Trigger warning: this article may contain disturbing pictures.
When reading Melville’s Moby Dick or when looking at the faces of the old Azorean whalers you can see those archaic, old stories made from blood and fight. Man against beast – this tales can be told one million times without losing its fascination.
I saw the same amount of grief for both sides: for the friendly whales caught and slaughtered and for the loss of a cultural activity deeply rooted in the DNA of the Azoreans.
Who is still hunting for whales today?
The hunt for whales, was practiced from the early 19th century until 1984 when it was internationally banned. There are two occasions on which it is still allowed: indigenious hunt (subsistence hunting from traditional societies) and scientific hunt (for scientific research).
Today Denmark, Canada, Russia, St. Vincent and the Grenades practice indigenious hunt. Japan, Island and South Korea practice scientific hunt. Japan & Norway have rejected the moratorium and continue hunting. Of course there is a lot of bribery and intrigues going on on this matter. (But Norway? WTF? Those peaceful nature lovers? I guess I have to revise my image of the Norwegians.)
Today more than 2000 whales are killed every year. Around 1000 by Japanese ships for “scientific reasons”, 600 from Norwegian and Icelandic fishers and around 350 from indigenous people in the US and Russia.
Why were whales hunted anyway?
*in the first place people thought it is sperm – therfore the name “spermwhale”
*in reality the 1,5 tons of spermaceti in the head of a spermwhale are used as kind of a radar system for the orientation of the whale
And on the Azores?
The whaling museums on the islands
There are some occasions on the Islands where it is possible to learn more about the whaling history of the Azores. We have been to three of them.
- La Fabrica da Baleia (Horta/Faial)
- Museu dos Baleeiros (Lajes/Pico)
- Museu da Industria Baleeira (São Roque/Pico)
The most impressing one for me was the museum in Sao Roque. It is more about the processing of the whales and it is placed on the original “crime scene” where you can still see and even smell the atrocity of the handling of the huge whale cadavers. Same in Horta, but much more in its original state in São Roque. Additionally the great architecture of the museum in Lajes should be mentioned.
Impressions from the museums
La Fabrica da Baleia (Horta/Faial)
Museu dos Baleeiros (Lajes/Pico)
Remarkable in those pictures is the ambergris – amber – found in the intestines of sperm whales. There are several theories about the production of it. Sure is, that the hard parts of the whales favorite food (beaks of squids for example) is embedded in it. Some researchers think it is produced because of a metabolic disease, another theory say, that it serves as an antibiotic wound closure for the intestinal wall of the whale.
I always asked myself how the “vigias”, the men who sat in the watchtowers, communicated the position of the whales when having spotted one of them. The map on the picture in the middle shows that they used a system, which divided the area in small squares. I’m still not quite sure, how they used this kind of maps and I would be happy for more details.
Museu da Industria Baleeira (Sao Roque do Pico)
On this last picture, you can see one of the ramps where the whales have been pulled out of the sea. As I have understood, most of the Azoreans today still have great respect for the bravery of the whalers, but the compassion and fondness towards the animal clearly wins.