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Under the Midnight Sun
I stared down at my feet, a vanishing vortex transforming in a crimson tide, a portal deepening in vibrant richness — somewhere, there were answers to questions I hadn’t yet formed.
A mesmerizing flow of calm seas rolled around the boat and slipped away toward the edge of the earth, the water’s surface a cascading halo as the orb of day transcended night and skirted along the horizon. At the convergence of the Barents, Greenland and Norwegian Seas, to the north lay Svalbard, the last bastion of civilization before the North Pole. To our east, less than 30 miles away, the ominous, imperceptible border of Russia.
We were four months into the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. While most of the world had cut ties with Vladimir Putin, collaborative fisheries management of marine stocks continued between Norway and Russia. I stood on the bow, facing Vayda-Guba on the Russian peninsula; the persistent putter of the boat’s diesel engine cut the visual tranquility. Midnight rolled over, and it seemed the day would never die. But there would be death in these waters — it was only a matter of patience. I was aboard the Marie, a commercial whaling vessel in its fourth week of the summer hunting season.
For 76 days, the shifting tilt of our planet’s rotational axis blurs the realms of night and day in the northernmost parts of Norway. In the south, toward Antarctica, perpetual darkness ensues — a looming role reversal few look forward to. For the Norwegian commercial whale hunters, this is a gift. As with all fishing endeavours, the more efficient they can be in filling their boats, the less time is spent at sea and the better the economics of their catch. Locating whales on a vast, open ocean is made infinitely easier with calm seas and 24 hours of light.
When the award-winning Norwegian photographer, Marcus Bleasdale, completed his yearlong project The Last of the Viking Whalers in 2014, he was the first photographer in thirty years to be granted permission to document a Norwegian whaling vessel. Except for a one-off program on the BBC, The Whale Hunters, media coverage of Norwegian whaling has largely been focused on anti-whaling agendas.
There was, and still is, a deep distrust between the whaling community and outsiders. The height of the whaling wars was only a few decades ago — an era that saw the sinking of several whaling vessels. In one case, an activist posed as a National Geographic photographer to gain access to the boat. So it was with a degree of disbelief that — after sending countless emails to people within the Norwegian whaling industry — I received an encouraging response from veterinary scientist Dr. Egil Ole Øen. He spearheaded an investigation spanning from the 1980s through 2012 for the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research into improving the animal welfare of commercial whaling. After several conversations, Dr. Egil secured an invite for me to board the Marie.
The hunting of whales is arguably one of the most controversial and deeply complex political issues around sustainabile-use we face today. I will not pretend that I have been documenting this story long enough to provide a comprehensive picture bounding the nuances between science, cultural heritage and the shadows of political wrangling, as that would require years and years of observation and study.
Instead, my focus here lies on Norwegian commercial whaling and the pursuit of common minke whales. Beyond the foundational historical context, what follows is an immersion into my experience and the flowing web of a curious mind — an attempt to better understand our most visceral exchange with the planet’s last giants.
Abruptly masking the sing of a flensing knife against a sharpening steel, the unmistakable opening guitar solo from AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” filled the deck of the Marie. I had been aboard the modestly sized ship for three days. As she listed marginally from her recent haul, a gentle swell cradled the boat, rolling a rhythmic wash of seawater back and forth along the port side and into the ocean with each passage of the drain holes. I stared down at my feet, a vanishing vortex transforming in a crimson tide, a portal deepening in vibrant richness — somewhere, there were answers to questions I hadn’t yet formed. This was why I was here: to cast my lens upon a world few had borne witness to, in the hope that the honesty of imagery conveyed something deeper about human existence and our desires.
Less than 10 minutes before, I had watched the final breach of a common minke whale cutting broadside and perpendicular to the bow of the boat. Ruben Nygard, the young harpoonist in his second hunting season, trained his sights with each surfacing, anticipating the trajectory of the whale’s path as it emerged for its third and final breath before diving into the depths once again.
