Watching the Whale Hunters

Michael Frankel
Sep 29, 2014 · 13 min read
The trawler Balaenoptera

Preparing for another migration on a great circle route over the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, I recall a northern ocean adventure three decades ago.

An urgent radio message, back in 1983, marked the climax of a week-long anti-whaling campaign. About thirty nautical miles offshore from the small, isolated seaport town of Vardø, Norway, whalers fired three rapid-fire rifle shots at members of our crew.

Vardø Radio, Vardø Radio, this is the Balaenoptera . . . mike-echo-bravo-tango . . . We have just been shot at by a Norwegian whaler . . . do you read me?”

We were making a video of illegal harpooning of a minke whale in the Arctic. It all began with a decision by the Center for Environmental Education in Washington, DC (later called Ocean Conservancy) along with the British People’s Trust for Endangered Species to conduct an anti-whaling campaign during the 1983 Norwegian minke whale hunting season. The campaign had two purposes. The first was to document use of the internationally outlawed “cold” (non-explosive) harpoon. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) outlawed the use of this device in favor of an exploding harpoon, which can kill a whale quicker than a cold harpoon.

The cold harpoon is considered “inhumane” because it unnecessarily prolongs the death of the whales, some of them taking as long as an hour to die. A cold harpoon is little more than a giant three-pronged fish hook driven into the whales flesh and then slowly reeled in as the tormented animals struggle to free themselves. Often the harpoon passes through the animal, but sometimes mortally wounded whales manage to rip the harpoons out of their bodies and then sink from sight as they bleed to death or die of shock or drowning. The IWC banned the device in 1981. Nevertheless, Norwegians persisted in using the cold harpoon in minke whale hunts. They argue that exploding harpoons damage too much of the meat of these relatively small baleen whales.

The second purpose of the campaign was to maintain public support for the IWC’s 1982 decision to ban all commercial whaling starting with the 1985–86 whaling season. Norway objected to this ban and publically announced continued whaling in defiance of the IWC vote.

I joined the crew of the 116-foot fishing trawler, Balaenoptera, at Vadsø, a small fishing village inside the Varangerfjorden fjord only 25 miles from the Russian border. More than a dozen dedicated volunteers lived and worked aboard for environmental protection and particularly the humane treatment of marine mammals. For most, this was neither their first campaign nor their last. It was one of a continuing series of actions knitting their network together. Several crew members had come from other whale protection boats to take part in this campaign. Others were merchant seamen who occasionally took time off to support anti-whaling and anti-sealing campaigns. Most had known each other and shared an emotional rapport which made them an efficient campaign team of French, Dutch, Canadian, American, British, Swedish, and Norwegian environmentalists.

A Danish film crew, with a television correspondent and several still photographers joined to record the whaling operations. We were also accompanied by a veterinary surgeon studying the duration and cruelty of the killing process and making scientific observations of the whale catch. Finally, we had a Norwegian observer along to obtain a first-hand, eye-witness account of the inhumane killing process in preparation for an upcoming lawsuit against the Norwegian Fisheries Ministry.

We were assigned a bunk in a fish-holding tank which had been converted to crew accommodations. It was a fifteen-foot climb down a steel ladder to the bottom of the tank and then a ten-foot climb back up to a bunk. It was actually quite comfortable, and we quickly arranged our lives to minimize the number of bunk trips.

The adventure off the coast of Norway combined the stark beauty of Norwegian fjords, the exhilaration of knowing that we were nearly at the “top” of the Earth, and the emotional involvement in an international incident.

A key aspect of the campaign was to show the wider world and Norwegians in particular, the true nature of illegal whaling in Arctic waters of Norway. Norwegians themselves were the chief stumbling blocks to this effort because of their unique and sometimes contradictory perspective on the sea and whaling. They have always had a symbiotic relationship with the sea and appreciate its resources. Norway has an illustrious maritime history and was an innovative leader in the development of commercial whaling. Now, the whaling industry employs only 500 or so part-time whalers contributing less than one percent to Norway’s GNP. A comment, overheard on the way to the Oslo airport expressed the general Norwegian sentiment: “Norway is proud of its whaling history and if those few communities in the northern Norway didn’t have a whaling industry they would be even worse off economically.”

