Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling

Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling

Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling

Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling


How can it be that, 20 years after whaling was 'banned', whales continue to be harpooned? How does Japan get away with bribing small nations to vote to reintroduce commercial whaling? Come on a global journey to follow the whalers, the campaigners, and the whales themselves, in a balanced handbook on the world's longest-running conservation crisis.

To many, the whale is a majestic mammal, the 'mind in the ocean'. What were once whaling towns have become homes to hordes of devoted whale watchers, and whaling, for the most part, was thought to have been vanquished. It was just a matter of waiting for those few misguided nations still whaling to come to their senses.

That never happened. Instead, the whalers came back. In 1987, the first full year after the worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling was agreed to, 100 whales were killed on the end of grenade-tipped harpoons. In 2005, the figure was around 2,500.

Harpoon reveals the political machinations and manipulation at the highest levels that have allowed some countries, particularly Japan, to continue hunting whales against the wishes of the world, with the IWC powerless to stop the slaughter.


This much we know. the first Fin whale to be harpooned in the Antarctic for 30 years was a 19-metre long male.

It was of a species facing a very high risk of extinction and it was killed to the north of Prydz Bay, eastern Antarctica, in a whale sanctuary. It was just big enough to be sexually mature, and close to the upper limit for handling on a factory ship where it was processed in the name of science.

Some of the death we can piece together. We can see the gunner standing in a slight crouch high on the open bow of the grey chaser. the deck is a-tilt on the Southern Ocean and his feet are apart for balance. His face is hidden from freezing wind blast beneath an earmuffed cap as he stares along a gunsight above the barrel of his cannon. Tracking the whale, he shifts across the deck lightly, like a boxer, swinging the cannon by its handle as he does.

The fast-moving Fin breaks the surface and the gunner squeezes a trigger that looks as harmless as a bicycle handbrake. a grenade-tipped harpoon weighing 45 kilograms blasts out of the cannon's muzzle at 113 metres per second and hits an animal that has the mass of a laden semi-trailer. As the blunt-headed weapon drives in, four steel claws are released, a fuse trips, and milliseconds later the grenade's high intensity penthrite explodes. the line trailing back from the harpoon to the ship strains, and the barbed claws pull open inside the whale, holding it fast.

We do not know why this particular Fin was chosen. We do not know how long it took to chase the whale down, nor whether it was hit with the first shot. We don't know how many harpoons were needed to kill the whale, nor how long it remained alive. Neither do we know who the gunner was, nor the name of the chaser; how difficult it was to process; where its meat was sold, when, nor for what value.

None of this information went to the organisation that rules on the life and death of whales, the International Whaling Commission (IWC). We do know this was the moment, on 3 February 2006, when the only factory fleet afloat began again to collect the whale meat favoured by some Japanese.

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