Minke whales are adorned with a distinct milk-white band on their pectoral fins, contrasting the storm-gray hues of their upper flank. Immersed in only a few feet of water, their evolutionary fusion of coloration dissolves their presence at one with the ocean — that is, but for the beacon upon their fin. This not only aids in positive species identification, but also provides a focal “kill zone” for the whale hunter.
Much like hunting for large terrestrial animals, the most effective shot and quickest time to death — with the lowest probability of inflicting injury — is a broadside impact through major vital organs. Norwegian whalers are expected to follow this best practice guidance as reinforced through mandatory training programs. However, it wasn’t always this way.
The Norwegians trace their commercial whaling heritage back to the 9th Century in written records, but evidence of whale consumption has been found as far back as stone age homesteads along the Norwegian coastline. It’s unknown whether these were hunted or merely scavenged from washed-up carcasses. However, the Norwegians weren’t the only known whale hunters. The Basque people dominated international commercial whaling until the mid- 1700s. Hunting methods of the time were primitive and as effective as they were cruel. Cold harpoons — steel, with barbed spikes of several meters — would be lodged in the side of surfacing whales, their end fixed to a large barrel or inflated seal skins. This “drogue” would eventually cause the whale to tire and slow, making it easier to approach and kill.
The 1800s saw the rise of whaling in North America, fueled by an insatiable global demand; whale oil had turned night into day around the planet as people burned this hard-won, refined liquid in their lanterns. Sperm whales, a toothed rather than baleen whale, bore the brunt of the enlightened age and our conquering of darkness. Spermaceti, a dense, waxy substance found in the head of sperm whales, offered the cleanest and brightest burning oil of any whale, with up to 2,000 gallons extractable from a single animal.
As the industrial revolution gained momentum, whale oil lubricated the cogs of progress long before oil-based derivatives. Capitalistic greed caused some whaling practices to be incredibly wasteful. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the value of baleen from bowhead whales outstripped the economic incentive to break down the whale for meat or oil — it was simply discarded back into the sea. A similar story played out in the Antarctic whaling fleets, where only whale blubber would be taken and rendered into oil.
By the early 19th century, the extirpation of the Atlantic gray whale had concluded, the right whale was barely holding on to existence, and bowhead whale populations had been decimated. During this time, the United States dominated the seas, running 640 whaling ships — more than the rest of the world combined. It had become the fifth largest sector of the American economy, but in the 1860s, as the first crude oil began pumping in Pennsylvania, the bottom of the whale oil market dropped out.
The rebirth of the whaling industry would begin again in 1909 when the first factory ships were built, allowing even the largest whales to be hauled aboard and processed at sea. The explosive propulsion of cold harpoons and improvements in winching technology refined the efficiency and economics of modern whaling vessels. The Scandinavians, British, Dutch, Russian, Japanese and Americans competed for a slice of the market, establishing whaling stations along migration routes, primarily around Antarctica.
As the world recovered from the aftermath of two World Wars, with dairy herds and food stocks at historic lows, whale oil was turned into margarine while whale meat fed hungry people. Japan, historically not a whaling nation, was supported by an American-led recovery post-Hiroshima, with the provision of ships to feed their population from the oceans — this included whaling vessels.
When we think of the great travesties of human greed — the control and extraction of our planet’s resources — the North American bison massacres and the extermination of the passenger pigeon are two of our most shameful markers in history. However, the biomass of whales killed in the twentieth century exceeds even these. In 2015, the first comprehensive attempt to collate whaling data was reviewed in Nature magazine. From 1900 to 1999, nearly 3 million whales were taken out of our oceans, two-thirds of which were in the Southern Hemisphere. Estimates suggest that sperm whale populations are still at only a third of their pre-whaling numbers, and the leviathan of our oceans, the great blue whale, has lost 90% of its historic population.1
From the ashes of our ocean pillage, societies grew stronger and standards of living improved. From the darkness we could see, and our bones were warmed by the bodies of the fallen. For a time, whaling fueled the world.
Eventually, with global populations of great whales decimated, whaling ventures turned their attention to smaller species, including common minke whales. There became a growing sense, even among whaling nations, that some form of regulation was needed to avoid pushing populations to extinction, effectively ending the industry.
