Maritime Topics on Stamps

Whale-Catching with Harpoon Cannons!

Whaling Part 3


greener gun
Around 1820 first experiment were made using small, rotary cannons fixed to the bow of the catching boats. They could only be used in calm waters, not in a swaying boat. In 1837 William Greener developed a shoulder rifle. The so-called "Greener Rifle" shot a cylinder containing a time fuse released an explosive charge into the whale, but it's range was limited to 20m.
In 1861 the rocket harpoon of Thomas W. Roys was patented. A pipe slung over the shoulder fired a harpoon head attached to a rope and a high-explosive grenade into the whale. Enhancements included the bomb lance using a high explosive projectile, which exploded in the body of the whale. There was no rope as it was used only for kill, when the whale was already tied up with several harpoons.

gun 1
Svend Foyn
The Norwegian Svend Foyn is the father of modern whaling (see stamp to the right). In 1868 he bought the harpoon cannon of the German Philipp Rechen and began enhancing it. The cannon was turnable up and down as well as to both sides. The harpoon carried a warhead, which exploded inside the whale releasing four barbs to catch it. These harpoon cannons are still used today. It paved the way for the killing of approx. 2,7 million whales (from 1898 until today)!

Svend Foyn used steam ships, which sported so-called 'break planks'. If they were used, they slowed the speed of the catching boats thus exhausting the pulling whale earlier. The boats also carried a 'compensator' - a spring system to cushion the violent jerks of heavy whales tied to a catch rope. Thomas W. Roys already used such system but called it 'accumulator'. To the left you can see a whaling ship around 1890. With these fast ships it was easy to pursue and kill the huge furrow, blue and finn whales. To the right you can see is a whaling boat of the 20th Century.

If the "air stream" of a whale was discovered by the lookout in the barrel, there were two ways to approach the whale:
1) The catching boat tried a silent aproach and if the whale dove, the water whirls of the fluke betrayed led the way. The captain could calculate time and place where the whale was likely to emerge, because it has to surface for breathing in. At this point it was harpooned.
2) Or the whale was simply forced to fly. It fled in panic, blew briefly, swam faster and emerged comparatively high out of the water, making him an easy target for harpoons.

whaling gun
whaling gun
The dead animal turned to the side or on the back. A hollow spear was shoved into it's body and air was blown in to prevent it from sinking. The two points of the fluke were separated with long knives, so that it fit into the stern opening of the factory ship. Then the catching boat dragged the animal home. If other whales were still near, a buoy and a bamboo bar with a flag and the number of the boat were fastened to the fluke. Now the whale "was put to the flag", meaning it was left behind to hunt more whales. After 1945 special transmitters were attached to the whales. They were collected by special buoy-boats, which transfered the dead bodies to the factory ships.

Already in 1868 in England a patent for an electric harpoon exists. In 1929 the German Albert Weber, employed by Norwegian companies, began with the development of an electric current harpoon cannon. The current was led through an isolated copper cable in the harpoon rope to the tip. The cannon used a simple 220 Volt alternating current. In the Antarctic season 1937/38 approx. 2,000 whales were killed with electrical harpoons. However this method did not become generally accepted because of various technical difficulties.

To the left you can see the Russian whale-factory ship "Sovietskaja Ukraina" and the German factory ship "Jan Wellem" in the cancellation to the right. In 1935 the Hapag steamer Württemberg was converted to the whale factory ship "Jan Wellem".
Some data: length * beam * draft   482 * 71 * 31 ft,
15,500 tdw, 5,000 HP, speed 11-12 kn,
tank 12,000 t, 240 men crew,
shipping company Erste Deutsche Walfanggesellschaft (EDWG, First German whaling company).

stern slip
stern slip
The factory ships had a special stern mounting jig, which was developed by the Norwegian Petter Soerlles in 1925. With a shear-like claw the dead whale was heaved aboard through the stern mounting ramp by it's cut fluke. Then a special team, called "flenser", began to strip off the fat layer of the whale. The remaining body was pulled to the front deck, which was called "lemmer deck". The "lemmer men" were the butchers, who divided the flesh and the bones. The cut meat was thrown through large openings in the deck right into the boilers beneath.
On the "Jan Wellem" a whole whale was divided in one hour! The boilers were able to create 500 tons of whale oil per day.

In the 20th century all the parts of a whale were fully utilised. You could make the following products of them:
Machine oil, cod-liver oil, margarine, soap, detergent (softener), hormone pills, meat, sausage, ham, soup-essence, gelatine, jelly, glue, alcohol, shoe polish, cosmetics (perfume, lipsticks), ointments, pencil lead, photographic paper, tennis racquets, shoehorns, cigarette holders, fertilizer, animal fodder, etc., etc..
whaling boat

factory ship
From 1910 to 1975 a gigantic battle ensued against the gentle giants. The 1930's became known as the "whaling olympic". The worst/most successful seasons were in 1937/38 with 46,039 whales and 1961/62 with 66,000 whales dead! From 1936 to 1939 German fleets were involved as well, hunting down approx. 15,000 furrow whales. Another statistic speaks of 1.5 million whales worldwide from 1925 to 1975. All in all approx. 2.7 million whales were killed from 1898 to 2004.
Above you can see the Dutch whaling factory ship "Willem Barendsz". Built in 1955, she was the largest factory ship of the world in that time. In 1966 she was sold to South Africa, 1973 to Korea.
Some data: 26,800 BRT, length 679 ft, beam 92 ft, 2 engines each 10,500 HP, 14 kn, 500 men crew.

whaling sailer
One of the most important conferences regarding whaling took place in 1946 in Washington. A set of Rules was sketched out to regulate whaling - later known as the 'International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW)', which became implemented in 1948. As one of the results the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created in 1949. It's main goal was to protect the whale stocks (to continue whaling in the future!), but the commission failed miserably and stranged itself with regulations. A nation which raised objections against IWC resolutions, did not need to obey. "Whaling for scientific purposes" was abused to kill even more whales. Nevertheless since 1986 a general whaling moratorium exists, i.e. commercial whaling is officially forbidden.

World-wide there are over 200 different environmental protection organizations, which support the protection of the whales. Greenpeace is leading the way bringing world-wide attention to whaling with spectacular actions in front of running tv cameras. Public pressure rose until in 1986 a general moratorium to end all commercial whaling was implemented. Special protected areas were set up: for instance in 1979 in the Indian Ocean and in 1994 in the Antarctic.


Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s famous white whale, is already featured on a separate page of ours. Just click on this link.....

To see our page about Aboriginal Whaling - ‘Whaling, Part 1’ - please click on this link....

To see our page about Sperm Whale Hunting in the Pacific - ‘Whaling, Part 2’ - please click on this link....

Source: Collection Klaus-Peter Reinhardt with Info's and Scans,
Richard Ellis, Man and Whale

© 1998 - 2005 Bjoern Moritz, all rights reserved.

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