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Britain’s Whale Hunters – an initial review of the BBC series

“You went away a boy and you came back a man”, so says one of the last of the British whalers interviewed for Adam Nicolson’s two part story telling the history of British whaling that aired for the first time on the 8th June.

This is my review written as the programme aired, so please forgive any immediate errors, I’ll try and come back to it once I get a chance to review the programme again.

The story starts in west Scotland where people have relied on the seas for centuries. The presenter Adam Nicolson notes that these same waters used to host thousands of whales, but that they no longer teem with whales due to the impact of whaling.

Adam takes us initially to Stornoway, in Lewis, to tell the tale of Scottish pilot whaling, where, not unlike the hunts that still take place in the Faroes today, some 200 years ago, people drove whales into bays to be killed. 

The programme notes that from the late 17th Century a more commercial type of whaling emerged and Adam leads us through London’s Spitalfields to see a merchant’s house filled with whale-bone corsets, whale bone umbrellas with mm-thin ribbing and whale oil lamps. At its height of production the majority of lamps of London were powered by whale oil, supplied by the whalers of Dundee, Whitby and other ports.

In 1788 248 British ships set sail for the Arctic Ice with open boats and hand held harpoons. These were the right whale hunts, which after a couple of centuries of overhunting were driving the Greenland right whales to extinction. 

The programme notes that at one time we would have been able to see great whales from the coast of Dover, but not today.

The programme tracks the history of whaling to west Norway, where Svend Foyn developed the modern explosive harpoon and so invented modern whaling, allowing the whalers to catch the fast blue and fin whales that had escaped previous hunters.

The programme interviews the last remaining retired Scottish whalers when they visit Norway on their annual visit to Norwegian colleagues. Whilst whaling had been their career, their reminiscing, reveals some possible regrets about the suffering they inflicted.

“When a whale was harpooned, you could not help wincing when a harpoon went in, because that was a living animal, as far as pain was concerned. It was a brutal way of life, there is no getting away from that”

Another recounts, “They seemed so friendly, and they would make a noise, like, when you hit them they cried, really, I felt that.”

One of the whalers betrays the older thinking when he described, “pulling in the fish”

The programme moves to the Southern Oceans and the Antarctic with a visit to the Falkland Islands with its lower jaw whale bone arches made of blue whales standing tall enough for a truck to drive through.

However, the southern centre of whaling was South Georgia, Adam tells the story of how elephant seals were first targeted until almost wiped out, also examining attempts to help them recover today. He notes that hunting continued until the 1960s when it was an accessory to the whaling.

When asked if sealing could resume, the expert notes why ask the question, noting why do it when there are alternatives and could we trust human beings to not overhunt again.

The programme recounts how in 1904, C.A. Larson came back to South Georgia and set up a processing station to hunt humpback whales.

The British colonial office were surprised to find this Norwegian incursion in what was British territory, but ever the business leaders of their time, reacted by selling him a retrospective licence before issuing others more licences to exploit this new whaling ground.

This initially uninhabited British outpost very quickly became the centre of the world’s whaling industry, with some six whaling stations.

We visit Leith Harbour, established by Christian Salvessen and named after his homeport in Edinburgh. Adam says he cannot but think, “of the number of lives soaked into the land here”.

Leith Harbour was abandoned in 1965, and now all that remains are asbestos-clad machinery and metal clad buildings still scribed with graffiti of long-gone whalers.

Hydrogenated technologies acted as a boost for South Georgia and its whalers, allowing them to better refine whale oil which could now be used to make much needed soap and edible fats for Europe. Very soon Salvesen was making an annual profit of £300,000 a year, equivalent to £100 million in today’s money and paying a 100% dividend to his investors.

In the peak of the hunts Adam notes that oil was taken and the meat was left to rot or disposed of. Graphic images an film show meat and entrails everywhere.

One researcher looking at old film notes it’s “almost a sin” what we did to the whales.

Surveying the vast oil tanks on the island, Adam himself says “its tragic to gather that much oil from the sea”

In 1912, the same year Scott reached the South Pole, St Georgia was home to 1,200 men. By 1914 scientists were beginning to raise concerns as to the over-harvesting of the Southern Ocean whales. Research showed that humpbacks were already heavily depleted, but the whalers had already turned to the blue and the fin whales due to the paucity of humpbacks. 

The First World War meant all regulations were relaxed, as whale oil was wanted for the war effort. Salvesen used Norway’s neutrality to further expand his grip in South Georgia.

After the war, catches climbed to 8000 whales a year in 1925, saw South Georgia “processing whales like Ford made cars”.

The next programme examines the growth of the industry and the rush to mine the last of the whales

The programme seeks to celebrate the courage of the men that ventured so far south whilst noting the brutality of the blood and guts of hundreds of thousands of whales spread across the landscape and seas.

Such story telling is a delicate balance to pull off, but I think that Adam does it well. There is a lot of detailed history that needs to be left out to fit into a two hour series, but the BBC have done a welcome job in telling this important part of British maritime and industrial history which also helps inform the reasons why the UK is so opposed to commercial whaling today.

I have to say I am looking forward to the second episode.