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whaling, the hunting of whales for the oil that can be rendered from their flesh, for meat, and for baleen (whalebone). Historically, whale oil was economically the most important.

Early Whaling

Whaling for subsistence dates to prehistoric times. The early people of Korea were hunting whales as far back as 5000 B.C., and those of Norway began whaling at least 4,000 years ago. Various peoples of the NW North American coast and the Arctic have a long tradition of whaling. Whaling, done from canoes or skin boats, often when migrating pods of whales passed nearby, was a very dangerous undertaking. Over time, many, such as the Qwidicca-atx (Makah) people of the Olympic peninsula, developed set spiritual and hunting practices that became the core of their culture.

Early Commercial Whaling

The hunting of whales is thought to have been pursued by the Basques from land as early as the 10th cent. and in Newfoundland waters by the 14th cent. It is not until the middle of the 16th cent., however, that the appearance of Basques in those waters is established by record. Whaling on a large scale was first organized at Spitsbergen at the beginning of the 17th cent., largely by the Dutch who, with the Basques, apparently developed methods of flensing and boiling. The Dutch were at first in competition with the English Muscovy Company of London, but before its collapse in 1625 they had gained ascendancy; in 1623 they established the port of Smeerenberg. Large profits continued only until c.1640, when the scarcity of whales forced the Dutch farther out into the northern waters in search of them.

By the middle of the 17th cent. whaling from the land was established in America. The earliest type, called drift whaling, consisted of harvesting whales that had washed up on the shore, mainly after storms. Drift whaling became economically important in Colonial America, and the first laws regarding it were written at Southampton, Long Island, in the 1640s. This practice was followed by shore whaling, in which whales swimming close to shore were hunted. Whaling centers, at first on Long Island and Cape Cod, shifted to Nantucket and then New Bedford, Mass., the greatest whaling port in the world until the decline (c.1860) of the industry. With the capture (1712) of a sperm whale by a Nantucket whaler, the superior qualities of sperm oil were discovered, and American whalers began fishing farther south in search of the sperm whale, which superseded the right whales in value.

American fisheries were set back by the American Revolution, but in 1791 the first Americans rounded Cape Horn to hunt in the S Pacific. Another, but temporary, setback occurred in the War of 1812, but the outcome spelled the complete defeat of British whaling. From c.1815 until shortly before the Civil War, the period widely known as the golden age of U.S. whaling, Americans sailed the Pacific from south to north, on voyages often lasting as long as three or four years, in search of whales. Melville's Moby-Dick gives an account of a voyage in this period. The advent of the Civil War, a decrease in the demand for sperm oil and in the number of whales, and the discovery (1859) of oil in Pennsylvania brought on the decline of the industry.

Modern Whaling

The invention (c.1856), by the Norwegian Sven Foyn, of a harpoon containing an explosive head may be said to have inaugurated modern whaling. Besides insuring the whale's immediate death this type of harpoon was subsequently modified to shoot compressed air into the whale so that it will not sink before it can be secured. The development of the factory ship, equipped to take on board and completely process whales caught by smaller chaser boats, increased safety and enhanced the ability to catch the larger blue whale. It also allowed for the use of all parts of the whale; formerly only the blubber and head could be procured, and the job of flensing from the side of the ship was a hazardous one.

In 1904 operations commenced from a whaling station on South Georgia, an island in the S Atlantic, and the modern industry found in Antarctic waters the last rich whaling fields on the globe. The number of expeditions from the Antarctic islands, however, was restricted by Great Britain, which had secured sovereignty over these areas. In 1925 the first floating factory was sent to the Antarctic regions; that innovation led to the greatest expansion in the history of whaling. In 1930 the modern whaling industry reached its zenith, with 6 shore stations, 41 floating factories, and 232 whale catchers in the Antarctic regions, of which 3 stations, 27 factory ships, and 147 catchers were Norwegian and 2 stations, 27 floating factories, and 68 catchers were British. During World War II most of the world's whaling fleet was lost, but afterward Norway, Britain, and Japan (which had started Antarctic expeditions in 1935) soon reestablished their prewar positions, and in addition the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, and South Africa appeared in the Antarctic regions for the first time.

Attempts at Regulation and Protection

In 1932–33, partly in response to the collapse of the whale-oil market, the first attempts were made to regulate and restrict the catch by international agreement. After World War II the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in Washington, D.C., by 17 nations, including all those operating in the Antarctic regions. The commission, which regulates most of the world's whaling activity, began in the 1960s to limit the number and species of whales that could be hunted.