Norway has some of the most enlightened environmental and animal protection laws in the world. Yet Norwegians persist in whaling in the face of considerable scientific evidence that whale stocks are depleted, several species are endangered, and yet they persist in using the cruel cold harpoon. This dichotomy of attitudes is illustrated in the Oslo maritime Museum. Here, amidst three floors of seafaring exhibits, sits one rather small whaling display. In spite of Norway’s leadership in whaling, exemplified by the development of modern whale-catching boats, explosive harpoons, factory ships, and the first exploitation of rich Antarctic whaling grounds, the museum has only this one small display of whaling ships. And right next to the display is a continuous slide show which ends with a public appeal to end whaling before the species are driven to extinction.

After joining the boat at Vadsø, we left for the Arctic Ocean and the coastal port of Vardø. The night before, the cook and a still photographer had been dropped off by raft, commando style, near Vardø to reconnoiter this whaling and fishing community. Their purpose was to learn as much as possible about the whalers.

The film crew interviewed whalers and photographed the whale-processing plant. We were able to get several pictures of cold harpoons and whale catcher boats tied up at the docks. Glares from workers in the area gave us the distinct feeling that we were unwelcomed trespassers. As the day wore on the population of the town became increasingly hostile. We were shooed away from many areas and prevented from taking pictures. Fortunately, the cook and photographer had made several friends the previous night and we were able to get into one of the processing plants.

We met a friendly Japanese whale-meat buyer. He was used to living in a big Japanese city with all its cultural advantages. Vardø was not his favorite assignment. He was eager to talk and came aboard Balaenoptera. He gave us information regarding the price of whale meat and explained that Japanese were more interested in whale blubber than whale meat, and that blubber thickness has been decreasing. Our veterinarian supported the theory that overfishing had reduced fish stocks and this, together with whaling, has contributed to the whales’ demise.

That night―if the sunny summer sky in these northern waters can be called night―we departed Vardø in search of whalers. Whale catchers are easily distinguished from other fishing boats since they sport a “crow’s nests” on their masts and harpoon guns on their bows. After several hours we saw a whaling boat. The whalers had obviously spotted a whale and were positioning the boat for a shot. Back and forth it darted, like a cat chasing its zigzagging prey.

Two high-speed inflatables were launched and gave chase while our captain maneuvered the Balaenoptera to avoid interfering with the whalers. Although the film crew and still photographers were not very well positioned to record the harpooning and final kill of the whale, they were able to observe the 35-foot whale being hauled aboard for flensing―the process of cutting up the usable meat and blubber and disposing of the entrails and carcass. Like other butchering procedures, flensing whales is a gory, bloody business. The deck of the whaler was awash in blood, and the odor of the internal organs and entrails of the whale was overpowering, even from our distance. Quite a few expletives were hurled at the inflatables and the Balaenoptera, specifically at Americans, even though the ship flew a British flag and displayed Scottish hailage. The whalers may have been reacting to the threatened U.S. embargo of Norwegian fishing products in connection with Norway’s continued whaling and defiance of IWC rulings.

Within minutes we sighted another whaler in the final stages of a chase. We repeated our exercise. This time the whaler made a bad first shot and had to do a lot of maneuvering to shoot a second harpoon and position itself for a final killing rifle shot. Meanwhile, exasperated over the time it was taking them to kill the whale, they turned their attention to the inflatables. We watched, puzzled, as the harpooner stood on his swaying platform, feet spread apart for balance. He slowly raised his rifle and stared down the barrel at our three crewmates huddled in the raft. For just a moment the ocean was glassy smooth and still. Then the crack of the rifle report shattered the stillness. He fired three shots in front of the raft, and warned them to stay away. The inflatable immediately heeded the warning and moved away from the whalers, outboard engines screaming. After more than thirty minutes, during which the whale struggled and dived in what must have been agonizing for any warm-blooded creature, the whale finally died. The obvious prolonged agony of this whale and its death left us emotionally drained. It was a sobering scene.

