Endangered Species Handbook

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Pirate Whaling

      A young female Blue Whale was harpooned off the Peruvian coast in 1978, more than a decade after their killing was made illegal.  As described by Craig Van Note in his expose, Outlaw Whalers

A 150-lb. harpoon had been fired into the side of the whale . . . after penetrating three feet, a massive grenade at the tip of the harpoon exploded, tearing the whale's internal organs to a bloody pulp with jagged, fist-sized metal fragments.  In her agony, the . . . whale tore at the heavy barbs that had expanded from the sides of the harpoon.  Wrenching her 75-ton body, she pulled free from the harpoon and heavy rope that ran back to the catcher boat. With a gaping wound in her side, the whale dove deep to successfully escape her pursuers.  But the terrible wound caused massive hemorrhaging and each succeeding day the whale grew weaker.  Finally she could not hold herself up to the surface to breathe.  So she swam ashore through the surf, sliding to a halt on the coarse sand at Conchan.  There Peruvian conservationists gathered to witness the final hours of life of the blue whale.  She lay on her side, with the harpoon-wound facing shore, gasping for breath" (Van Note 1979).  The late Felipe Benavides, a Peruvian conservationist who fought to drive the foreign whalers from Peru's shores for 30 years said, 'This young whale was one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen. Watching her die was one of the saddest experiences of my life' (Van Note 1979).

     In The Blue Whale, which won the National Book Award, George Small (1971) described case after case of illegal whaling.  The Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, one of the world's wealthiest individuals, wantonly killed thousands of critically endangered whales.  In the 1950s, a whaling fleet owned by Onassis illegally slaughtered numerous female Blue Whales as well as their nursing young.  Its factory ship, the Olympic Challenger, registered in Panama, became a notorious pirate whaler; seven German citizens who served on this ship signed affidavits at the Norwegian Consulate in Hamburg in 1956, testifying that they had witnessed innumerable illegal whaling practices and had photographic evidence of whale carcasses and ship's logs (Small 1971).  Among the infractions of the Olympic Challenger in 1954 was the slaughter of 285 Blue Whales, 169 Fin Whales, 105 Humpbacks, 4,648 Sperm Whales, and 21 Sei Whales.  The ship declared a catch of only 2,348 Sperm Whales.  Of the Blue Whales killed, many were young:  35 were 59 feet or less in length and two were less than 49 feet (Small 1971).  IWC rules at that time prohibited all factory ship whaling of baleen whales between the Antarctic and the Equator (Small 1971).  Onassis' ships shot baby Sperm Whales before they even had teeth; some were only 5 meters long and must have been newborn calves (Small 1971).  On occasion, four young whales at a time were hauled on board by winch; often a whale was so small that it was only necessary to remove the harpoon and entrails before the carcass was dropped whole into the cookers (Small 1971).  The entrails of baby whales jettisoned by the Olympic Challenger floated for some time, providing evidence of its illegal whaling (Small 1971).  After many protests were lodged, Onassis made a payment of $3 million to a special fund, which was taken as an admission of guilt (Small 1971).
     In 1994, records from Soviet whalers were uncovered, documenting the illegal killing of hundreds of Blue Whales for decades, beginning in the 1950s and continuing long after they had been officially protected.  These whales, under the direction of the KGB, developed sophisticated methods of preventing detection.  The decks were surrounded in steam, hiding the carcasses of protected species, including highly endangered Right Whales.  Several hundred of these whales were killed in the Okhotsk Sea in the 1960s, and more in the South Atlantic (AWI 1994).  The Soviets’ radio communications were coded, and messages such as "Sink the prohibited whales" were sent when aircraft appeared overhead.  Professor Alexey V. Yablokov, a member of the Animal Welfare Institute's Scientific Committee, examined these records, which revealed this shocking flouting of whaling bans.  Yablokov studied cetacean morphology during the 1950s and 1960s and received many specimens from Humpback and Right Whales that had been killed illegally (AWI 1994). 

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