Whaling, Early and Aboriginal (marine mammals)


Jenkins (1921) writes, “Although the general opinion is that the Basques were the earliest whalers, Noel de la Moriniere says that this is a misapprehension and diat the Northmen were really the first in the field.” He says that a man called “Ochther” hunted whales and walruses beyond the North Cape, but then he notes that “there is no evidence that it developed into a regular fishery such as that of the Basques.’

His “Ochther” was Othere (or Ottar). a Norseman in the service of King Alfred of Wessex around the year 890 a.d. Alfred (called Alfred the Great) is known for his defense of England against the marauding Danes, and also for the initiation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first history of England. (Our word “whale” comes from the Anglo-Saxon hwael, which means “wheel,” and probably refers to the shape of the whale’s back as it rolls in the water.) Alfred translated many Latin texts, including the one that concerns us here, a description of Europe by one Orosius, who lived four centuries before. To the work of Orosius, Alfred added a description of the northern voyage of Othere. wherein was described the whale and walrus hunting of a northern people known as the Biarmians. From the location (the White Sea in northern Russia), and description of the whales hunted (“50 ells” in length, which by one calculation works out to 187 feet), it would appear that the larger ones— whose size was greatly exaggerated—were bowheads. whereas Othere s “horsewhales” were walruses (Odobenus rosmarus). In the history of British Voyages and Discoveries compiled in the 16th century, Richard Hakluyt, a diplomat and scholar, wrote that the principal purpose of Ochther’s expedition was “to increase the knowledge and discovery of these coasts and countries, for the more commodity of fishing for horse-whales, which have in their teeth bones of great price and excellency: whereof he brought some at his return unto the King. Their skins are also very good to make cables for ships, and so used.’

In medieval Scandinavia, whales were very much a part of the lives of the people and were therefore incorporated into dieir literature. A 13th-century Icelandic account known as Konungs skuggsja (Speculum Regale in Latin: Konegspiel in German; “King’s Mirror” in English) describes die whales diat are found off Iceland and includes such mysterious creatures as the horse whale, die red whale, and die pig whale, but also discusses recognizable species, such as the killer whale (Orcinus orca), the narwhal (Mon-odon monoceros), and die sperm whale (Physeter nwicrocephalus). The right whale (Etibalaena glacial is) is described thus:

People say it does not eat any food except darkness and the rain which falls on the sea. And when it is caught and its intestines opened, nothing unclean is found in its stomach as would be in other fish that eat food, because its stomach is clean and empty. It cannot open its mouth easily, because the baleen that grows there rise lip in the mouth when it is opened, and often causes its death because it cannot shut its mouth. It does no harm to ships: it has no teeth, and is a fat fish and edible.

There is an almost complete lack of information on Norse whaling, but the waters in which they sailed were then (and are still) among the whale-richest in the world. There are right whales, humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae), fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus). sperm whales, belugas (Delphinapterus leticas), narwhals, pilot whales (Globicephata melas) and various species of dolphins in the cold, productive waters of the North Atlantic. The Norse sagas are silent on the subject of whales and whaling, but it would be hard to imagine these hardy seafarers ignoring a plentiful source of food and oil as they plied the otherwise inhospitable seas around Iceland, Greenland, and Labrador. There are references, however, to battles royal between various “families” as they dispute the ownership of whale carcasses, which indicates the importance of whales—at least of dead whales—in the lives of the early Norsemen. They left no tryworks and their settlements provide no trace of harpoons or lances, but there are tantalizing hints of Norse whaling in some of the more recent discussions. In his 1928 History of Whaling, Sydney Harmer says, “The Icelanders seem to have engaged in whaling . . . and the whale known as ‘Slettibaka’ … is believed to have been the Biscay whale.” (The modern Icelandic for the right whale is sletbag, which means “smooth back.”)

