Tag Archives: Whales in Antarctica


9 Jul

Whale protection in Antarctica is always in and out of the news. There is current concern whether the agreed international rules can be maintained long term.

Antarctica has been a hunting ground since the 1820s when interest in the continent (previously considered an impractical hunting ground, because of the barrier of the Southern Ocean), was rekindled in response to commercial demands, after whales from the northern hemisphere had been hunted to virtual extinction. Hopeful sightings were made on the Ross expedition of 1839-42.

The whaling industry made huge contributions to Britain and other country’s economies. Whales were needed for oil, (used for lighting and lubrication) and later for soap and margarine and for nitroglycerine used in explosives.

There have always been concerns about over culling and the conservation movement began surprisingly early. In 1913 Major Barrett-Hamilton (who joint published ‘The History of British Mammals’ with Dr. Edward Wilson), was sent by the Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History), to investigate whaling and sealing in South Georgia.

Numerous reports were subsequently considered and a summary in 1915 stated that: “On its present scale and with its present wasteful and indiscriminate methods, whaling is an industry which, by destroying its own resources, must soon expire”.

The cruelty of the kill also gave concern. Svend Foyn’s explosive harpoon could be fired fast enough from the bows of the whaler to harpoon fast Large Rorquils and Humpbacks as well as the slower Right whale and Sperm whale. Rorquils and Humpbacks were inflated on capture, to stop them sinking, having died a most horrible death.

Pre 1914 rules concerning kills were virtually impossible to implement (particularly those concerning the killing of pregnant females). The lure of profit was immense (for example in 1925, 8,000 whales were processes in one South Georgian station. which made the owners Salvesen, a profit of £300,000). Factory ships avoided the regulations.

Comprehensive information about whales: population, life span of whales, breeding habits, food, needed to be collated before controls would be agreed by the industry. The aim was to agree a limit to kills but obviously, to maintain commercial viability.

One of the first scientific ships sent to obtain this comprehensive information was “Discovery”, Scott’s Antarctic ship of 1901-4. After an eventful career when owned by the Hudson Bay Company, firstly as a trading ship, travelling to Canada to collect furs and subsequently as a transport ship in WW1 avoiding enemy submarines on the terrifying convoys to Archangel to supply the Russians, she was extensively altered and refitted in the early 1920s for her scientific role. On these expeditions in 1925-26 and 1926-27, information was collected about whales; their breeding, gestation, calves rate of growth, some idea of their movements and importantly, their food. A vast amount of scientific data about Antarctic currents, sea temperature and salinity was also collected. These expeditions were described as the largest and most important scientific expeditions for years

Although in 1946 a quota for the number of whales to be killed annually was finally agreed for economic imperatives– 16, 000 Blue Whales, or the equivalent of smaller whales – this quota was above sustainable levels, the whaling industry remained intent on getting as much as possible of this invaluable resource.

Since 1986 there has been a moratorium on whaling but this remains as difficult to police as ever: some countries continue to hunt some species. Many countries have bases in Antarctica, more want to be involved ‘in the name of science’


I fear it is doubtful that international agreements can be upheld in perpetuity. Has self regulation got teeth? Although the Antarctic Treaty is due to be reconsidered in 2048, will its decisions be maintained? There is a problem now and this can only increase.