A whale of a tale

Memories of whale hunting, 1947-1948

Photo courtesy of Harald Hansen Whales were brought onboard, either in a massive tunnel or onto the decks of ships.

Photo courtesy of Harald Hansen
Whales were brought onboard, either in a massive tunnel or onto the decks of ships.

In March, Hansen told the remarkable story of his WWII experiences. In this installment, he takes us into the world of post-war whaling.

Harald Hansen
Mountain Home, Ark.

After World War II, it was hard to find work, so I finished up on some schooling I’d missed. In 1947 there was an ad in the paper about work on the mothership for whaling down in the Antarctic, so I applied and got hired. My friend Agnar was hired too.

You had to travel to Sandefjord to get on the big ship, named “Empire Victory.” This was a German ship captured by the British navy in the end of the war. Lot of changes and improvement were done to the ship in order to handle all the whales and also cook the meat and fat and store it in big tanks.

There were small ships to come on the side of the ship to deliver all kinds of stuff for the season, and I was told to operate one of the winches to hoist supplies onboard. Most of the men were busy carrying it all to the special places. We also had on the lower deck 99 live pigs, lots of good dinners ahead. Norwegian ships are known for excellent food and service. So after all this preparing we finally left, and it was a funny feeling to watch all these small towns we were passing and see what cozy places there were.

After a few days we came to the top of South America, Caracas, where we took on fuel for the long trip. After a few days we ran into a three-day storm in the South Atlantic. The waves were long and slow and our ship looked small against them. When we crossed the equator the ones aboard who hadn’t met King Neptune had the chance to do so with an ice cold dunking, and of course Agnar and I both went through that, all in fun.

Later on we saw a funny sight. A sperm whale shot up in the air and on top of his head was what looked like a giant octopus. They say these two are fighting all the time, and the sperm whale dove to the bottom of the ocean with tremendous speed and smashed the octopus. I wish I’d had the camera there.

To pass the time we had several exercises and also games and sprints on the ship’s large deck. Another thing we enjoyed was the report every day. Here you read about what was happening day to day, along with news from Norway.

After a few more days they announced that we would see South Africa any time. We would be in Durban for three days. They had hired dozens of South Africans for the season, all white. In town, we saw many signs saying “whites only.” On buses signs read “black to the back,” and the post office had separate entrances. For us these signs of apartheid looked stupid.

The ship took in lots of provisions and also plenty of fruit for eating anytime. The bananas were red and so were the small oranges. We were told to eat the fruit while it was fresh.

Finally the day came. One morning we left Durban going east into the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is known for lots of storms, but so far the weather was fine. The report came about the first whale. It was a sperm whale, the sort with 54 teeth.

Then we had our storm, so we headed south and it wasn’t long before we were into drift ice and it got colder. But of course it was summertime down there. The report came in that the whalers (the boats) had run into lots of whales, and soon we had a dozen tied up by the ship. There were two Blue and four Fin Whales, which are smaller than the Blue.

Photo courtesy of Harald Hansen

Photo courtesy of Harald Hansen

There were 12 hunters, whaleboats, with no number 13—old timers are still superstitious. The number 15 boat was owned by a man named Karlsen from Durban; they said he was very rich. By the end of the season he had shot 390 whales, so that tells you something.

The whaleboats were the ones who hunted and killed the whales, then dragged them back to our larger ship, which contained the processing plant. Later in the season a British tanker came and they loaded up on whale oil (all cooked) to take back to Europe.

There were three days with no hunting. We had a terrible storm and some of the whaleboats came close to our big ship, others took protection behind large icebergs. A few days before Christmas the weather turned nice again and we had a visitor: a Norwegian “mail ship” arrived, and we got lots of mail and packages with cookies and sweets. They allowed us to come onboard the ship, and what a beautiful ship it was: we saw a cabin, almost like a hotel room, and a grand dining room, and everything was sparking clean. And we in turn mailed back a ton of letters.

Well, finally Christmas was here. The dining room was nicely decorated. It had small South African trees, they reminded us of our trees, and the work was stopped for a few hours, and we enjoyed a beautiful dinner and dessert. Everyone got a present from the company. It was a beautiful pocketsize cigarette holder, and it was stamped “F.L.F. Empire Victory” and it looked just like gold, but of course it wasn’t. Just about everyone was smoking in those days.

Blue whales are enormous animals. Their lungs weigh 1200 kg, their hearts 650 kg, stomachs 450 kg (empty). They also carry 20 tons of skeleton, 50 tons of meat, and 23 tons of fat. They can reach a length of 35 meters and swim as fast as 20 knots.

One day the whalers brought in a big Blue Whale that was 105 feet long and at least 100 tons, and they had to cut off some of it in order to get it through “the tunnel” into the ship for processing. “Lots of oil in that there.”

Another happening: one day they were “flensing” a Fin Whale (removing the blubber or outer integument), when a little baby whale came out, still warm, but of course it was dead. Those rough-looking butchers didn’t have the heart to part it; instead they lowered it slowly down to the ocean again. We thought that was nice of them.

Sperm Whales have 54 teeth, in all different sizes, and they let me cut out as many as I wanted. After cleaning them, I put them away to work on later. I made lots of jewelry and also carved animals; the most popular one was the penguin. It was also fun to watch them in the wild—there were lots and lots of them. I have never sold any of my carvings, but gave them to my children and other people for presents.

The good news is that whale hunting is over with (with a few exceptions). Whales will hopefully be around for a long time, and it is a sight to see them in their oceans.

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

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The Norwegian American

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