I. Early Icelandic Whaling

Iceland’s early history is to be found in the sagas, tales of the exploits of the island’s early heroes. The Vikings of Norway evidently brought to Iceland knowledge of the techniques employed in driving whales (probably pilot whales) into the fjords for slaughter. There are occasional mentions of disputes over stranded whales in the sagas, but as far as we know, there was no active whale fishery. An Icelandic bestiary from about 1200 describes some of die whales (but not accurately enough for modern cetologists to identify them as to species), and the Konungs skuggsjd lists no fewer than 21 sea creatures, some of which can be referred to living whales, dolphins, and pinnipeds, and some of which—mermaids and mermen, for example—are clearly mythological.

In a 17th-century work by an Icelander named Jon Gudmundsson, there is a list of the various whales that might be found in Icelandic waters, including the sperm whale (Btirhvalur), the narwhal (Nahvalur), the right whale (Slettbakur), the fin whale (Geirreydur), and the blue whale, B. musculus (Steypireydur). With the exception of the “right whale,” which probably refers to the bowhead (Balaena mysticetus) and was hunted to extinction in the region after this publication appeared, all these whales can still be seen off Iceland. Also included was something that the author referred to as Sandloegja, which has been translated as “sandlier,” i.e., one that lies in the sand. Each of the just-mentioned whales is illustrated, so there is little doubt as to its identification. The description of the Sandloegja is accompanied by a picture of a whale that has not been seen in the Atlantic since commercial whaling began, and if the interpretation is correct, it depicts the only whale to have become extinct in recent history.

The California gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is well known from the North Pacific, where it makes the celebrated round-trip migration from Alaska to Baja California. It was the object of an intense fishery in the 19th century, which nearly eliminated the species. Fossil and subfossil remains of a similar— if not identical—species have been found in western Europe (Sweden, England, and the Netherlands) and on the east coast of North America from New Jersey to South Carolina. From the evidence, it appears that there was also an Atlantic gray whale, which probably maintained similar habits to its Pacific cousin: it fed in cold northern waters (perhaps Iceland and Greenland) and then moved south (Spain, France, England?) to breed and calve. With the exception of the fossil evidence, the only clues to the identity of this whale are found in the work by Gudmundsson and in a debatable reference in a New England work of 1725, where Paul Dudley describes the “scrag whale” with characteristics that are not applicable to any other species except the gray whale.

Whether hunted or occasionally appealing on the beach, the gray whale apparently should be listed in the Icelandic cetacean fauna, even though no living Icelander has ever seen one in his own country. (In his analysis of the whales of die Konungs skuggsjd, Ian Whitaker writes that “the gray whale was hunted in the Atlantic between 1100 and 1200, although it has not been found there since the ISth Century.” He is unable to correlate this species with any of the 19th-century Icelandic names, although he indicates that there are two “unallocated” names, which translate as “hog whale” and “shield whale.”)

Whales were caught by the Norwegians off the Troms0 coast as early as the 9th or 10th century. The oil was used for lighting and the baleen for jewelry, coopering, and boatbuilding. “But,” as C. B. Hawes wrote in 1924, “with a lamentable lack of foresight, the earliest whaling captains neglected to enlist the services of scholars and historians,” so much of the story of early Norse whaling has to be left to conjecture.

One of those who did a lot of conjecturing was Ivan Sanderson. Trained as a zoologist, Sanderson was particularly interested in bizarre phenomena, such as the abdominable snowman and the Loch Ness monster. He wrote several books on zoological and ciyptozoological subjects, but he will probably be best remembered for his Follow the Whale, which was published in 1956. In this topic, along with some radier good accounts of the biology of whales and some excellent maps, he recreates the lives of whalers of the past and the present, “corralling the forgotten and more neglected aspects of whaling histoiy and the new discoveries about the whales themselves, and weaving them into a continuous web of narrative.” One of these “neglected aspects” is Norse whaling histoiy, but despite the lack of documentation, Sanderson devotes a whole chapter to the subject, fictionalizing what could not otherwise be ascertained. He has the Norsemen under “Thorvald the Long” trapping sei whales (B. borealis) in the fjords of Norway at an unspecified time, along with “Biami the Yellow standing in the bow holding a trumpet of cow’s horn in his hand.” He also recounts an Icelandic saga of 1100 a.d., which contains “a delightful passage in which we are told of the stranding of a large rorqual at Rifsker in Iceland and how all the important people who were able went to it.” The documentation for this is sparse, but there can be no question that the Norsemen. ranging the North Atlantic from Finnmark to Iceland and from Greenland to North America, had to have encountered whales. Whether they killed the whales in an organized fashion or took them incidentally to their Viking and settlement forays may never be known. They did hunt walruses for their skin and ivory tusks, and narwhals for their spiraled ivory tooth, which was passed off as the horn of the fabled unicorn.

