The Origins of Whaling

Japanese whaling

The hunting of whales (cetaceans) is as old as man-the-hunter in prehistory. The first hunting of whales may have involved nothing more than the opportunist killing of a whale that had beached itself, or the harvesting of a recently dead whale that had died from the shock of beaching. From there it was a short step to using boats and noise to drive whales ashore where they could be killed. It was hunting that was very similar to the hunting of land animals where prey was herded over a cliff or onto a line of waiting hunters. Whale meat and oil formed a vital part of the diet of tribes living along northern costs. The practice of herding porpoises onto a beach is still employed by some Japanese fishing villages.

The ancient alternative to herding whales ashore was for the hunter to set out in a kayak, or small boat, using an arrow or harpoon to attach a line and drogue, usually an inflated sealskin, to a whale hoping that it would tire, allowing the hunter to come in close to strike a killing blow. That method is essentially employed today although the small boat is likely to be a 450 ton whale catcher employing a harpoon gun loaded with an explosive harpoon.

In early hunting of whales, only a small number of mostly small whales were caught close to the village that would make use of the catch. Whale blubber would be rendered on fires ashore. Whale meat that was not immediately consumed might be sun dried or buried in ice for later use. Nothing was wasted. What could not be eaten was used to make clothing, shelters and tools. Arrowheads and harpoons were made from whale bone for the hunters to use on whales and other prey.

Little changed over thousands of years, until the Sixteenth Century, when Europeans introduced new technology to the hunt. That technology was first employed in the waters off northern Europe and Scandinavia, but as Europeans began to colonize the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, whaling came to the Southern Oceans.

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