In the subsequent years, environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace, became extremely involved in the attempt to stop whaling, shadowing whaling vessels and attempting to interfere with whalers. In 1982 the IWC voted a moratorium on commercial whaling, to take effect after the 1984–85 season. Exceptions to the moratorium generally have been made for native peoples, such as the Makah, who traditionally had hunted whales and used their meat as a major part of their diet. These regulations are not adhered to by all nations, including some members of the commission (which now has 88 member nations), and whales continue to be hunted by Iceland, Japan, and Norway. The majority of whales taken in recent years have been by the Norwegian and Japanese fleets; most of the catch consists of minke whales, except in Iceland, where endangered fin whales are also killed.

The killing of whales for research, while permitted under IWC regulations, is opposed by many as unnecessary. Opponents of whaling believe it has been abused and should be abolished, and activist antiwhaling organizations also have attempted to interfere with such whaling. In 2010 Australia brought a case to the International Court of Justice in which it asserted that Japan's Antarctic whaling program was not for scientific research, and in 2014 the ICJ ruled against Japan and ordered the program ended. The ruling did not affect Japanese whaling off the country's coast, and Japan resumed Antarctic whaling under a new research plan in 2015. In 2019, however, Japan withdrew from the IWC and resumed commercial whaling in its exclusive economic zone off the Japanese coast.

In 2003 the IWC voted to expand its main functions to include whale conservation. The Indian Ocean and the ocean waters off Mexico, a number of South Pacific island nations and territories, and Antarctica have been designated whale sanctuaries. The protective efforts have allowed some species to return to numbers that will probably assure their survival, but others, especially the right whales, remain severely depleted in numbers and endangered. In 2006, after more nations favoring commercial whaling joined the IWC, it narrowly voted to support the eventual return of commercial whaling; reinstatement of commercial whaling by the IWC, however, has not yet occurred.


See J. T. Travis, A History of the Whale Fisheries (1921); C. Ashley, The Yankee Whaler (1926, 2d ed. 1942); A. Church, Whale Ships and Whaling (1938); F. R. Dulles, Lowered Boats: A Chronicle of American Whaling (1933); E. Stackpole, The Sea-Hunters: The New England Whaleman … 1635–1835 (1953); F. Crisp, The Adventure of Whaling (1954); A. Whipple, Yankee Whalers in the South Seas (1954); E. Ash, Whaler's Eye (1962); L. H. Matthews et al., The Whale (1968); G. L. Small, The Blue Whale (1971); J. N. Tennessen and A. Johnsen, The History of Modern Whaling (tr. 1982); D. Day, The Whale War (1987); E. J. Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (2007). See also IWC, The Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (1999–).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a branch of industry that catches and processes whales and manufactures various goods from them. The inhabitants of the Kola and Iberian peninsulas engaged in whaling along the coasts during the ninth and tenth centuries. Right whales (Balaenidae) were most heavily hunted in the Bay of Biscay, where the number of whales decreased sharply by the end of the 15th century. The whalers began to seek their prey farther and farther from the coast, a trend that gave rise to the hunting of right whales from ships at the beginning of the 16th century. Sailing vessels equipped with several slooplike whale-boats were also used. The whales were attacked with hand-thrown harpoons, killed with lances, and dressed while they drifted alongside the boat.

Right whales were first hunted off the east coast of North America in the 16th century. From the 17th to the 19th century bowhead (Greenland) whales were very much in demand in the vicinity of Spitzbergen and Jan Mayen Island, and from the 18th century they were hunted in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. Australian right whales were first actively hunted in the warm and antarctic regions of the southern hemisphere.

Sperm whales were hunted from ships in the southern part of the North Atlantic beginning in the early 18th century. Until the mid-19th century many of them were caught in the warm and temperate regions of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. Because of a sharp decline in the sperm whale population, the hunt for the animals came to a halt. Nonetheless, sailing vessels equipped for whaling were still used in the North Atlantic until 1925. Whaleboats with manual harpoons continued to catch sperm whales only around the Azores and Madeira (Portugal).

By the mid-19th century almost all the regions in which right whales were hunted were depleted. Only the supply of rorquals remained untouched. Unlike the right and sperm whales, the rorquals sank as soon as they were killed, making it impossible to process them afloat. In 1863, Sven Foyn of Norway invented a harpoon gun and suggested that the carcasses be inflated with air so that they could be towed to processing stations along the coast. The first whaling vessel with a steam engine, harpoon gun, and compressor set out in 1868 and caught 30 whales off the Norwegian coasts, thereby inaugurating modern coastal whaling.