II. Basque Whaling

As far as we can tell, the first western people to hunt large whales in an organized and intentional manner were the Basques. As far back as records go—and even further, perhaps as far back as the Stone Age—these men were hunting whales. In his 1820 Account of the Arctic Regions, William Scoresby suggests that “the Biscayans were the first who exercised their courage in waging a war of death with the whales,” but he attributes their motivation to the protection of their fishing nets, which “would naturally suggest the necessity of driving these intruding monsters from dieir coasts.” Whatever their reasons, the Basques became the paradigms of the whaling industry, establishing the modus operandi diat would characterize the industry for another thousand years. “Historians have only recently begun to realize,” wrote Farley Mowat, “that it was the Basques who lit the flame that was eventually to consume the mighty hosts of the whale nations.” They discovered the “resource,” exploited it, and then pursued it so vigorously that it was uneconomical to continue. They probably took their first whales in the shallows, and then, like the bay whalers who were to follow dieir lead all around the world, realized that it was considerably more expeditious to go after the whales radier than wait for the whales to come to them. The Basques may also have contributed to the only cetacean extinction in recorded history.

Somewhere around 1000 a.d., these intrepid hunters of the Bay of Biscay began the slow but systematic eradication of the whales that came into the protected bays in the shadow of the Pyrenees. Obviously the Basques did not wait for the first millennium to end before beginning their whaling, but most au-diors cite this as approximately the time they began. (Ommanney writes: “The industry, founded on die Biscay Right whale, was fully developed by die twelfth century but probably dated from much earlier, possibly from the tenth century when the Basques may have learned the craft from Norse whalers.”) The Belgian historian W. M. A. De Smet has searched die literature for references to European whaling before the Basques and writes, “Only a few audiors are aware of die fact that whaling existed in still earlier days in other European seas, and that it was practiced in the North Sea and the English Channel during the Middle Ages, certainly from the 9th century onward.” Although the species of whale in these early instances was rarely recorded, die likelihood is that it was the right whale diat was hunted in the North Sea, and perhaps die gray whale, although the precise date of the disappearance of die Adantic gray is still being debated.

De Smet cites several instances in which whale meat is mentioned in early texts and suggests that “it is clear from the regularity widi which whale meat occurred in these markets that it cannot have come from stranded animals alone and there must have been regular landings.” After providing for themselves, the enterprising Basques established markets for the meat and blubber, and even had “consulates” in Holland, Denmark, and England to encourage sales. In French, the blubber was known as lard de carime, which means “lenten fat,” and Europeans were allowed to eat it on designated meatless calendar days. The oil was used for lighting and the manufacture of soap, wool, leather, and paint; the meat was fed to the poor and to the ships’ crews; the baleen as put to all sorts of uses (including being shredded into plumes for the decoration of knight’s helmets); the vertebrae were used for seats; and the ribs were employed as fence pickets and beams for cheap housing. The tongue was considered a particular delicacy and was reserved for the clergy and royalty.

In the unregulated (and largely undocumented) confusion of the Middle Ages, small pockets of Basques lived along the shores of the Bay of Biscay, speaking their own language, about which a contemporaneous cleric wrote, “The Basques speak among diemselves in a tongue they say they understand but I frankly do not believe it.” In their strongholds in the crook of the elbow of the Iberian peninsula, they were isolated from the turmoil of land wars, fiercely intent upon self-preservation, and coinciden-tally upon the pursuit of the large black whales (which they called sarda) that arrived every autumn in their offshore waters.