As a result, in 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling — now the International Whaling Commission (IWC) — was established by the major whaling countries to conserve whale stocks as a tool for resource management and the long-term continuation of whaling.
The early years of the IWC were largely regarded as ineffective and based on a flawed quota system structured around Blue Whale Units (BWU). These metrics focused only on the weight of catches rather than population dynamics. Simultaneously, the rules were widely flaunted with ineffective monitoring or reinforcement. By the 1970s, many whaling nations had stopped the practice on their own accord, with population declines and economics being the primary driver. In 1982, with membership of the IWC shifting to include numerous non-whaling members, and the impending collapse of whale populations globally, a worldwide moratorium on all commercial whaling was imposed. Caveats were implemented to protect Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling, albeit with new restrictions.
Norwegian whaling today is built on hundreds of years of history in an industry that bears little resemblance to the 21st century. There is a heavy burden of the past to carry in any attempt at objectivity.
More than a century since the first factory ship set sail, I stood at the shoulder of a postmodern whaler, his focus keenly fixated on the broken surface of the ocean before him. He was not the heavily bearded, sea-crusted executioner of children’s nightmares. This was no savage, indiscriminate slaughter of unbounded magnitude. There was no burgeoning global market offering the promise of unbounded riches. Ruben was 23 years old, and the Marie was a family-owned vessel, skippered by his father, Arnt Inge, and his older brother. The boat was named after Arnt’s wife, who joined us, keeping the crew well-fed and rolling her sleeves up when necessary.
“You know why the boat has my name?” Marie said to me one morning after breakfast. “The boys did that so there wasn’t anything I could say about them buying yet another boat. How could I when it’s named after me?”
In 2021, 14 Norwegian whaling vessels took 575 minkes — well below the quota of 1,278 set by the Ministry of Fisheries and Seafood.
While the Norwegians have been eating whale meat since before the first Vikings raided England, there isn’t modern demand for whale meat to make filling the quota economically viable. When the vast, hulking factory ships of the 20th century set forth to claim the ocean’s great whales, the meat was one of the least important products. Today, it’s the primary focus.
Only one Norwegian whaling vessel, the Kato, exports their catch. The entirety of the meat goes to Japan, flying in the face of a CITES ban on the international trade in minke whales. Since both Norway and Japan lodged a “reservation” against the CITES restriction, legal trade is allowed between them.
This hasn’t been without issues. A report in 2015 by the Environmental Investigation Agency showed that a shipment of whale products entering Japan was condemned due to high levels of toxic pesticides. What wasn’t widely publicised from the documents obtained, was that this was in three tested tail fins, and not the meat itself. The issue surrounding toxins and heavy metal burdens in the marine environment is much farther-reaching than just whales. It is a global problem we have yet to fully understand, and is widely known to accumulate in higher concentrations in the fat layers of marine mammals.
For the other 12 boats operating in 2022, their catches were destined for Norwegian domestic markets. On the Marie, their first year whaling was a learning experience, refining their hunt and evaluating the economics of whaling as part of their larger fishing operation. Now in their second year, with efficiency improvements to their boat and a better knowledge of hunting tactics, they are thinking ahead. They aim to process the whales themselves to maximize profitability. This would increase the $3/kg they currently receive at wholesale to more than $7/kg sold retail. It seemed a world away from the great whaling age of returning fortunes. Considering the 60 tonnes of meat taken the previous year, and the long list of costs associated with the catch, I couldn’t fully grasp the economic incentive of it.
A molten roll of mirrored sea cradled the midnight sun; the alignment of direction and velocity from the boat transected the steady path of a surfacing minke, soon to collide within harpooning distance.
On reaching the zenith of its final breach, a hefty, sighful expulsion of air vaporized from its blowhole. The calm nature and immense stature embodied the burden of our complex relationship with the planet — a moral battle between love and destruction as we seek to understand ourselves.
