most familiar, the whale whose population and culture we are learning most about. Many people have closely encountered this confiding exhibitionist. The excitement of whale watching embodies a complete reversal in popular thinking over a human lifetime. Yet the humpback population’s conspicuous recovery has made it a target, too.

Whaling continues. The targeting again of the humpback and the fin in the Southern Ocean is proof of Japanese determination to revive industrial whaling. The sustenance of nostalgia feeds these whalers, as it does the Norse fishers who go whaling in summer. Of the weapons we have used against other species, the harpoon remains cruelly uncertain. The weight of scientific analysis stands accusingly against the silence of whalers on the question of humane killing.

The IWC today is colored by the cold calculations of international politics among nations with little or no knowledge of whales. Considering the chronic rule bending and manipulation that is crippling this organization, and the lack, so far, of wider political will to stop whaling, it might seem that this book is about failure. Not so. The measure many people take from the great whales is that they keep inspiring us to succeed for them..


(Eubalaena australis)


Instead he lapsed into that common failing of naturalists; to marvel at the intricate perfection of other creatures, and recoil from the squalor of man.

Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia, 1977

It’s about the sixth rib. I feel my own chest for the end of the sternum and the ribs that don’t join. It’s down there. This rib tapers away rather than ending squarely to interlock with a breastbone, and it is 322 centimetres long. The straight-line distance from end to end is 186 centimetres. The great length and degree of arc coincide with the larger middle ribs I can see in a museum photograph. A suspended skeleton hangs from rafters and the dozen rib pairs cage together like claws grasping at the air. The space they enclose looks big enough for me to stand inside. Room for organs like my own, in super size. A half-tonne heart, cavernous lungs, all the anatomy of an air breather living among fish.

The surface of the rib is smooth and grey, blackened at each end from resting on wet ground in a garden where it has picked up a fuzz of moss. The bone is as solid to the touch as a piece of carved stone that has been worked hard to feel good under a running hand. In cross-section, an elongated oval rounds towards the tapered lower end. At the top where the vertebrae locked in, the bone straightens out. I can imagine the broad back it held, the mammalian engine pumping inside, and the thick oily blubber that encased it and cost this Right whale its life.

Around 200 years ago this rib was part of the skeleton of a full grown animal that lived in the Southern Ocean. Its life cycle took it south in summer where the bone grew tremendous on microscopic oceanic creatures that the whale sieved near the surface. In winter the whale headed for the coasts of southern Australia where it socialised and bred.

For much of its life it would not have known people and their hazards. Perhaps the sand where the bone came to rest was the floor of its ancestral home. Maybe it was just passing; in the wrong place at the wrong time. What can be said with certainty is that this rib washed up at Adventure Bay, Bruny Island, Tasmania, and such giant remnants are all that place really has of Right whales now.

At the south-east corner of Adventure Bay’s long beach curve, lines of houses rise above the sand and fade into the sheltering forest. A landing ocean swell rumbles across from the bay’s north, but this is a quiet cove. Tall gums overhang the water; their leaves and bark are strewn in the tide lines. Most of the houses are summer homes, facing over the water to catch the sun, simply built and cheerily named.

Among them the Right whale bones are ghostly strange. Lining a front fence in the main street and framing an orderly dahlia bed is a row of big ribs decayed at the edges. Next door’s fence has a lower jawbone the size of a kayak wired to it. The jaunty name Anchors Aweigh is freshly painted in black on another jaw, whitewashed and mounted over a porch. Up the road, Bora Bora has a miniature nautical tableau: a lighthouse behind an old ship’s anchor, arched over by the curve of a rib, all of them grounded in a concrete plinth. At road’s end a caravan-park amenities building has a bone museum—ribs ranked inside each other, another jawbone and an enormous skull, an immense brain case. The Right’s distinctive twin blowholes stare out like empty eye sockets. All of these bones have come out of the bay, tossed ashore in storms or retrieved by divers from skeletal piles that can be mistaken for rock reefs.

By itself one bone is a silent curio: hefty, slightly ghastly, enough to give pause for thought. Together they speak of a past. This bay was a home to whalers and, long before them, to many whales. The whalers are gone. Southern Rights are seen in the bay, as in, ‘Someone saw a whale last week’, but Adventure Bay is their home no longer, nor is the entire coast of Tasmania. So thoroughly were thousands hunted out from these waters that no individuals regularly return.

The bones remain though, and like other whale bones set in towns around the world they are a memorial of a kind. On the coast of northern England a giant jaw arch rises on a hill overlooking Whitby harbour. At Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, two sets of interlocking jaws link in a portico over a path into a church. Others open the way to a Shinto shrine at Arikawa in Japan. At Bequia in the Caribbean they guard the home of a local harpooner. Shack owners at Adventure Bay are more informal: their bones are more like beachcombing trophies.

To fill the gaps between these few bones, we need to reconstruct the shape of the Right whale’s life in these cool, lapping waters. How it almost disappeared from Australian waters. Who those people were who, in just 50 years, removed the largest animal ever known to have lived here—one that was around for eons before they came. What did they think of the Right whale? When did they realise there were limits to their number? And what were the habits and character of these missing giants? How did they live together in these seas? What is this black mystery, this hole in our seascape, the Right whale?


On Sale
Apr 13, 2009
Page Count
368 pages
Da Capo Press

Andrew Darby

About the Author

Andrew Darby, reporter on environmental issues and Antarctica for the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), has covered whaling, whales, and their effect on people for twenty years. He lives in Hobart, Tasmania.

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