It is likely that they also hunted the Atlantic gray whale, although there is no evidence to support this supposition. There is, however, considerable evidence that the Atlantic gray whale (which was called otta sotta) was present in the Atlantic during the days of Basque whaling. Remains have been found on both sides of the ocean: in England, Holland, and Sweden in the east and from New York and New Jersey to North Carolina in the west. An account discovered by Fraser suggests that a gray whale (called sandloegia by the Icelanders) existed as recently as 1640 in the waters off Iceland. Widi nothing more than the absence of gray whales to substantiate his claim, Mowat writes “that by as early as the fourteenth century, the otta sotta had been hunted to virtual extinction in European waters.” In their 1984 study of die Atlantic gray whale, Mead and Mitchell recognized only Fraser’s sandloegia’; a 1725 description of the “scrag whale” by Paul Dudley, Esq.”; and die 1611 instructions given by the directors of the Muscovy Company to Thomas Edge3 as “reliable records of gray whales in the North Atlantic.” There are no more gray whales in the Atlantic, and while this unfortunate state of affairs might not be directly attributable to the Basques, it is not unreasonable to assign them some part in the disappearance of these whales.

For many years, the most comprehensive study on the subject of Basque whaling was that written by Sir Clements Markham and published in 1881. While writing a study of William Baffin, he learned “that the first English whaling vessels were in the habit of shipping a boat’s crew of Basques to harpoon the whales,” so he began to investigate and ended up in Spain. He found that King Sancho the Wise of Navarre had granted petitions to the city of San Sebastian in the year 1150 for the warehousing of certain commodities, among which were boquinas-barbas de bal-lenas, plates of whalebone. Markham traced the fishery through the records of various cities and towns (he found the “Casa de Ballenas” in Asturias) and acknowledged that it was the Basques who taught the British how to kill whales. He sums up the Basque contribution as follows: “Of course the English, in due time, learnt to strike the whales themselves; but the Basques were their instructors; and it is therefore to this noble race that we owe die foundations of our whaling trade.”

More recently, the Spanish cetologist Alex Aguilar searched the records for written documentation of Basque whaling and has discovered a reference from Bayona, in the Gulf of Biscay, that dates from die year 1059. From the remains of cetaceans examined at some of the settlements on the shore of die Cantabrian Sea (off the northern coast of Spain), it has been suggested diat the Basques occasionally hunted sperm whales, but the predominant object of their fishery was die right whale. Ancient whaling bases have been found along the length of diis coastline, which encompasses die provinces of Galicia, Asturias, Santander, and the heart of the Spanish Basque country, Guizpuzcoa. From the western tip of northern Spain die sites have Spanish names (Camar-inas, Malpica, Antrellusa, Llanes), but as we move eastward, toward the Basque settlements on die Bay of Biscay, the names take on a decidedly Basque flavor: Lequeitio, Ondarroa, Guetaria. and Zarauz. Aguilar quotes several sources (including Markliam) for the number of whales killed at Lequeitio from 1517 to 1662, and produces a total of some 62 whales, adults and young, from incomplete records, for a provisional average of a little more dian 2 whales per year. Occasional records for Guetaria from 1699 to 1789 provide even lower numbers, suggesting that the Biscayan right whales were on the decline by the 18th century.

‘”Good eating. It has whiter baleen plates, which project from the upper jaw instead of teeth, as in all other baleen whales, which will be discussed later. It is very tenacious of life and can come to land to lie as a seal like to rest the whole day, But in sand it never breaks up.”

“”The Scrag whale is near a-kin to the Fin-Back, but instead of a Fin on his Back, the Ridge of the After-part of his back is scragged with a half Dozen Knobs or Knuckles: he is nearest the right Whale in Figure and for Quantity of Oil; his Bone is white, but won’t split.”

