The Facts About Whale Hunting And Why We Do It

Whale Hunting thrived for many centuries and should have ended completely by now.

A Minke Whale: Facts about Whale HUnting

A MInke Whale: This Is One Of The Species Of Whale That Is Still Hunted To Date. (Courtesy: NOAA/Wiki Commons, P.D.)

Whale hunting or whaling, is the practice of hunting whales for the various products we can get from their bodies.

This may sound like a pretty tame endeavor without too much implications. After all, whales are so large. For instance, the blue whale grows up to almost 100 feet and 200 tons. So, you may assume that killing a few of them may not be too much of a problem.

Well, prepare to be shocked.

Statistics tell us that when whale hunting was at its peak the blue whale, for example, dropped from about 200,000 to just a few thousand individuals. And that’s just for the blue whale.

The western North Pacific population of the gray whale became so endangered that there are just about 130 individuals left.


 Whale hunting claimed the lives of at least 50,000 whales every year by the late 1930s.

Whale Hunting: How It All Began

There are several accounts about how the whale hunting industry actually started. One accounts attributes it to the hey-day of the Vikings. They caught whales near Tromso using spear-drift whaling and the practice gradually grew to other regions. By the 12th century, whale hunters were going after these sea creatures in multitudes: striking the whales from open boats with a spear.

This practice eventually led to the development of the harpoon, the favored weapon of whale hunters today.

Other evidence points as far back as 3,000 BC with the discovery of ancient tools that look very similar to harpoons with ropes attached to them and the use of drogues.

Whatever the case, by the 17th century the whaling industry had evolved into a relatively technologically advanced business. The industry was extremely profitable and the continuous demand for whale-related products meant there was fierce competition among nations to get the whales first.

The Dutch and the English in particular were at the forefront with well-maintained large whaling fleets. As whales began disappearing closer to the shoreline, the ships moved further into deeper waters. In addition, American ships quickly joined the scramble for whale hunting by the 19th century.

All the oceans of the world were now host to whaling ships.

Whale hunting was so profitable that by the 18th and 19th century it was a highly competitive and ruthless business.

How Are Whales Captured?

  • Harpoons

Initially, whalers were limited by the kind of ships and weapons at their disposal. As a result, they could only hunt the slower whale species like the: humpback, sperm whale, and gray whale.

At that time, hunters would use harpoons from open boats.

  • Explosive Harpoons

By the 1930s, the modern whaling officially took off with the invention of a gun that launched harpoons containing an explosive charge. This device allowed whalers to now go after faster swimming whales like the blue whale, sei whale, and fin whale.

  • Beaching

This is a more traditional method where a group of whales are surrounded by manned boats and driving them towards land. The goal is to force the whales to beach themselves.

Once they are successfully stranded on land, whalers will then use metal hooks to drag the animal further inland. Thereafter, they will cut the whale up and begin to process it.

They may also use high-powered rifles to kill the whales by shooting directly at the head.

  • Factory Ships

Factory ships were another notorious weapon at the height of whale hunting. These were extremely large vessels built to load and process large whales quickly. These ships were so efficient that even a blue whale could be completely processed in less than an hour after capture.

So, Why Do We Hunt Whales? 

Spermaceti Candle And Oil

Spermaceti Candle And Oil. Derived From The Sperm Whale. (Author: Genevieve Anderson cc by-s.a. 3.0)

Humans hunt whales for several reasons and every part of the whale is useful. From the skin right down to the bones, people derived different products for human consumption. Here are the major ones below:

  • Meat. Whale meat is reportedly rich in niacin and iron. In some regions whale meat is one of the main sources of animal protein available.
  • Lamp oils (from the sperm whale).
  • Corsets and umbrellas (from whalebone).
  • Margarine and cooking oil (derived from whale oil).
  • Candles, soaps, cosmetics, and perfumes (from sperm oil).
  • Fertilizer (from bone meal).
  • For scientific research.

Fortunately with the advancement of science and technology, there are now so many options for obtaining all the above products. These options mean that the demand for whale products has dropped significantly.

Cultural/Religious Beliefs About Whales


Japan views whaling as an ancient cultural tradition. To them, its an inherent right to continue capturing whales.


To native Hawaiians, the whale or kohola is one of the aumakua. These are ancestors as spirit guides to their living guides and they can assume the shape of different animals like sharks, turtles, birds, whales, etc.


A mythical creature called Yu-Kiang was believed to rule the oceans in ancient China.

This creature is commonly described as a large fish (possibly a whale). It supposedly measured several thousand feet long and had human limbs.

In Christianity

The most popular reference to a whale was in the story of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet directed by God to deliver a message to the people of Nineveh but he disobeyed and went elsewhere. To punish him, he was thrown overboard a ship and was swallowed by a whale.

He remained in the belly of the whale for three days till the whale eventually spat him out.

Whale Hunting In Present Times.

Today, some countries still hunt whales despite the 1986 International Whaling Commission (IWC) ban on all commercial whaling.

They are:


Japan captures whales under a “scientific whaling program.” Though the international community largely regards this as a cover-up for a thriving commercial whaling industry. They effectively kill hundreds of different species of whales every year for “scientific research.”


Norway initially abstained from whale hunting till 1993. Thereafter, they resumed hunting but they restrict it to minke whales.


Same as Japan, Iceland conducted a ‘scientific’ whaling program for a while before withdrawing from the IWC in 1992. Icelandic whalers target minke and fin whales.

Despite the fact that whale hunting is no longer the norm, whales still face a lot of problems caused by human activities. These include: marine noise caused by sonar from ships, marine pollution, and collision with vessels.

Whales are the largest mammals on the planet. These creatures have suffered so much persecution and they must be left alone for a chance to recover and thrive.






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