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.
This explains as well the ambivalent relation the Azoreans have with whaling. Like in most western countries whales today are seen as the peaceful giants of the ocean. For most of us a symbol of the fight for nature’s survival in times of man made destruction. But there is this other side, too. The fascination. The roughness of the sea. The fight. This very masculine raison d’être.
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.
Maybe it’s comparable with the Spanish Corrida, where the unbelievable atrocity against an innocent animal stands against the loss of identification with elegance and manliness.
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?
You might think, it was because of the meat, but everyone will tell you, that whale meat tastes quite disgusting, greasy and rancid.
No. Whales have been hunted because of there oils. In the head of a sperm whales you’ll find a liquid called spermaceti* which was used in the cosmetic industry. The massive amount of oil which was extracted from the blubber of the whale was used as oil for lamps. In fact, whales were hunted, slaughtered and “melted” to light up the cities of the 19th and early 20th century. The rest of the “material” was milled to flour and animal food.
*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?
People on the Azores switched from making a business out of whale hunting with harpoons to whale hunting with cameras (aka “whale watching”) and the latter is much more gentle to the whales than the first. Watching a whale in the wilderness of the sea even makes people more conscient and let them become passionate fighters for the cause of the big mammals. At least my concience has been really triggered (although I have seen only very small whales :-)).
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.