The massacre of the giants

The whale is often associated with cod in the history of overexploitation of marine resources, taking into account that the large banks of Newfoundland were discovered at the end of the 16th century by Basque whalers. In fact, they had combed the northwest Atlantic looking for new sources of cetaceans after having eliminated the whales of the Bay of Biscay.

Apart from this casual episode, the two species have almost nothing in common for man. As whales are mammals and do not have the fecundity of fish, the man soon realized that hunting could endanger their survival. In the mid-nineteenth century it was already known that large marine mammals were threatened by man, but this evidence was sadly and fatally accepted, as these lines by Michelet 1 are witnessed : “Before they were seen sailing in pairs, sometimes in large families of ten or twelve in solitary seas. There was nothing so magnificent as these great fleets, sometimes illuminated by their phosphorescence throwing columns of water from thirty to forty feet that rose in the polar seas. They approached peacefully, curiously, and looked at the ship like a brother of a new species; they found pleasure, they celebrated the newcomer. They played standing upright and fell back with their full length, noisily, and formed a bubbling chasm. Their frankness made them touch the ship with audacity. Reckless confidence, so cruelly deceived! In less than a century, the great species that is the whale has almost disappeared. “

Trying to understand why man eliminated land mega- fauna very quickly after having set foot on new continents or new islands, biologists generally advance the fact that large animals evolved without contact with man and, faced with this new unknown predator, is found-sold without defense.

Michelet appreciated, on the other hand, that it is above all the strong family ties between the whales that made them fragile when they met the man. At this point, on the other hand, there is a very anthropomorphic vision of the whales: “The gestation period of the female is nine months [in fact, from ten to seventeen months, depending on the species]. The milk of the female is a bit sweet, with the warm sweetness of a woman’s milk […]. The mother suckles tenderly and, although her arms are very short, she finds a way, in the storm, to protect the baby. “For Michelet, cetaceans are “good giants” who appeared at a time “of great sweetness and innocence” and the link between mother and offspring and links between couples are the elements that constitute its weakness against the hunter .”Their anger is great when the fierce fisherman attacks them through the child. Harp the little one to attract them and the whales make incredible efforts to save him, to take him away; they return to the surface, expose themselves to make it return to the surface and make it breathe. A death blow , they still defend him. Although they can submerge and escape, they remain on the surface and in danger to follow the floating body.

Based on these painful descriptions, Michelet proposes a limitation of hunting and fishing that does not have to envy anything that fish biologists ask for today. Unlike many of the first ecologists, Michelet does not make a selective choice and is as concerned about fish as he is about marine mammals .”To all, amphibians and fish, you need a rest station: you need a truce from God. The best way to allow them to multiply is to protect them at the moment they reproduce, at the time when nature fulfills their maternity work. It seems that they know, themselves, that at this moment they are sacred: they lose shyness, they go up to the light, they approach the shore; it seems that insurance of some protection is created […].

All innocent life has the right to the moment of happiness, to the moment in which the individual, although it seems of humble extraction, leaving the narrow limit of his individual self, wants, beyond himself and his dark desire, to penetrate into the infinite where it has to be perpetuated ». It took until 1986 for the International Balinese Commission (IWC) to enact an international moratorium to sharply reduce the hunting of all large cetaceans.

“The earliest testimonies of the prehistoric beginnings of whaling are located in Asia,” writes Daniel Robineau, professor at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, Une histoire de la chasse à la baleine . “More precisely, in South Korea, where numerous drawings engraved on the walls of a cliff represent large cetaceans (whales, rorcuale and sperm whales) and hunting scenes. To the deposit of Bangudae a date of between five thousand and three thousand years is attributed BC, and represents the first proof that the man has hunted the whale during the aboriginal period.

Compared to the Korean site, the vestiges of the Scandinavian bronze age (between 1800 and 400 BC ) are much less explicit. The worked bones, the engraved stones or the mounds of waste of eating do not allow to think that prehistoric populations have been able to attack large species, except in exceptional circumstances, “as Daniel Robineau emphasizes. Indeed, for a long time, men had to be content taking advantage of the cetaceans stranded on the beaches. These arrivals must have been a providential event, as the organized parties are still not doing much in France itself.

In 1917 the stranded whale of a northern whale on the beach of Bidart, in the Atlantic Pyrenees, was celebrated as a gift from the sea and a part of the animal was distributed by the orphanages of the region. It took fifteen men and a shot of six pairs of oxen to kill the animal, which is more than fifteen meters long, and take it to the nearest tannery, as Nelson Cazeils explains to Dix siècles de péche à la baleine, ” a work very very documented and full of anecdotes.

