Whaling in Antarctica

From the earliest days of exploration, Antarctica was plundered for it's natural resources. Along with seals, a chief resource was whales.

More on whaling  |  Whaling in the 21st century

Many different whale species migrate south during the austral summer to take advantage of the food resources of vast swarms of krill that feed on the huge phytoplankton blooms. These blooms result from upwelling of nutrients around Antarctica along with up to 24hours of daylight for much of the region in midsummer.

By the time Antarctic whaling started, it had reached the industrial stage with explosive harpoons and small, fast catcher boats. Ships would be sent south to harvest the whales with no regard to the long term protection of the fishery, the plunder of Antarctic whales was more akin to mining than to a sustainable fishery. Take what is there, and when it is gone there will be no more.

The result was the decimation of virtually all of the world's whale species to the extent that today, decades after large scale commercial whaling stopped, most whale stocks are still a small fraction of their pre-whaling levels.

Picture left - a typical whale catching boat dragging a recently caught whale carcass, 1930's.

Whale catches by year from the 1909-1910 Antarctic whaling season to 2000-2001 by species. Humpback Whales were targeted initially until the technology was developed to target faster swimming Blue Whales, as the Blues declined, the next biggest species, Fin Whales were targeted, then as they declined, Sei whales and eventually as all species became scarce, even the much smaller Minke was taken, each species progressively less profitable. Note the large dip that corresponds to the Second World War.

    Note - The Antarctic whaling season is in the austral (southern hemisphere) summer from November to March, and spans part of two calendar years, so seasons are referred to as 49/50 meaning from November 1949 to March 1950 for instance.

Until 2018 around 300 whales were taken from the Antarctic waters by the Japanese for 'research'  the flesh from these "scientifically gathered" whales being sold to fund marine research programmes. In 2019 the Japanese stopped this scientific whaling in Antarctic waters and recommenced commercial whaling in their own territorial waters.

Antarctic whaling began on a large scale in 1904 with the building of a whale processing station at Grytviken, South Georgia. A number of shore-based stations were in operation under some kind of regulation on the catches very shortly after this. Processing of carcasses was very inefficient in the early days as a whale was stripped of its blubber alongside the factory ship and the remains were left to float away. There are places around Antarctica and sub-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia where there are beaches that are covered with whale bones. In some places the beaches are made of almost nothing else but whale bones.

Fleet of whaling chase vessels at Leith Harbour - South Georgia. Photo courtesy NOAA
Leith Harbour, South Georgia 1962 in use from 1909 to 1965. 9 whale catcher boats can be seen tied up (7 + 2 to the right). In the foreground are tanks to hold the extracted whale oil. Like the other whaling stations on South Georgia, Leith was abandonded (in 1965) and now lies derilict. more recent pictures of Leith.

In 1925, the first "factory ships" were built so that whaling could take place entirely at sea. This meant that the whalers were not operating within the territory of any one country and so consequently there were no regulations on catch size or species taken nor on the age or sex (nursing mothers with calves for example) of the catch.

The best catch for whalers were initially Humpback whales as they swam slowly and often close to the land so were easy to reach. As whalers became  able to operate away from port with faster whaling boats, their attentions turned to the Blue Whale. Blues were always the preferred species even when numbers were declining, but as they became scarcer attention was turned to firstly Fin and then Sei whales, each progressively less profitable than the predecessor.

The taking of Fin and Sei whales was banned by international agreement in the late 1970's when those nations still involved in whaling turned to the much smaller Minkes.

Tonsberg House, whale tally

South Orkneys and South Shetlands 1911 - 1930

Right 78  -  Blue 61,336  -  Fin 48,023  -  Sei 1,796  -  Humpback - 6,742  -  Sperm 184

Total whale catch in 19 years - 118,159 whales

A plaque from outside Tonsberg House (now dismantled and removed) on Signy Island in the South Orkneys group. This British Antarctic Survey base was built on the site of a Norwegian whaling station founded in 1921. The plaque is a whale vertebra (backbone) found on a beach near the base, from a whale killed by the whalers, painted by one of the base personnel. It hangs on a stave from a wooden barrel that would have been used to hold melted down whale blubber.

It details the whaling catches by the whaling fleet in the period 1911-1930 in the South Orkney and South Shetland islands.

whale graveyard, Signy Island, Antarctica

Whale graveyard

About half a mile from the site of the whaling station on Signy is a shallow beach that is sea covered at high tide and exposed at low tide.

The carcasses once "flensed" stripped of all useful material would be pushed into the sea. Many would wash up onto this beach where they remain many decades later. There are skeletal parts of many different whales here including a skull, top left, with the rostrum from which the baleen plates hung pointing to the right, vertebrae and ribs.

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