Whaling at sea and on the ice

“But, should difficulties and hard work harm the body, and that having often seen danger and having often avoided it gives courage, then there is no question that whaling becomes the school, where sea heroes are made.” (Pontoppidan, 1785)

From the middle of the 1600s the whale began to leave the fjords and the waters close to Svalbard. Whaling became concentrated to whaling ships at sea, and by the edge of the drift ice.

This change required adjustments to be made to the equipment, boats and crew. The whaling method remained the same as it had been during land-based whaling, but the whale was now caught on the open sea, and flensed at the side of the ship. The blubber was either boiled to make oil on board the ship, or put in barrels and rendered on the ship’s return home. Since there was no longer a need for specialized crew on land, the crews on the ships were halved.

Whaling really took off in this period, taking place in large parts of the Arctic Ocean, and ships from most seafaring nations in Europe became involved. Bthe end of the 1600s it is believed that between 2000 and 3000 ships were whaling each summer around the ice by Greenland. The ice floes soon became stinking places of slaughter, where rotting corpses slowly decayed. The population of bowhead whales eventually collapsed. The slow ways of this whale led to its near extinction from the waters around Svalbard. Even today, to spot a bowhead whale around Svalbard is a rarity.

Svalbard lost its importance as a territory. There was no longer any competition to claim the best harbours, and the question of monopoly and privileges had lost its signficance. The old land stations were abandoned and began to decay. The blubber ovens were demolished, useful equipment was brought home and the tools were taken away. The land now acted as an emergency harbour, a place for the whaling ships to gather upon arrival and before starting the journey home, and as a cemetery. Graves of men who lost their lives here during the whaling in the 1600s and 1700s can be found in many places in Svalbard. The drift ice edge was – and remains – dangerous waters and the weather conditions were extreme, making whaling a risky business. Many more ships sank during this period when whaling took place on the open sea and near the ice edge than when the whaling was land-based.

«Wij bidde goede godt om een behouden reis
en een goe walvisvangst als wij komen in `ijs.
Wilt dan ons schip en volk door uwe hant beware
opdat wij o Heer behouden mooge vare».

We pray the good God for a safe journey
and a good whale catch when we’ve come into the ice.
Would then our ship and people protect through your hand
So we o Lord may sail safe.

 From the journal of the Weltevreede, 1777 (archives of the Svalbard Museum).


Updated June 2015

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