As the explosive-tipped harpoon connected with the whale, the seemingly instantaneous penetration and ignition of the penthrite grenade rendered the animal motionless. Hanging vertically in the gentle swell of the sea, its broad, baleen bristles protruded from the water — a white flag of submission in the burnished glow of the Arctic summer. Acting swiftly, the crew engaged the winch, drawing the whale close enough to loop a securing chain around its tail.
How whales are killed and the time to death is one of the most visceral and emotive aspects of the overwhelming global sentiments against the continuation of whaling. Before I departed the Marie, four minke whales were shot, landed and stored below deck. I endeavored to absorb the process with an open mind to reflect what I found. Anecdotally, and admittedly from a small sample, the shot, the death, the final parting moments of life seemed as efficient, professional and ethical as any harvest of wild animals I had seen across the planet. In a backdrop of questions surrounding population dynamics, pod-structure interference, heavy metal burdens, and broader ecosystem implications of whales within the marine food web, the welfare of the hunt, as I witnessed, was the most conclusive — it was something that could be proven.
Dr. Ole Øen is the most cited expert on welfare in the industry, and his research on best practice and the use of penthrite grenade-tipped harpoons culminated with the most recent study completed between 2011-12. Where whales were shot broadside, as recommended, instantaneous death was recorded in 92% of the 254 whales in the sample. Of the animals which did not die instantaneously, the average time to death was 300 seconds, as measured by the period from the shot to the last movement of the whale. In the 1980s, with cold harpoons — prior to the penthrite grenades — the average time to death was nine minutes, with instantaneous death occurring in just 17% of cases. Today, even with the adoption of new technology, current research shows that the restraint and skill of the harpoonist is the biggest contributing factor to an ethical kill.
In little over an hour, the seven tonnes of common minke whale would be portioned into two 250 kilogram sections before distributing the slabs of meat around the deck. The chilled Arctic air would gradually cool the meat over the next day or two, before it was packed with ice below deck. It would remain there until unloading at the processing plant. The crew takes a sample of each whale, which they log and store for cataloguing with the Institute of Marine Research in Norway. Here, DNA samples are registered to each harvested whale along with the associated “Blue Box” data entry from the onboard surveillance system. This tracks the vessel’s movements and harpoon shots.
The blubber, once prized, is peeled off and discarded to the depths of the ocean along with the remaining carcass. While the immensity of the discard may seem wasteful, Arnt saw this by-product of the harvest, for which there was no domestic market, as returning to the ocean some of what they had taken; bones and blubber would break down and feed the cascade of organisms that make up the marine food web.
There is something to this, with several scientific papers published in the last few years exploring the importance of “whale fall,” not only for marine biodiversity, but also as a mechanism for locking carbon out of atmospheric cycles. Whale fall refers collectively to the process by which dead whales drop to the seabed, creating microbiomes supporting as many as 407 species — marginally less than underwater thermal vents. It’s been suggested that the global decimation of whale stocks, reducing natural whale fall, has contributed to marine biodiversity loss.4 This is yet to be fully understood.
Of course, had the blood of this minke whale not been washing around my feet, it would still be pillaging schools of capelin and, someday perhaps, would have died of old age, transcending through the water column on its own accord. Arnt’s comments do, however, cast a slightly different view on the discard of by-products from harvesting marine or terrestrial life. Is it really waste after all?
Today, Norway harvests whales against the 1982 global ban by the IWC, continuing to lodge a formal “objection” to the restrictions. There are no legally binding powers by the IWC to enforce the ban or restrict national sovereignty on whale hunting in coastal waters. Norway did, however, cease hunting for several years post the 1987 moratorium, pending research results from the IWC Scientific Committee on the population stability of minke whales — small numbers were still taken with “scientific research” exemptions during this time.
In 1992, the committee came back with population estimates close to 200,000 minkes in the Northeast and Central Atlantic. The weight of evidence suggested that limited whaling would not detrimentally impact populations. Despite this, the moratorium was extended, prompting Iceland to leave the IWC and Norway to commence commercial whaling a year later under a national quota system set by the Ministry of Fisheries and Seafood.
Since then, Norway has, on average, harvested between 500-700 minkes annually — well below their self-imposed quota.
