Whaling in the Southern Ocean

Whales have been hunted by sea-going societies and communities for thousand of years, to harvest whales for meat, bone (baleen), ambergris and blubber. But it was the opening up of the Southern Ocean whaling grounds in the late 18th century, following the colonisation of Australia, New Zealand and South America that led to the boom years of whaling.

There are many early reports of abundant and easy to harvest whales in the coastal waters of Australia and New Zealand, typified in this article extract from the Sydney Gazette on 15/8/1828, referring to one of the first whaling expeditions to Twofold Bay, NSW “The schooner Darling was sent there (Twofold Bay) and returned last Tuesday after only three months, with sixteen tons of oil. But this is not the only news we have. We are informed that the whales flock into the bay in shoals owing to which there are now between eighty and ninety tons of oil now on the beach and ready to be dispatched to Sydney the instant a proper vessel is dispatched for it.” (W.J Dakin, 1938, Whaleman Adventurers p.48). The report goes on to describe the amounts and current market rates for the baleen plates taken from the slaughtered whales. Interestingly, as the years of whaling continued Twofold Bay became the site of a unique relationship between human whalers and Killer Whales, the like of which has not been recorded anywhere else in the world.

In these early years of Australian whaling, ships rarely had to go into the deep ocean waters to fill their quotas of oil. This type of whaling was known as Bay whaling. The Humpback and Southern Right whales encountered in the warm Australian coastal waters were migrating from their feeding grounds deep in the cold Southern Ocean to their calving and breeding grounds in the warm tropical waters off northern Australia.

With such a relatively easy harvest, whaling became one of Australia’s first primary industries. The impacts of this industry were soon evident in falling whale numbers, although Bay whaling continued in Australian waters into the mid 20th century. From the late 18th century merchant companies ventured south, looking not just for whales, but seals and other profitable species, and deep sea whaling became a major activity in the Southern Ocean in the 19th century. Ships from as far north as Norway and Nantucket made the long voyage to the high southern latitudes in pursuit of whale oil, bone and ambergris. Whaling voyages could last up to 4 years, and kill many dozens of whales in that time. The blubber was boiled down in try works, often on the deck of the ship, and the baleen removed. Whaling stations were established to process the catch, with one of the largest being Grytviken, on the Subantarctic island of South Georgia. Whalers were not choosy about which species they targeted, although Sperm Whales were favoured for their superior oil. The only species that was not heavily harvested was the Killer Whale, but these animals were sometimes killed if they attempted to feed on a whale ships catch, and hunted on a small scale.

Before the discovery and utilisation of mineral petroleum oil, natural gas and plastics, whale oil was widely used in industrial processes, manufacturing and to provide lighting. Technological advances and the industrial revolution saw rapid increases in efficiency in the ships and equipment used for harvesting whales, including the development and deployment of factory ships. These ‘advances’ increased the harvest each year, feeding a boom in demand for whale products. Once the preserve of the rich and considered rare specialties, whale bone, blubber oil and ambergris became commonplace in the burgeoning industrial societies of Europe, America, Australia, and New Zealand, fed by whales harvested from the Subantarctic and Southern Ocean. The relentless harvest has taken a heavy toll on the world’s whale populations, with many species nearing the brink of extinction by the end of the 19th century. By the 1930s it was becoming clear that the whales were disappearing. Some countries took steps to protect some species, an example being Australia’s protection of the Southern Right Whale in 1935. But hunting continued, in Australian waters and throughout the Southern Ocean.  In 1979 Australia ended commercial whaling, and advocated for a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. All Commonwealth waters in Australia are now officially Whale Sanctuaries, affording protection where once there was indiscriminate slaughter.

The International Whaling Commission was established in 1946 and has, over time, shifted its focus from the economic aspects of whaling more (but not entirely) towards the conservation of the world’s whale species. In 1994 the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary  was established, which affords protection to all whales within its bounds. This sanctuary is not recognised by all nations, and Japanese ships continue to undertake so called ‘scientific’ whaling within the sanctuary, harvesting minke and fin whales. Australia has been active in holding Japan to account for their whaling activities in the Sanctuary, winning a landmark case in the Hague in 2014 which ruled that the annual hunt was commercial, not scientific, and so in breach of the Sanctuary. However Japan has recently confirmed they will continue to hunt whales in the Southern Ocean, despite the court’s ruling. This will no doubt result in a continuation of protest from governments and non-government bodies including Greenpeace, who have long opposed Japan’s whaling.

Commercial whaling has not been a large scale activity in the Southern hemisphere for nearly 30 years, and some whale populations are slowly showing signs of recovery from more than two centuries of slaughter. But whales, like many cold water species, are slow to grow and slow to reproduce. It will be many decades, possibly even centuries, before the world’s whale population will attain the numbers it enjoyed before the whaling boom. And this optimistic outlook does not take into account the impacts of pollution and a changing climate that are affecting the world’s oceans now and into the future.

Despite this dire outlook one species, the whale-watchers favourite Humpback whale, has recovered its numbers so significantly there is discussion whether it should be considered no longer in danger of extinction. This resilience on a species level provides some hope for the future of the world’s whales, and confirms the benefits and purpose of global conservation efforts.