3″The fourth sort of whale is called Otta Sotta, and it is of the same colour its the Trumpa having finnes in his mouth all white ball white but not above a yard long, being thicker than the Trumpa but not so long. He yeeldes the best oyle but not above 30 hogs’ heads.”

Along the French and Spanish Biscayan coasts, there are several towns and villages whose seals and coats-of-arms depict whale-fishers, including Bermeo, Ondarroa, Motrico, and Fuenterrabia in Spain and Biarritz, Hendaye. and Guethary in France. Jenkins writes, “in this fishery the Bayonnais took part, and it is one of the most interesting features in the ancient records of the town of Bayonne.” For several centuries, the Basques of Biarritz, St. Jean-de-Luz, Bayonne, San Sebastian, and other towns killed the sarda in their inshore and offshore waters. This activity did not go unnoticed by the tax collectors. In 1197, King John of England (acting as the Duke of Gui-enne) collected a tax on the first two whales taken at Biarritz. In 1261. all whales taken at Bayonne were tithed, a continuation of an earlier, voluntary gift of all whales’ tongues to the Church. The kings of Castile and Navarre also extracted taxes from the whalers, often in the form of meat or whalebone. Under a 1324 edict known as De Praerogativa Regis (The Royal Prerogative), Edward II of England (1307-1327) collected a duty on every whale captured in British waters, and his successors continued to claim the “royal fish” as Crown property.

To this day, we do not know whence the Basques came, or from whom they were descended. (Their blood type distinguishes them from the French and the Spanish, and biologically as well as linguistically they appear to be distinct from any other people now in existence.) As far as we can ascertain from the scanty records and the ruined stone watchtowers (known as vigtas) that still stand overlooking the bays, they pursued the right whale. (In 1928, Sydney Harmer wrote. “A watchman who tried to use [the towers] for their original purpose would now have an unprofitable occupation, and he would not be likely to see a single whale of this species during his lifetime.”)

Even more significantly, the Basques are said to have invented the on-board trv-works, where whales could be processed at sea. avoiding the time-consuming and arduous process of towing the carcass to shore and then winching it up on the beach for rendering. In Sanderson’s Follow the Whale, however, a whole chapter is devoted to a recreation of Sopite’s accomplishments, including a description of him standing “silently on the poop with his hands behind his back peering out from under his curious floppy black hat.” Sanderson seems to have consulted many of the same references listed by Jenkins, but he does not tell us where the hat comes from or how he knows that Sopite was “smiling wryly” at the success of his experiment. Up to that time, whales were flensed and tried-out on shore, which meant that the whalers could never roam too far from their home ports. As we shall see, however. Sopite s “invention” may have been the invention of some creative authors, as real evidence of the Basque whalers has been uncovered, and there is no indication whatsoever of on-board tinworks.

Even though the hunters never took very many whales in a given season, the right whale (known as the Biscayan whale to distinguish it from the Greenland right whale or bowhead) disappeared from Biscayan waters, and the Basques had to look farther afield for oil and bone. (Clements Markham, in his study of Basque whaling history, has written that each of the whaling villages may have taken no more dean a couple of whales per year. This would not be enough to decimate the population, but it is possible that the disturbance caused by the whalers drove the whales to other, less perilous breeding grounds.)

From Iberia, Basque fisherman crossed the North Atlantic seeking new grounds. Some evidence indicates that they may have fished the Labrador-Newfoundland grounds as early as the 14th century but were driven off by the local Eskimos. The vessels that they used were not known until recently, when a Canadian archaeologist named Selma Barkham followed up some vague hints in the historical records of Labrador and, with the help of divers, located the wrecks of several Basque ships in the area known as Red Bay. Found sitting on the bottom of the bay were the remains of a three-masted 90-foot galleon, which is believed to have sunk in a storm in 1565. and the complete hull of one of the frail chalupas.4 On two of Red Bay’s smaller islands, workers found unmistakable evidence of tryworks, where the blubber of the whales was rendered into oil. Because this endeavor took place between the years 1560 and 1570 (ascertained from documents examined in Spanish archives by Barkham), it would appear that Sopite’s “invention” of on-board tiyworks was either apocryphal or somehow did not extend to the whaling operation at Red Bay.