The rorquals were almost entirely exterminated by the end of the 19th century in many parts of the North Atlantic. In the 1890’s Norwegian industrialists organized expeditions to the antarctic, where many schools of whales had been sighted. The first coastal whaling station was opened in 1904–05 on South Georgia Island (Antarctica), and in the following season (1905–06) the Admiralen, a Norwegian floating whaling base with two catcher-boats, came to the antarctic region from the North Atlantic to hunt in the open sea (pelagic whaling). Numerous coastal stations were then established on several antarctic islands, in South Africa, and in South America.

The Norwegian floating factory-ship Lansing, which was equipped with a slip (a sloping flat surface for raising captured whales onto the deck), operated for the first time in the 1925–26 season in the Ross Sea. This innovation, which was proposed by a Norwegian captain, laid the foundation for modern pelagic

Table 1. Basic data on floating factories in operation in 1973
 NameYear built1Displacement (tons)CrewMaximum lengthMain dimensions (m)Maximum speed (knots)2Horsepower3
Country     widthheightdraft  
1Or modernized 21 knot = 1,852 km/hr 31 h.p. = 0.735 kW
USSRSovetskaia Ukraina1959        
 and Sovetskaia Rossiia196144,900522217.825.819.010.816.015,000
USSRlurii Dolgorukii196039,980527207.424.019.412.117.424,920
USSRVladisostok and Dal'nii Vostok196326,500374182.023.817.08.914.06,250
JapanKyokiyo-Maru, No. 3196923,087500184.223.517.410.614.06,920
JapanNisshin-Maru, No. 3196723,107440182.323.817.710.713.26,750
JapanTonan-Maru, No. 2197113,098300170.221.517.110.015.311 ,600

whaling. The antarctic waters were opened to whaling by the floating factory, which made it possible to dress and process the whales on board in any weather. By the mid-1930’s almost all floating factories were equipped with slips. In the antarctic, the development of pelagic whaling sharply reduced the importance of coastal whaling, which ceased completely in 1965–66.

The base for modern coastal whaling is the shore station (more rarely, the floating factory), which dresses the whales and has a variety of equipment for processing and storing the products. During a hunt, whaling vessels sail up to 100 miles from a shore station. As a rule, pelagic whaling is done in the open sea by fleets consisting of a large floating factory and catcher-boats. The former is a tanker-like ocean vessel with many decks and a displacement of up to 45,000 tons. It is designed for long, self-sufficient cruises and is equipped to dress and process whales and make various goods from them. Catcher-boats, which can carry fuel and supplies for no more than a month, pick up food, fuel, lubricants, and other needed supplies at the floating factory. Power plants drive the floating factories at a rate of 15 knots or more. (See Table 1.)

Catcher-boats are about 65 m long, about 9.5 m wide, displace about 916 tons, have steam or diesel engines with a capacity of about 3,870 kilowatts (5,260 hp), can travel at 18–20 knots, and are highly maneuverable. Equipped with a harpoon gun, they have a shock-absorbing system to prevent the line (and cable) from breaking when the whale fights, a winch to draw the animal to the side of the boat, a compressor to pump air into the carcass, navigational aids, and sighting and other whale-detecting instruments.

Combination vessels for catching and processing whales were first used at the end of the 1960’s. Whalers may rely on sighting whales using optical instruments, or they may use sonar to double the efficiency of hunting. The species of the whale can be determined by its spout, which is visible in good weather from 4–5 knots away. The hunt falls into a number of separate operations: coming within range of the animal, shooting it, and pulling it to the boat. (If the animal is only wounded, it is shot again once or twice until it is dead.) Air is pumped into the carcass, and it is taken alongside the boat and towed to the floating factory. If the whale is to be left at sea, a flag or radiobuoy is attached to it so that it can be easily located later.

The raw material is processed on highly efficient flow lines designed for different purposes, including obtaining blubber under pressure or under vacuum (the more progressive method), preparing meat and fodder meal, and making concentrated broth. Blubber from toothless whales (Mysticeti) is used in the food-processing, leather, and soap industries; sperm-whale blubber in the textile and chemical industries; and sperm-whale spermaceti and ambergris in the perfume and cosmetics industries. The frozen meat of whales is used as food. Sausages, canned goods, and protein concentrates are among the products made from it. Vitamins and medicines are obtained from the liver and the endocrine glands, which are also used in the food-processing and leather industries. Fodder meal and concentrated broth are added to animal and poultry feeds. A standard blue whale yields 22,000 rubles’ worth of products, only 25 percent of which is blubber. (In terms of the yield of blubber 1 blue whale unit is the equivalent of one blue whale, two finback whales, 2½ humpback whales, six sei whales, or six Bryde’s whales.)