The first historical documents related to whaling are found in the Basque Country and date back to the 11th century. At this time, a species of great cetacean called the whale of the Basques was going to reproduce along the coast. As the adult female is easy to capture when breastfeeding the baby and, once dead, his body floats, this game was developed. The men tried, first, to see them from a point of observation of the high coast (a watchtower) and then they made them squat on the boulders of the beach or make them fall into traps located on the shore, in intertidal areas.

At the same time and according to the same principle, the small cetaceans were captured by associations of Norman fishermen who surrounded them with their boats and then scared them with shouts and various noises to direct them towards the boulders or estuary above to exterminate them with blows of spear. The monasteries built at the entrance to the rivers took part as food and for lighting. A similar technique is still used today in the Faroe Islands, a Danish archipelago located in the north of Scotland. These trap techniques have persisted for many years and are often surprising in their effectiveness in capturing small animals. Towards 1875, at the estuary of the Sant Llorenç River, five hundred belugas were captured at once .

The Basques quickly learned how to hunt whales from small boats offshore with spear-point harpoons and sharp spears, which, being very pointed and sharp on both sides, penetrate deep into the flesh. Later they contributed an important innovation when equipping the harpoon that allowed them not to lose the animal. After the whale comes to the surface to breathe , the harpoon is launched. This is a very dangerous moment when many boats were sunk and many men were crushed. The process is repeated until the animal dies.

This great animal has many weak points that make it an easy prey: after between five and fifty minutes of swimming in apnea, the animal has to come to the surface to breathe and emits a jet of six at a new height, easily identifiable by attentive sailors.These animals swim slowly, which makes it easier to reach them, and the corpses (except those of the rorquals) float naturally on the surface of the water, which facilitates recovery and exploitation.

The hunting was very lucrative. According to the calculations of Daniel Robineau, the capture of just one animal provided a volume of meat equivalent to thirty oxen; a volume of lard equivalent to that contributed by three hundred pigs, from which nine thousand liters of oil could be extracted; a tongue of one thousand five hundred kilos, a meal much appreciated at that time, and two hundred fifty to three hundred kilos of whale barbs with multiple uses. Soon there were no whales in the Bay of Biscay, so the Spanish Basques had to join the French. The population of the great cetacean was small before the hunting began: between one thousand two hundred and fifty thousand and eight hundred and fifty individuals, according to Daniel Robineau’s estimates.

The extraction did not have to be huge to have devastating effects; the massacre of the males and the females quickly reduced the numbers. The dimensions of the whales turned them into real mines of organic raw materials, exploited in an industrial way. Currently, we have forgotten that, of the whale, everything was taken advantage of. The cetaceans supplied a significant amount of proteins and fats, but also other materials, such as whalebone, bone, ivory and leather. Salted meat was eaten even during Lent, since cetaceans were considered as fish with lard.

In England a meal of roasted porpoises was considered a royal dish and in France, around 1550, the salted or dried and smoked porpoise was the subject of a major trade. The tongue was considered an exquisite eater in the early sixteenth century. The oil was used to heat, but especially for the lighting of the villas. And much was needed: in 1769 at least three thousand five hundred candles had to be fed every day with whale oil to Paris. The sperm whale oil used to lubricate machines operating at high speed and with high precision mechanisms. Shortly before the ban on hunting, the Soviets still used some parts of the projectiles. Bones were used as construction material, beards, thanks to their strength and flexibility, were used until the nineteenth century in the manufacture of the rods of umbrellas and corsets. The leather was reserved for the manufacture of belts, and the dried casings were transformed into ropes. Many cosmetic and pharmaceutical products are derived from whales. The gray amber produced by the sperm whale was used as a perfume fixative, but in the 17th century aphrodisiac properties were also attributed to it. Sperm whale wax was used to made candles. It is an oil that is found in the skull of the sperm whale in liquid form and that solidifies at low temperatures, and allows the animal to gain density and stabilize when it is submerged at great depths.

1.J. Michelet , La mer , Paris, Gallimard, 1983.
Source: Une mer sans poissons, Philippe Curry and Yves Miserey.

Image: Basque whalers in the Arctic. One of 12 watercolor drawings belonging to the Robert Fotherby manuscript that narrates the whaling expedition to Spitzberg organized by the London Muscovy Company in 1613 (American Antiquarian Society collection). The English hired 24 Basque whalers to work on the campaign and learn their techniques. Fotherby, an agent of the company, gave an illustrated account of the trip in which whale capture and processing systems are shown in detail.

Image: According to the text, “once the whale is dead, the men tie a rope to the back of their body and with their chalupas tied together they tow it by the tail to the naos”. The manuscript also informs that to carry out their work the Basques used their own boats.

Image: Watercolor of the manuscript of R. Fotherby, 1613. Transfer of grease lards to earth to be cut with the help of a human traction crane.