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Hunted and admired: the giants of the oceans

Avatar of inke inke - 02. June 2017 - Discover Namibia

A blue whale is pulled ashore via the slipway for processing. (Source: National Archives)

They are powerful and gentle, inquisitive and wise, compassionate and social. Nevertheless whales have been hunted worldwide for centuries because of the many products that they provide: food, oil, gelatine, soap and basic ingredients for cosmetics and medicines. Whaling stations were also set up on the South West African coast, the first one in Walvis Bay in 1912 and another one the following year at Sturmvogelbucht near Lüderitz. The latter was in operation for two years only. 

Walvis Bay was in fact established because of the large pods of whales that were once a common feature along this coast. Portuguese seafarers back in the 16th century called the bay Bahia das Bahleas (the Bay of Whales). The cold Benguela Current is rich in plankton and other nutrients and thus makes the South Atlantic an ideal feeding ground for whales. In the southern winter they migrate from the Antarctic region to the warmer, shallower coastal waters further north to calve and mate.  

In 1726 the Dutch West India Company sent commercial whalers to the South West African coast. American, French and Norwegian whalers followed from 1780 onward and hunted Southern Right and Humpback whales to such an extent that both species were on the verge of extinction early last century.  

Two whaling companies operated in the “Bay of Whales” in 1912.  The Walfish Bay Whaling Company Ltd ran a whaling station while the Durban Whaling Company Ltd operated a factory ship. A total of 527 whales were caught during the 1912 whaling season and another 508, though mostly smaller ones, the following year. For the first time some thought was given to the protection of this endangered species, but the First World War broke out before any steps could be taken. Whaling was resumed in 1923 and 296 whales were caught. (Wilken, 1978) 

As the numbers of whales dropped and large factory ships were introduced, the whaling station at Walvis Bay lost its importance. Processing operations were closed down in 1930, but repair work at the docks continued. Walvis Bay became a “home port” for Norwegian whalers in particular. They docked there after the whaling season in the Southern Ocean to have their ships repaired and to restock supplies. 

A whaling fleet consisted of a large mother ship with 8 to 10 small, manoeuvrable fishing boats positioned within a radius of 30 kilometres. Whales were harpooned from a distance of 30 to 40 metres. It was a cruel death and their agony lasted up to two hours. Afterwards the animal was pumped full of air to keep it afloat and then towed to the mother ship. 

Wolfgang Bauer recalls his visit to such a whaler during the 1930s when his father was working in the whaling station’s workshops in Walvis Bay. “Actually the mother ship was a floating processing plant, a factory ship (...) which provided its ‘children’ with water, coal for the boilers, food and other necessities for a whaling season of four and a half  months. At the same time it was equipped with enormous boiler and refrigeration facilities, bunkers and tanks for storing products such as meat, train oil, bone and meat meal which were obtained from processing the whale on the spot. (...) Depending on the size of the animal the slaughter deck was cleared and ready for the next one within 4-6 hours.” (Bauer, p. 167-169) 

During the 1930s the League of Nations made first attempts to limit whaling, but with not much success. As whaling fleets and technology improved, whalers were able to hunt for whale species that had been previously out of their reach. Whaling exploded in unheard-of proportions: whereas 20,000 sperm whales were caught worldwide from 1842-1846, a total of 127,000 were killed from 1960-1964 alone, mainly by Japanese or Soviet whaling fleets. (Wikipedia)

The most extensive whaling took place in the coastal waters of southern Africa. With the exception of Antarctica the largest number of whales worldwide was caught around the tip of Africa. Between 1908 and 1930 a shocking 73,500 whales were killed – twice as many off the Atlantic coast than off the Indian Ocean coast (Berry, 2010). And not only were the giants of the oceans almost wiped out by man but also smaller whale species like the long-finned pilot whale. Whole pods of them were driven ashore. 

Some of the largest whaling nations refused to sign the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) of 1948 and still refuse to do so today. From the 1960s onwards many whale species were added to the Red List of Endangered Species. In 1986 the International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium, which however does not amount to a general ban on whaling. Some countries still continue with their whaling activities, albeit on a much smaller scale. This has led to the gradual recovery of endangered whale populations. 

These days whales are occasionally spotted again off the Walvis Bay coast, in particular Humpback and Southern Right whales that come to the area between July and November to calve and to mate. Sometimes a whale beaches and causes great excitement. The giants of the oceans are back!

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