Land-based extraction of whale blubber
By Kristin Prestvold
At the beginning of June, the ships arrive in the fjord. The goal of the long journey from home in Europe has been reached. There is little ice in the fjord this year, so it does not take long for the ships to anchor in the fjord off the whaling station. While commands are being shouted, and other noise is buzzing, the small boats – the sloops – are being lowered into the water. Equipment is loaded onto them and rowed ashore. Each member of the crew has his own tasks to perform, and before long they have started repairing the damage the winter has done. Everyone is busy. Copper vessels, used for rendering oil from the whale blubber, are placed on the blubber ovens. People keep a look-out to spot whales on their way into the fjord. Everyone is preparing for the whaling, which is about to start.
In the beginning, the shore stations were only temporary, with simple and provisional blubber ovens on the beach. The work was carried out under the stars and the crew lived in simple shelters. Eventually solid residences, storage spaces, workshops and brick tryworks for rendering oil were built in places where whaling was consistently good, and these were used again and again for many years.
Several small boats took part in each hunt, harpooning the whale in turn each time it returned to the surface to breathe. In the end the whale was exhausted from loss of blood and the weight of all the boats. The whalers could then approach the whale, which was finally dispatched with lances. It was then towed ashore or to the side of the ship, where flensing knives were used to remove long rashers of blubber from the whale’s body. Once ashore, the rashers were cut into small pieces on benches specially designed for the purpose. The pieces were boiled in copper vessels on the blubber ovens and rendered into oil. The oil was cooled down and purified using large coolers filled with water. Barrels of finished oil were stored on the ship until tend of the season, when the ship returned home.
In the middle of the 1600s a long cold snap covered the fjords ice for lengthy periods, even during the summer. Bowhead whales disappeared from of the fjords, moving to the open sea by the edge of the drift ice. Whaling could no longer happen from the shore, and gradually the whaling stations were abandoned. A new whaling period began, one based on whaling in the sea and on the ice.
In August, the whalers packed all their equipment and tools, set sail and journeyed homewards, as they had done at the end of the season for many years. The whaling station was left in the hands of the winter storms, like so many years before. The following year the whalers did not return, and the station was left to itself ever since. The oil cookeries and the houses decayed and eventually became ruins, remains of busy work over so many years of short, but active summer months. Nature reclaims the land, and the traces of the people who caught whales and rendered oil from the blubber are fading and are becoming more difficult to see. But if you put your ear to the wind and listen, you may be able to hear the faint sounds of hammers against copper vessels, banging from the coopers’ workshop, squeaking from the ropes that tied the ships to the harbour, and the distant voices and laughter of the workers, bent over the blubber ovens when the oil was boiling. You may also hear the faint sound of a cry alerting everyone that a whale is on its way into the fjord.
Published December 2008
Norwegian Polar Institute