Although minke whales are relatively small by cetacean standards they can weigh up to ten tons. When we picked up the whale’s discarded entrails, I was amazed to see that we needed the help of the ship’s derrick and motorized winch to haul several hundred pounds of heart, stomach, liver and intestines. The veterinarian confirmed that spasms evident in entrails were indicative of an animal in great pain and trauma. She also collected several liver and spleen samples for toxic substance tests and recorded the sex (female) and maturity (adult) of the animal.

After the killing of two whales, a frustrating period of waiting and watching as we looked for another whaler and another opportunity to document use of the cold harpoon. The ship settled into a routine. With eighteen people sharing the accommodations, there was quite a bit of cleaning to keep the place livable. Each night the captain posted a list of who had the dreaded task of cleaning the heads, and who had which hours of helm duty.

It was difficult getting used to constant sunlight and the absence of natural day/night cues that help regulate our biological clocks. The sun constantly hovered between twenty and thirty degrees off the horizon, making it impossible to tell the difference between 8:00 a.m., noon, or midnight. The cook tried hard to maintain a mealtime clock with scheduled breakfasts, lunches and dinners, but even that schedule was being constantly broken with whale boat sightings and chases.

We received jeers from passing fishermen. We sent word of the previous night’s shooting incident over the ship-to-shore radio to the Vardø police. Our motives were those of concerned citizens reporting a dangerous attack and also to draw attention to our campaign. We accomplished both. The police were thankful for the report and said that we did the right thing by calling them. Also, the wire services picked up our campaign after the shooting incident.

During the remainder of the cruise, we saw no more whale kills and spent considerable time calling the American embassy and embassies of other crew members to clarify our rights and to guarantee safe passage in an increasingly hostile environment.

The local police called back and insisted that we come ashore to report the shooting incident. We were reluctant to dock the boat for fear of having it impounded or the film confiscated. Instead, we landed one of the inflatables with the only American, the veterinarian (who was in the raft that was shot at) and the chief engineer. The police took our complete report with considerable difficulty because of the language barrier. We made it clear in the report that we were not agitators and that our purpose was film documentation and scientific research. After signing the report they still wanted the boat and the entire crew to come in for a passport check. We finally agreed to have the ship come into port after they threatened to call out the Norwegian Navy.

The captain filed his report and the rest of the procedure went quite smoothly. He was even given a local chart by the police and some advice on avoiding Russian waters which were only a few miles off to the east. Then we prepared to leave Vardø. There were more townspeople at the dock jeering us, with unmistakable hand gestures.

We headed north about 100 miles into the Arctic Ocean, but the weather turned bad and we saw no more whale catchers. Whalers need calm seas in order to be able to see the whales’ fatal giveaway, their spouts. We finally did see one whaler and chased after it with the inflatables. The ride was a bone-jarring thirty minutes across five-foot seas at 30 MPH, and as we caught up with it the captain reported over the radio that Balaenoptera’s main engine had just blown a cylinder. More than five miles from the crippled ship with no wish to be stranded in the Arctic, we headed back to the ship.

The ship wallowed in worsening weather while the engine room crew heroically replaced head gaskets and piston rings. It was truly an amazing effort during which they had to lift the three-foot long, 18-inch diameter cylinder with an overhead crane while the boat pitched and rolled in a Force 7 sea. I watched the crew working on the blown cylinder head from a catwalk over the engine room. In spite of the fact that we were drifting about in the Arctic Ocean, the engine room was hot and sweaty. Above the din of an auxiliary engine which was generating electricity for the lights, I could hear the banging of sledge hammers as the crew pounded on long-armed wrenches to free the cylinder head nuts. The cook thoughtfully brought frequent refills of orange juice occasionally spiked with a “morale booster.” The crew completed the job after a long, sleepless night. We got underway and set a course back to the spot where we had seen the first two whalers.

