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Description of a Modern Whale Hunt

After being chased to exhaustion, the whale is shot with a grenade tipped harpoon before it is winched aboard the whaling ship dead or alive.



In the 21st century, whaling is big game hunting under a different name. It reveals the savage side of man when the thin veneer of civility is removed. Hunting whales is not necessary for human survival or for whale products. Whaling it is not necessary to conserve another species, fish or ecosystem.


The technology used for killing whales has altered little since the 16th and 19th century, The grenade tipped harpoon has been used for over 100 years. It is an imprecise weapon that relies on shrapnel and blast within the harpooned whale to cause death. In reality, death is rarely instantaneous and it can reportedly take up to 130 minutes for the whale to die.


The grenade harpoon is a primitive contraption that has no place in the 21st century as a humane way of killing a whale. So inefficient is this weapon that a range of other means are used in efforts to extinguish its life.


Unlike fish, who can dive and disappear, whales need to surface to breathe. Moreover, whales have not evolved as a prey species and are therefore not adapted to being chased or fighting back. This article by Sonar explores why whales and dolphins do not fight back against their human tormentors.


Today, the full extent of their suffering is yet to be scientifically evaluated. However, man is capable of imagining how another mammal may suffer whether it be a whale, wild animal, domestic pet or farm animal. Moreover, the visual evidence of a harpooned whale thrashing around in the ocean clearly shows that it does suffer. The question still remains if a whale is still alive long after it has been judged to be dead.


A report published in 2004 on the welfare implications of modern whaling entitled Troubled Waters concludes, "On grounds of animal welfare alone, therefore, all whaling operations should be halted." Today, there is no meaningful regulation to protect the welfare of whales. The regulations governing whaling as a whole are ignored by the whaling industry because there is virtually no enforcement. Consequently, whaling continues in spite of a world-wide ban introduced in 1986.




The modern whale hunt

A whale is normally located by the whaling boat's sonar. According to observers of the Japanese Minke whale hunts, it's typical for a catcher boat to pursue a whale for 30 minutes, or much longer, in order for the gunner to get within twenty to thirty yards of the targeted whale.


A book published on 2 June 1995 by Roger Payne entitled Among Whales (pg 258) quotes 'Whalers quickly discovered that a frequency of three thousand hertz seemed to panic the whales, causing them to surface much more often for air, This was a “better" use for sonar because it afforded the whalers more chances to shoot the whales. So they equipped their catcher boats with sonar at that frequency. Of course the sonar also allows the whalers to follow the whale underwater, but that is its secondary use. Its primary use is for scaring whales so that they start “panting” at the surface.'


The whale may try to dive or hide but to no avail.  Many whales are so struck with fear that they defecate which turns the water a deep orange which in turn reveals their location.


The pursuit itself often causes physical and psychological stress, which may lead to fatal syndromes such as Exertional Myopathy, a condition that scientists believe may prove fatal, even to animals that evade capture.


Below is footage of illegal Japanese whaling in a southern ocean whale sanctuary filmed by customs officials of the Australian Government . . .


Footage of illegal Japanese whaling in a southern ocean whale sanctuary filmed by customs officials of the Australian Government

Footage of illegal Japanese whaling in a southern ocean whale sanctuary filmed by customs officials of the Australian Government

The grenade harpoon cannon

The grenade harpoon comprises a shaft with rope attached and the end secured to an onboard winch motor. The front of the harpoon is tipped with a penthrite grenade followed by 4 retracted steel claws (hooks). The harpoon is fired under explosive discharge from a deck mounted cannon located on the prow of the vessel.


When a shot is fired, the harpoon leaves the cannon at a velocity of around 90 - 100 metres per second. When hit, the harpoon penetrate the whales' body to a depth of 30 cm, or more, before the grenade explodes. As a rule, the harpoon goes straight through a Minke whale after the grenade has detonated. Detonation and/or tension on the harpoon rope causes the claws to deploy and the whale is 'hooked'.


