A brief history of Norwegian whaling

Photo courtesy of Harald Hansen Hunted whales are tied alongside a boat awaiting processing.

Photo courtesy of Harald Hansen
Hunted whales are tied alongside a boat awaiting processing.

Finn Roed
West Bloomfield, Mich.

Evidence indicates that along the coast of Norway, people in olden times engaged in primitive whaling, using rowboats and spears. Later, during the age of sailing, from 1600 to about 1800, the Dutch, English, and Americans were the primary whalers.

When Sven Foyn, from Tønsberg, invented the modern harpoon in 1863, Norway’s industrial whaling began from a land station in Finnmark. Hunted at sea, the whales were processed on land.

The harpoon was mounted on a large gun, which in turn was mounted at the front of a steam-driven ship called Spes and Fides, built in Oslo.

Along the Finnmark coast, there were 19 coastal whaling stations, which between 1877 and 1904 processed 17,825 whales. New areas for hunting had to be found, and the North Atlantic from Norway to Newfoundland became the new hunting grounds.

A shipyard owner, Chr. Christensen, sent exploratory whaling expeditions to the Southern part of the Atlantic near Africa in 1892 and 1893, skippered by C. A. Larson, a famous captain. At the same time, Chr. Christensen converted an old cargo ship into the first modern floating factory ship. However, the whales were not brought aboard the ship as in modern times but were processed in quiet waters alongside of the ship, since only the blubber was used for oil. The rest of the whale were left for sharks and other creatures.

The whale population again dwindled and new hunting areas had to be found. The Antarctic turned out to be teeming with whales. In 1913, whaling along the coast of Southern Africa was halted.

Earlier, the factory ships had been anchored near shore, but after WWI they were usually found near the ice in the Antarctic, and Peter Sørlie’s invention of the slipway allowed whales to be hauled up on the deck of the factory ship to be processed. Weather was no longer a factor.

When the modern whale factory ship came into use, every part of the whale could be consumed. These ocean giants, Blue Whales, measuring 30 meters with tongues weighing as much as a grown elephant, were the sources of oil (soap, margarine, lotions), bones (fertilizer), and tendons (glue, film, gelatin, and candies). Whales also contributed to bouillon, cosmetics, shoe polish, crayons, brushes, buttons, and horse whips. Whale hormones were used in medicines. Meat was frozen.

In the winter of 1930-1931, Norway produced 2,316,962 barrels of whale oil, the best-ever Antarctic season.

During WWII, several whaling ships were lost. So, after the war, Sandefjord, Tønsberg, and Larvik decided to build up the whaling industry, which had been an important source of income in earlier years. Norway built four factory ships, 41 whale boats, and 11 tug boats.

Because of the shrinking whale population, the last season of Norwegian Antarctic whaling was in 1967. Whale oil was no longer viewed as important, since the oil from herring was being processed and used to a greater extent.

Having begun in the 1920s, commercial whaling continues on the west coast of Norway for small whales.

To learn more about the history of whaling, be sure you visit the excellent and only whaling museum in Europe, namely Hvalfangstmuseet (The Whaling Museum) in Sandefjord, Norway.

This article originally appeared in the June 19, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.