Whaling Vessels

For centuries whaling was carried out with men using harpoons and small rowing boats but prior to the 1900's there was some steam whale catchers operating from Norway in Northern latitudes. Around the early 1890's two expeditions set out for the Antarctic one led by the Norwegian vessels the Jason which was captained by C.A.Larsen (who later became the founding entrepreneur in Antarctic whaling) With the other expedition leaving on the Balaena from Dundee, both of these vessels utilised small rowing boats to catch the whales.

However from 1904 whaling started in earnest in the southern latitudes with the establishment of whaling stations in South Georgia. The first whale catcher to operate from South Georgia was named The Fortuna, was operated by Company De Pesca from Grytviken, this was a comparatively small vessel, at approximately 180-200 tons compared to some of the later whale catchers which weighed in excess of 500 tons. Other whaling stations, Leith, Stromness and Husvik opened but Christian Salvesen which ultimately became the biggest whaling company in the world operated from Leith Harbour. The whaling was carried out just offshore of South Georgia because the abundance of whales within a few miles of the stations.

After the First World War this abundance of whales were greatly depleted hence the introduction of pelagic whaling. Unfortunately this lead to a tremendous reduction of the whale stocks. From the 1920's there was a huge increase in the specialised equipment fitted to the whaling vessels to enable them to process the whales much quicker. The very earliest whale factory ships flensed the whales along side the vessel so thereby had to seek calm anchorages to operate. However with the advent of slipways this enabled the whale to be brought on board the factory ship which could then operate in open seas putting further strains on the whale stocks. These factory ships were not purpose built and were often converted from originally passenger ships. From the 1930's purpose built ships with stern slipways were operated by Norway, UK and Holland to name but a few. With the invention of the stern slipway a giant claw mechanism was also invented this enabled whales to be pulled safely onboard the factory ship. Once the whale had been pulled aboard the after plan (deck) was designed to remove only the Speck (blubber) the remainder of the carcass was pulled onto the fore plan (deck) for final dismemberment.

The factory ships were supported by approximately 10-14 whale catcher vessels, these again after the first World War were purpose built, mostly by Smiths Dock Company of Middlesborogh. Some were also built in Framnes at Sandfjord, Norway and in Tonsberg by Kaldnes Ship Yards. These vessels were very distinctive with a high flared bow which housed the harpoon gun with a gangway from the bow to the bridge enabling the gunner to get to the gun very quickly to shoot the whale. The foremast had two operations it housed a barrel at the top where the seamen could guide the helmsman in the direction of the whale and also direct the gunner letting him know when the whale was about to surface.

The other operation that was carried out by the foremast was to support upper and lower blocks which the whaleline (foregoer) was carried through the lower block. The upper block was fastened to a steel cable which was carried down into the hold and fixed to accumulator springs which took the tension exerted by the whale pulling on the line (not dissimilar to an angler using a fishing rod to play a fish but the mast did not bend the accumulator springs took all the weight, the mast merely supported these two blocks) The whale line was carried from the lower block to the footblock under the gun platform and the brille (pulleys on the bow of the catcher) the other end of the whaleline was attached to a specialised winch which was operated by an engineer and he played the whale just as an angler would by watching the position of the lower block on the mast.

Most of the whale catchers were equipped with triple expansion steam engines that were oil fired, which were extremely quiet in operation thereby not alarming the whale. To enable the whale catchers and the factory ships to stay at sea for a prolonged period of time, approximately 4-5 months, a tanker ship would bring in fuel oil for the whaling vessels and take off the whale oil and by products for shipping to the UK. The tanker ship would also bring in provisions for the factory ship to dispense to the whale catcher vessels and most importantly mail for the crews.

Home Page The First Whale Catcher To Operate From South Georgia "The Fortuna" Factory Ship Souther Venturer, Factory Ship