Harpoon grenade Cannon from the Japanes whaling ship Yushin Maru

Grenade Harpoon Cannon of the Japanese Whaling Ship Yushin Maru

16th Century Cannon

16th Century Cannon


A critically important part of grenade harpoon cannon technology has not changed much from the 16th century. The harpoon gunner sights the whale along the barrel of the cannon, albeit along a sighting bar. This form of sighting a target was typically used by cannon gunners in the 16th century. It is totally inadequate for the necessary precision sighting in the 21st century, to even attempt an inhumane stun, or kill of a whale.


The closer the harpoon strike is to the brain, then the quicker the whale is immobilised. However, the target area is relatively small for a moving ship at sea and there are too many variables to ensure a humane kill, including: bent harpoon, poorly maintained cannon, ships motion: heave, sway, surge, roll, pitch and yaw. The whale too has its own motions. The ideal angle of the shot cannot be chosen, poor visibility etc.  When all of these variables are combined, then an instantaneous humane kill is unlikely.


Time taken for a harpooned whale to die

The method used for killing a whale out-of-sight at sea would not be tolerated by man for the slaughter of a mammal on land.


The grenade tipped harpoon is intended to cause 'immobilisation' by exploding inside the whales' body causing:


Massive trauma, damage to vital organs, nerves and internal bleeding causes the whale to thrash and writhe around in agonising pain and suffering. Tension on the rope causes the harpoon claws to expand and anchor deeper into the whales' body causing even more pain and suffering.

Detonated grenade tipped whaling harpoon after being removed from a fin whale
Credit: Arnaldur Halldorsson/Bloomberg

Detonated grenade tipped harpoon

after being cut-out from a fin whale


Norway reported that 81% of Minke whales were killed "instantaneously" during the 2002 hunt. Japan's Antarctic Minke whale hunt in 2002/2003 reported 40% killed "instantaneously." That means, from Japan's own statistics, that 60% of whales did not die immediately and a secondary killing means would have been required.


Currently, there is no scientific evidence that whales shot with a grenade harpoon die immediately. The growing consensus is that the whale is stunned, immobilised or unconscious, but not dead.


The time it takes for a whale to die is a secret and the whaling nations will not reveal the data as this report shows and this article from the Reykjavík Grapevine.


A report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that more than 80% of whales are not killed instantly once harpooned. This is due to the lack of ability of harpoon gunners to hit the area close to the whale’s brain. Once harpooned, whales are often alive when they are winched into the hunting ship with the harpoon embedded into their flesh, causing severe suffering. Many whales that are winched in alive, do not die from the blow of the harpoon, but of suffocation, with their blow holes forced under water by the process of winching them in.

 Data reviewed on Minke whale deaths between 1983 and 2000 revealed that the longest time for an animal to die was about 90 minutes for Norway, and (according to one author) 130 minutes for Japan.

Japanese whaling ship Yushin Maru and harpooned minke whale

Japanese whaling ship Yushin Maru

Restricted target kill area of Minke whale

A paper published by the School of Veterinary Science, University of Bristol states that 'An alternative design of grenade is used by the Japanese and historically the rate of immediate ‘stun’ in Japanese hunts has been substantially lower than the Norwegian hunts (Kestin 1999).  Although the Norwegian design of grenade has always outperformed that of the Japanese, the Japanese have been reluctant to switch because of the increase in cost (Anon 2003)'. Note: the cost of a Norwegian grenade is around $600.


The study was based on 69 Minke whales shot and killed by two Norwegian boats using penthrite grenade harpoons. In this sampling, 3 whales were harpooned twice and 3 whales suffered no internal detonation because one harpoon misfired and two harpoons passed through the bodies of the whales. Therefore the study results were based on 63 Minke whales.


Of the 63 whales shot, the figure below shows the impact sites that resulted in immediate immobilisation and impact sites that did not. From the concluding words of the study 'the question of whether an immediately immobile whale is stunned remains'.


Impact sites of 63 minke whales shot with grenade harpoons showing restricted target areas

Impact sites that resulted in immediate immobilisation are shown in red, impact sites that did not, are shown in blue. Large marks indicate a cluster of five impact sites and small marks, a single impact site.

The impact areas above are based on Norwegian gunners marksmanship whereas the marksmanship and methods of Japanese gunners is considerably less accurate.