As the Basques enlarged the scope of their search for whales to the vicinity of Newfoundland and Labrador, they may well have been the first Europeans to fish the Greenland coasts and the Grand Banks, two of the richest cod-fishing grounds in the world. Upon landing, they predated John Cabot and Jacques Cartier, the “official” discoverers of the land known as Terranova. In their pursuit of the sea’s bounty, the adventurous Basques visited Ireland. Iceland, Greenland, and evidently sailed as far north as Spitsbergen. They also crossed the Atlantic to find the right whales that inhabited the inshore waters of Newfoundland and Labrador, but it is unlikely that they made these voyages without island hopping across the perimeter of the North Atlantic, much as the Norse had done before them.

”A chalupa (in French a chaloupe and in the British fishery a shallop ) was a 25-foot-long whaleboat, rowed by six oarsmen, from which the whale was harpooned and towed to shore.

Examination of the bones at Red Bay indicate that bow-heads were also processed there by the Basques. This location is considerably south of the known range of the bowhead, which inhabits—or inhabited—eastern Arctic waters and the Bering Sea. (It is likely that the Basques took bowheads farther north and then brought them back for processing, thereby accounting for bowhead bones in a region where bowheads are not known to have lived.) There are no records of Basques hunting humpbacks, but these whales are found off the Canadian Maritime coasts and Greenland.

The rich days of Newfoundland and Labrador whaling ended for the Basques as the 16th century ended. The destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 meant that Spanish ships of war could no longer protect fishing fleets so far from home, and the Basque whalers ventured across the Atlantic unprotected. They had established shore stations at Tadoussac and Sept-Iles on the St. Lawrence, where they hunted humpbacks and probably belugas. By 1738 the last Basques had left Canada. Why bother with the transatlantic crossings and hostile North Americans when there were fat Greenland whales for the taking in Spitsbergen? The Basques participated in the early Dutch and British expeditions in Spitsbergen, bringing with them 500 years of whaling experience.

Six Basque harpooners from St.-Jean-de-Luz were part of the crew of the first Muscovy Company expedition to Spitsbergen in 1611. In the early years of the Greenland Fishery (Barendsz had named the Spitsbergen islands “Greenland” when he discovered them in 1596 because he believed they were an extension of the island of that name), the Basques sold their services to whoever was willing to pay, but in addition to their participation in the Dutch/British rivalry, the Spanish Basques also sent their own ships to the northern ice in 1613. No sooner had the Spanish tried to join the fishery on their own than James I of England issued the Muscovy Company an exclusive charter to fish the waters of Spitsbergen, to which the Dutch countered in 1614 by forming their own Noordsche Compagnie with the same objectives.

Although the Spanish Basques had the experience and the expertise, they did not have the naval power to back up their claims, and as the Dutch and the British competed for supremacy in Spitsbergen (the Dutch eventually won the battle because of their more effective management and business practices, but in the end, everybody lost, because they ran out of whales), the Basques faded into whaling oblivion. As time and progress passed them by, their domestic whaling capabilities diminished accordingly. According to J.-R Proulx, when a whale stranded at St. Jean-de-Luz in 1764, the hunters could only find old and rusty implements with which to cut it up.

In many respects, the Basques were the advance guard of what would eventually become an all-out war on the whales, but in those relatively uncomplicated times, they were only aware of the nutritional needs that could be fulfilled by the taking of these large, inoffensive animals. They would, however, establish a pattern with regard to the right whale fishery that would serve as an example for virtually every nation that followed their lead: they took the females and calves, as they were the most accessible, and by so doing guaranteed the catastrophic degeneration of the breeding population. In a review of available data, Aguilar estimates that during the period 1530 to 1610, Basque whalers might have taken as many as 40,000 right whales. Medieval Europeans probably did not have much time to ponder the effects of their actions on future generations, however; certainly not on future generations of whales.