Small whales are also hunted. At the end of the 1930’s the hunting of little piked whales was organized for the first time off the Norwegian coasts. (Subsequently, the hunting grounds were extended to almost the entire North Atlantic and Arctic oceans.) The catch of little piked whales off the Brazilian coasts (900 animals) and the Republic of South Africa (more than 200 whales) increased sharply in 1971. Japan was the first to organize the hunting of little piked whales in the antarctic. Small toothed, bottlenose and pilot whales are among those caught in various parts of the oceans mainly by Norwegian, Japanese, Brazilian, Danish, and Canadian whalers.

The first Soviet whaling fleet—the Aleut—consisted of a floating factory and three catcher-boats. It caught its first whales on Oct. 25, 1932, in the vicinity of Revillagigedo in the Pacific. From 1933 to 1968 it operated in the North Pacific. Between 1948 and 1964 there were about five shore stations with 22 whaleboats on the Kuril Islands. Medium-sized (about 26,500 tons) floating factories—the Vladivostok and Dal’nii Vostok— have been operating in this region since 1963. They are also used for fishing. The Slava fleet and in some seasons, the Sovetskaia Rossiia, were active around the Kuril Islands from 1966 to 1969.

On Jan. 28, 1947, the Slava fleet caught its first whale, inaugurating Soviet whaling in the antarctic. The Sovetskaia Ukraina and Sovetskaia Rossiia, which began to operate in 1959 and 1961, respectively, are the world’s largest floating factories. Built in the Soviet Union, they are equipped to process 70–75 whales a day. The lurii Dolgorukii—a passenger ship reequipped as a floating factory—has been active since 1960. The three fleets continue to operate in the antarctic. Between 1946 and 1972, Soviet whalers caught more than 124,500 large toothless and sperm whales.

Before the mid-1960’s the antarctic (below 40° S lat.) was the main whaling region, accounting for about 93 percent of all the whales caught in some seasons. Approximately 10–15 percent of the whales were caught in the North Pacific, but at the end of the 1960’s this figure began to increase, and it is now 50 percent. Until the mid-1960’s the number of whales caught in the North Atlantic and arctic rarely exceeded 10–13 percent of the total catch. Indeed, in the last 20 years it has not gone over 3 percent. Norway and Great Britain led the world in whaling until the 1960’s, accounting for about 60–77 and 45^8 percent of the total catch, respectively. Between the mid-1950’s and early 1960’s, Japan and the USSR took the lead, and by the 1970’s they accounted for about 41 and 43 percent, respectively, of all the whales caught.

The International Whaling Commission (established in accordance with the International Convention on Whaling in 1949) meets every year to examine the results of whaling, set quotas on the number of whales that may be killed, and determine effective regulatory measures. In 1947–48 a quota was set on the killing of toothless whales in the antarctic for the the first time. From then through the 1962–63 whaling season the quota ranged from 14,500 to 16,000 blue whale units. It subsequently declined, falling to only 2,300 blue whale units in 1971–72. A species quota was set for the North Pacific in 1971 and for the antarctic in 1972–73.

In every country that belongs to the International Whaling Commission, whaling is controlled by regulations formulated in conformity to the commission’s principles. The regions and times of whaling, the minimum size of whales that may be caught, and species that may not be hunted are subject to regulations. Since 1972 whaling has been under international supervision.


Zenkovich, B. A. Kity i kitoboynyi promysel. Moscow, 1952.
Golovlev, I. F. Tekhnika kitoboinogo promysla, 2nd ed. [Kaliningrad] 1960.
Bodrov, V. A., and S. G. Grigor’ev. Pererabotka kitovogo syr’ia na kitobazakh. Moscow, 1963.
Ivashin, M. V., L. A. Popov, and A. S. Tsapko. Morskie mlekopitaiushchie.(A reference book.) Moscow, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the work or industry of hunting and processing whales for food, oil, etc.
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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They try whale fishing in the Pacific, cross the Tasman Sea to take part in the Maori wars in New Zealand, and riot with the other miners in the Australian gold fields.