The image below shows a typical 'impact' area, although the grenade has not exploded. Kristjan Loftsson, the multimillionaire owner of Iceland's Hvalur hf, examines the unexploded grenade and considers how best to deal with it.


Japanese grenades are less than 50% efficient, detonating inside the whales in only 1,310 of 2,758 animals hit in 1983/84. The fuses were developed for large whales, and most grenades which do not explode within the whale do so in the water after the harpoon has passed right through its body


For Japan’s 2001/2002 hunt in Antarctica, out of 440 whales, 55 were struck again with a harpoon and 301 shot by rifle (the average number of shots per whale was 2.2


It is likely that the inefficiency of the Japanese grenade is intentional in order to minimise damage to needed body parts and meat. A report entitled Japanese Whaling Strategies states "It appears that Japanese whalers use minimum amount of explosives in order to preserve as much whale meat as possible.*


An informative report entitled 'Hunted Dead or Alive' shows that Japanese harpoon gunners deliberately avoid the whale’s head in order not to damage the fragile “ear-plugs” which they collect as part of the study that supports their claim to be conducting ‘scientific whaling’. [note: Ear wax accumulates throughout the life of a whale and amongst other things, reveals the stress that it has encountered. A recent study reveals that during the whales' lifetime, they were particularly stressed by the activities of man.]


Dr Steve Kestin, of the department of clinical veterinary science at Bristol University has reported that there is evidence showing that nearly half the animals hit by Japanese whalers are struck in a region which would not lead to rapid death.


Secondary Killing Methods

If the first harpoon fails to immobilise the whale, then a second penthrite harpoon or rifle may be used as a secondary killing method. The common use of secondary methods reflects the inefficiency of current whale killing practices.


In their paper 'The Fallacy of Humane Killing', the Humane Society of the United States refers to the use of the electric lance: The Japanese have used this “secondary” method of killing after using an explosive harpoon on a whale. Because explosive harpoons damage much of the muscle (meat) in the area of impact, whalers are reluctant to use two grenades on one whale when death is not instantaneous. A whale who survives an explosive harpoon strike is dragged back to the ship and secured alongside it. An electric charge is then shot through the whale, which is supposed to induce instant death. However, the voltage of the electric charge is insufficient to cause immediate death (even when applied directly through the brain or heart) and merely adds to the whale’s torture and agony. The Japanese claim to have ceased use of the electric lance in response to concerns about humaneness, but without international observers, if and under what circumstances it continues to be used are impossible to verify


Because of its massive size and its complex vascular system, it can take a long time for a whale to die. It takes time for the brain to become depleted of oxygen or for the whale to bleed to death. As the whale thrashes around or tries to dive to evade the horror, some whaling fleets may use an old fashioned cold harpoon as a secondary weapon. These so called cold harpoons have been banned by the IWC since 1981 as they were deemed too cruel. These harpoons did not use explosives but just consisted of sharp barbs which dug in to the animal's body, this was particularly cruel as it took the whale approximately 5 to 8 excruciating hours to die.


Instant death is never guaranteed and an IWC report concluded that 2 out of every 16 whales die from asphyxiation. This happens when the whale is harpooned in the tail area. When it is hauled out of the water its head and blow hole are submerged and therefore the whale suffocates and drowns.


As it is very difficult to gauge whether a whale is dead or not due to the fact that they can store a vast amounts of oxygen in their internal organs, sometimes the whale is winched on to the factory boat still alive.


Approximately 60% of all females caught are pregnant, usually the baby or fetus will die shortly after the mother or else it will be brutally killed. All of the mentioned methods of capturing and killing run counter to the humane slaughter and animal welfare standards as laid down by the World Organization for Animal Health, which is an intergovernmental organisation responsible for improving animal health. Not only does it have 172 member nations but it is also recognised as a reference organisation by the World Trade Organization (WTO).