III. The Beginning of Japanese Whaling

Halfway around the world, at approximately the same time that the Basques were winding down their whale fishery, the Japanese were gearing up for what would become one of the predominant whaling enterprises of modern times. As with most early whaling exercises, it began humbly, with people waiting for the occasional whale to wash up, but soon lookouts were being stationed on shore to watch for passing right, sperm, gray, or humpback whales. At first, the villagers drove the whales into a bay and closed the mouth off with a net, but then it occurred to them that they could go after the whales with nets rather than waiting for them in a bay or lagoon. Somewhere around 1675, Yoriharu Wada, now recognized as the “founder” of Japanese net whaling, organized the boatmen and harpooners of Taiji into whaling crews, and when a whale was spotted by lookouts on shore, the whalers went off in pursuit. The whales were herded into the nets by their would-be captors, who then killed them with repeated lance thrusts. The carcass was towed to shore and winched up on to the beach for processing. Unlike their European contemporaries—say in the Greenland bowhead fishery—Japanese whalers wasted no part of the whale. They ate the meat, used the oil for soap and lamps, but they also mixed the oil with vinegar to make an insecticide for rice paddies. The bones were crushed and used for fertilizer; the baleen for fans, fishing rods, lantern handles, and puppet strings. Medicines were made from various internal organs, and predictably, the penis was dried and pulverized into a tonic. The entrails were boiled into soup, and it is said that the membranes of the heart were made into drum heads. The Japanese continued this form of highly efficient, highly ritualized whaling until well into the 19th century, when Yankee sperm whalers, searching the Seven Seas for sperm whales, arrived on the “Japan Grounds” and, by their presence and influence, changed Japanese whaling irrevocably.

IV. Aboriginal Whaling

In its early chapters, the story of whaling was a simple one: man against whale. Very infrequently, the whale won. (In “Moby Dick,” despite the rage of Captain Ahab and the skill of the harpooners, the white whale triumphs.) With the passage of time, the hunters changed the nature of the hunt and turned it into an industry. The hunted whales remained unevenly matched with their opponents; all they had was the hope of escape in the depth and expanse of the ocean. As the industry grew more economically important, technological innovations were introduced that altered the odds greatly. The introduction of diesel catcher boats, exploding harpoons, spotter planes, sonar, and asdic changed the nature of the hunt greatly. No longer remotely equitable, it was not even a hunt any more, but a highly mechanized business. The whale had as much of a fighting chance as a tree had against a chain saw.

There are only a few places in the world where people still hunt whales. The Caribbean island of Bequia in the Grenadines, for example, has a relic humpback whale fishery that the Be-quians learned from Yankee whalers in the 19th century. The Inuit of Greenland hunt minke whales and humpbacks (they are given a quota by the International Whaling Commission), as well as belugas and narwhals, which are considered “small cetaceans and are not under the jurisdiction of the IWC. Alaskan Inuit “hunt” the bowheads that annually pass their North Slope villages, but because of the complexities of politics and other factors, they have upgraded their weaponry to the point where once again, the whale has hardly any chance of escaping. There are only a couple of places where whaling takes place in a thoroughly primitive manner (and completely unregulated by the IWC): one is in Indonesia and the other is the island of Camiguin in the Philippines, where Bryde’s whales are the target of opportunity.

Lomblen, also known as Lembata. is one of a group of islands that make up the Sunda Archipelago (Nusa Tenggara Timur to the Indonesians), which includes the large islands of Timor and Flores, as well as the smaller Solor, Adonara, Pan-tar, and Alor. Lomblen/Lembata is only one of the 13,000 islands that comprise the 3000-mile-long country of Indonesia, but there is something very special about this island. On its southern shore is Lamalarep, one of the few whaling villages in all Indonesia. Lamalarep is the poorest village on the island because it has virtually no industry or agriculture other than whaling, and the success rate of the whalers seems to be rather low. They might capture a whale on 3 trips out of 10; to put it another way, 70% of their trips are unsuccessful. The villagers of Lamalarep do not eat the bulk of the whale meat they take, but dry it in the sun and trade it to other villages for vegetables.