The current data used by the IUCN Red List assessment of “Least Concern” for common minke whales is based on surveys conducted between 2007-2015 by the IWC. This puts the primary summer range population at around 150,000 animals. Current population trends are regarded as unknown, owing to the variability in population estimates, distribution changes and doubt over methodological integrity.
Leaving the crew to wash the last of the blood from the deck, I joined Arnt in the wheelhouse as the boat steadily tracked the coastline looking for the next huntable whale. “It’s one of the most sustainable harvests in the ocean,” Arnt asserted with a stern stare ahead. He was adamant that not only did the current minke whale harvest represent an ethical, sustainable food for people, but they were also seeing more whales than they had in decades. He believes we should take advantage of higher harvestable surpluses, even suggesting that the increasing whale populations could be negatively impacting fish stocks also targeted for human consumption — a topic that has been discussed in numerous conventions and research papers in the last decade, to no clear conclusion.
Several days later, with another four minke whales processed and stored below deck, we anchored in a secluded bay for the night. I took a moment to sit alone on the bow of the boat while gathering my thoughts from the previous few days. Across the water, not two hundred meters away, a dozen reindeer picked their way along the shoreline. I had eaten reindeer on a number of occasions — not particularly unusual or controversial. Yet this was also a wild resource like the minke. In North America, bison suffered similar widespread
extermination to the great whales, but today, with concerted conservation measures and regulation, they are harvested both from the wild and as livestock.
I contemplated the shifting societal values toward our relationship with nature and how it shapes our resource-use decisions. There is a complex play of emotion, history, politics and inconclusive scientific guidance regarding the minke whale hunt. Recently, the IUCN reported an annual global loss of 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises killed as by-catch — vastly more than are hunted and utilised. One could argue this is a more pressing threat to populations than regulated and monitored whale hunts.
It seems society has evolved to a position where, for most people, whales cross the moral boundary as a species we shouldn’t regard as a consumable resource. I speculate here, but even if the time to death was instantaneous in 100% of cases (which doesn’t occur for any protein source humans consume), and the populations were known exactly with accepted potential harvestable takes, it seems unlikely the hunting of whales will ever be socially acceptable again.
Just as economics drove the rise of whaling through the last century, even in the face of opposition, it is once again the catalyst, but this time wielding a sword over the demise of the last whalers. While the previous two years may show a marginal uptick, the demand for whale meat in Norway has declined steadily in the last two decades despite government-funded campaigns to encourage its consumption. A story covered in National Geographic in 2015 attributed a slump in demand to the sale of 113 tonnes of whale products to Rogaland Pelsdyrfôrlag, the largest manufacturer of animal feed for Norway’s fur market — an industry which will be disbanded in 2025. However, it wasn’t clear what these whale products were, or if it was meat originally destined for human consumption, or simply a by-product of processing
With so few whaling vessels operating today, and continued global discontent toward whaling, it seems that the last commercial whalers may be those already hunting the oceans. While I had more questions now than I had answers, I wondered if we would see a similar shift in the future — where, as a global society, the collective desire is that some species can be viewed as a resource and others simply cannot.
Cressey, D. World’s whaling slaughter tallied.
Nature 519, 140–141 (2015)
Environmental Investigation Agency,
Norwegian whale products trigger health concerns [Online]. Available at: https://eia-international.org/ (Accessed: 28 Oct 2022)
Øen, E. O. (2021) “Animal Welfare in the Conduct of Whaling: A Review of the Research and Developments to Improve Animal Welfare in the Minke Whale Hunt in Norway 1981- 2005,” Senri Ethnological Studies,
Li, Qihui et al. (2022) “Review of the Impact of Whale Fall on Biodiversity in Deep-Sea Ecosystems,” Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 10(May), pp. 1–7. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2022.885572.
Halverson, S. M. (2004) ‘Small State
With A Big Tradition: Norway Continues Whaling At The Expense Of Integration And Nordic Cooperation’, Syracuse Journal of International Law and Commerce, 31(1), pp. 121–148.
Fire & Fear on the Middle Fork