The slain carcasses of a minke whale and her calf are hauled aboard the Japanese harpoon ship Yushin Maru 2
Credit: Australian Customs Service

Minke whale and her calf are hauled aboard the Japanese harpoon ship Yushin Maru 2

'Struck & lost' whales

In addition to the captured whales, there are a significant number that are categorised as “struck and lost”; whales that have either been hit by a harpoon or shot but have managed to escape. These animals can incur a wide range of injuries, such as bleeding and damage to internal organs. They may be so badly injured that they may have difficulty in feeding or breeding, or may die from their wounds., but it may take days or even weeks for that to happen as they endure a slow agonising death. Whether caught or lost, the suffering is not only limited to the whale itself but the entire pod suffers emotionally and physically as these creatures are very social and have close relationships with one another.


Major welfare concerns

A stressful pursuit, prolonged times to death, and some animals being struck and lost, add up to a major welfare problem for whales, of which we may not yet know the full extent. The physiological adaptations of cetaceans to the marine environment have significant implications for their welfare. For example, adaptations for diving and going without oxygen intake for long periods, make it difficult to determine when the animal is dead. Whales may therefore survive and experience pain over a period significantly longer than suggested by the current IWC criteria for death in whales. This begs the question, are some whales still alive when hauled onto the whaling ship for flensing? This issue is further discussed in the WDC report Hunted Dead or 'Still' Alive..


During the 1999 IWC Workshop on Whale Killing Methods, one expert noted that ‘causing humane death without pain in meat animals usually includes the induction of instantaneous insensibility by stunning. Instantaneous in this context is embodied in European Union Legislation which requires a limit of about 100 milliseconds between stimulus (application of stunning device) and unconsciousness. The figure of 100 milliseconds is based on the pain perception delay of 100 to 150 milliseconds found in meat animals.’


Clearly, modern whaling techniques do not come close to delivering ‘death without pain, stress or distress’. All current whaling methods include a chase and, even in hunts where more powerful killing weapons are used, irreversible insensibility or instantaneous death – the key to a humane kill – is still not achieved in a significant number of cases.



Experts at a NAMMCO workshop raised concern that Japan still uses a non-exploding (‘cold’) harpoon – as a secondary killing method for coastal Minke whales and for sei whales if the first harpoon does not kill the whale.


 In 1981 the IWC banned the cold harpoon because, designed to secure and wound whales rather than kill them outright, it was just too cruel. However, cold harpoons were persistently used to hunt minke whales in Norway until 1984. It was the use of the cold harpoon during a Norway whaling probe that led to the creation of the Environmental Investigation Agency. This paper provides some background into the Norweigan minke whale killing methods.


The cold grenade harpoon has either an empty grenade casing or a simple iron pointed head. The use of non-explosive (cold) weapons prolong the whale’s agony, and hunters have to resort to other, more cumbersome methods to complete the kill.


Use of the cold harpoon is grossly inhumane but the benefit to the whaler is the cost saving in not using a grenade and the recovery of meat less damaged by blast and shrapnel. Also, the whale is caught - which would appear to be the only consideration. Whales harpooned this way do not die from the impact and penetration of the harpoon but will bleed to death in a slow and agonising way.


Norway have been reportedly used the cold harpoon as a primary killing means. It would appear that the Japanese whalers have also been using cold grenades as a primary means. In reality, these are not 'killing' means but brutal 'catching' means.


A paper entitled 'Why Japan Supports Whaling', shows that whales are usually considered a type of fish, rather than a mammal. This view is reflected and reinforced in Japan’s 1500-year-old writing system, in which the symbol for whale (pronounced kujira) includes within it a component that means fish (uo-hen).


Considering whales as fish, many Japanese lack any special love of whales and disagree with Western animal rights activists who insists on whales’ rights During an interview in 2001,


The paper also refers to the Japan Fisheries Agency chief Masayuki Komatsu referring to Minke whales as “cockroaches of the ocean, because there are too many ...”


It would appear that the Japanese whaling industry have no regard, empathy or humanity for whales which may suggest the use of the cold harpoon as a primary killing method, as has already been demonstrated by Norwegian whale hunters.


Bloody business

In an article for 'Outsidemag', Philip Armour writes, "When I decide to try and get on a Norwegian whaleboat, I had no illusions about solving the whaling issue. I just wanted to understand it better, by meeting the whalers and getting a clear look at what they do and how they justify it." You can read the article about his time aboard the whaleboat Sofie here