In June of 1979, a research team was sent to Lamalarep by the World Wildlife Fund to investigate the whaling activities there. Unfortunately, on Julv 17, a giant tsunami inundated Loinblen, causing over 700 casualties and destroying the villages of Wai Teba and Sara Puka. The investigators all survived, however, and remained on Lomblen for 3 weeks. On July 26, on nearby Rote Island, a “giant shark” (species unidentified) was found with the body ol what was thought to be a Lomblen fisherman in its stomach. (It is likely that the shark ate one of the victims of the tsunami, rather than taking a swimmer or a fisherman.)

At daw the Lamalarep fleet sets out for a day’s hunting. They may roam as far as 17 miles offshore, but the whales are usually found closer to the islands. The boats (known as peledang) are about 30 feet long and brightly painted, often with vigilant eyes on the bows. No nails are used in their construction, only wooden pegs; and the sails are patchwork rattan, a single gaff-rigged square sail for each boat. A crew of 10 to 15 men rows (or sails, if the winds are favorable) the boat out to the whaling grounds, south of the islands in the Savu Sea. They look for the forward-angled spouts of the largest of the toothed whales, the sperm, which they call than pails in Bahasa Indonesia. (In the language of the islands that was employed before the introduction of this lingua franca by President Sukarno, the sperm whale was known as kotan kleina.) During the 10 weeks that the World Wildlife Fund researchers kept records, the whalers of Lamalarep took sperm whales, killer whales (Orcinus orca), pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus), and several species of dolphins. Traditionally, the whalers of Lamalarep do not hunt baleen whales. Although the men of Lamalarep are considered whalers, they will also harpoon any large fish, ray, or turtle that they encounter, including sharks, inarlin, and ocean sunfish.

The whalers of the island are divided into hereditary “corporations,” each of which owns a whaling vessel. The vessels— and their names—are passed down from generation to generation, so when a given boat wears out, the next one built by that clan is given the same name.

When a whale is sighted, the peledang crews row stealthily upon it, douse the sail, and, because they are Christians, they whisper a communal Pater Noster for their own protection. The harpooner stands on a narrow platform with his bamboo-shafted harpoon poised. At the critical moment, when he is within striking range of the wrinkled, humped back of the whale, the harpooner launches not only the harpoon, but himself through the air, using his strength and his weight to drive the iron deep into the flesh of the whale.

As the whale is slowed or stopped by the pain of the harpoon in its back, another harpooner throws himself on the whale and, if necessary, another. The iron must be planted in exactly the right place to kill the whale: otherwise the fragile peledang will be towed for miles as the whale pulls the whalers on the Indonesian equivalent of the “Nantucket sleigh ride.” There are stories of boats being towed all the wav to Timor by a maddened whale. (In fact, there are many tales about maddened whales in the Timor Sea. One of the most notorious of all these was a bull sperm whale named “Timor Jack,” who savaged whaleboats for years until he was taken by setting out a barrel on a line which he attacked, allowing whalers to lance him.) Or the whale will dive, pulling the line out rapidly and, unless it is cut, pulling the boat down with it. If the right spot is pierced (the heart or lungs), the whale will spout blood from its blowhole and expire quickly. The dead whale is towed back to the village where it is butchered.

There is a complex system for dividing up the meat of a whale in which the carcass is portioned out according to rank in the clan and the village. The meat is eaten or bartered to other villages; the oil is used for lamps. The men of the village may carve patterns onto the teeth, like scrimshanders everywhere.

The villagers of Lamalarep kill between 30 and 50 sperm whales every year. They do not take the large bulls because the big males do not visit these waters. They cannot eat all the meat, so they barter it in neighboring villages. This is in direct contravention of the regulations of the International Whaling Commission, but because Indonesia is not a signatory to the Whaling Convention, the IWC regulations are difficult—if not impossible—to apply.

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