On the way we radioed the harbor pilot in the nearest port, Kirkenes, where the film crew, the veterinarian, and I planned to leave the ship. We wanted to make arrangements for the pilot’s escort into the harbor on the following morning. On our previous encounter with the police we were assured that we needed only a twenty-four-hour notice to return to a Norwegian port.

Later that morning, however, we received an official radio telegram from the chief of police informing us that we were denied entry to Kirkenes because we had not provided Norwegian officials with a fourteen-day entry notice. Kirkenes is located inside a fjord and the chief of police noted that such notice was required before research vessels could enter Norway’s internal waters. We asked to speak to the chief’s superior for further clarification and were informed that he had no superiors. We changed course and headed back to Vardø.

While in transit, we placed several ship-to-shore calls to embassies and to our sponsoring organizations to clarify our situation. We did not want to enter a port illegally and risk offending Norwegian harbor officials. Our chief concern was over the film, which might be impounded by authorities as evidence for the shooting incident. Impoundment would mean that the film would be unavailable for showing at the upcoming meeting of the IWC. We wanted IWC delegates to witness the illegal use of the cold harpoon. We were also concerned over the possibility of having the ship impounded for the remainder of the whaling season.

While waiting for a response to our calls for help, a Norwegian warship maneuvered close to the Balaenoptera and tailed her progress. When we were about four and a half miles offshore, they radioed a warning that we could not enter territorial waters―defined as four miles from shore. The tables had turned dramatically. Instead of us following a harpoon gun we were being shadowed by military cannon. Again we made a lot of embassy calls, but to no avail.

Finally, heeding the advice of the local radiotelephone operator, who was having the time of this life taking our ship-to-shore calls, we radioed the warship and explained that all we wanted to do was let off a few passengers. They contacted the harbor pilot who agreed to fetch us off the boat; however, he refused to come out four and a half miles because of the heavy seas. He wanted us to come within one mile of the shoreline, well within territorial waters. Still not wishing to run the risk of having the boat impounded or the film confiscated, we again radioed the warship and asked for permission to move closer to land as the harbor pilot requested. After extensive conversations it was agreed to let us come closer to shore where the harbor pilot finally took us and our precious film off the ship.

In retrospect, our being denied innocent passage through Norwegian territorial waters without a fourteen-day advance notice was a form of Norwegian harassment in return for what they considered to be our harassment of their whalers. The high-speed inflatables must have been as welcome to the whalers as bees at a picnic. Whaling is very much a macho activity and tempers and violence can easily overtake events. A simple annoyance quickly escalated into a diplomatic incident by the warning shots, our calls to the embassies, and pressures that were probably put on the police by local inhabitants who objected to our presence.

The Balaenoptera’s visit to this sleepy coastal area may have been a minor local inconvenience during one summer’s whale hunt. But for the anti-whaling campaign, the voyage of the Balaenoptera was much more important. We were able to obtain important documentation and scientific evidence concerning Norway’s defiance of the IWC’s ruling to end the inhumane killing of whales with cold harpoons. The voyage of the Balaenoptera–mike-echo-bravo-tango–continued to focus attention on the need to stop all commercial whaling and save whales from extinction.

Three decades later minke whales are still threatened and Norwegians are still whaling.


Snowbird from Bavaria

Migrations between a small farming village in Bavaria and a Gulf of Mexico port on the west coast of Florida — the Sunshine State

    Michael Frankel

    Written by

    A snowbird from Bavaria

    Snowbird from Bavaria

    Migrations between a small farming village in Bavaria and a Gulf of Mexico port on the west coast of Florida — the Sunshine State

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