norwegian whaling
END OF THE LINE: A dead minke whale on Sofie's deck, May 2005. (Philip Armour)

Bloody Business

Norwegian fishermen call it an honest day's work. Greenpeace calls it a violent crime. The issue is the annual hunt for North Atlantic minke whales, a plentiful species that, every spring, gets harpooned by the hundreds and then sold in Norway's seafood aisles. Who's right? As PHILIP ARMOUR learns during a voyage aboard the whaleboat Sofie, the truth isn

norwegian whaling

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As the whale is slowly winched on board by its tail, The creature’s own tremendous weight squeezes out the last spasms of life. blood spurts from its blowhole; a semicircle of bright red radiates away from the boat’s hull, contrasting with the black surface of the Barents Sea. The winch motor whines as the four-ton mammal slides into place, ready for butchering.

norwegian whaling

norwegian whaling Map by Dave Stevenson

norwegian whaling

norwegian whaling THE BOSS: Captain Leif Einar Karlsen.

norwegian whaling

norwegian whaling THE DECKHAND: John Sommerseth.

norwegian whaling

norwegian whaling THE HARPOONER: Tor Raymond Skarheim.

norwegian whaling

norwegian whaling THE COOK: Odd Olsen.

norwegian whaling

norwegian whaling BIG HAUL: A minke gets dragged aboard Sofie.

norwegian whaling

norwegian whaling SHIP IT: Final processing inside the Skrova factory.

It’s 4:30 a.m. and we’re floating just off the northern coast of Norway, not far from the port of Båtsfjord. This is our first kill after 12 days of hunting and waiting. At this time of year—early May—the sun barely dips below the horizon at night, and right now it’s piercing the freezing air with warm beams of sunshine.

The five Norwegian crewmen, dwarfed by the enormous minke whale, start knifing its five-inch-thick blubber into three-foot squares. During whaling’s 19th-century heyday, blubber was the much-prized source of whale oil, used as fuel for lamps and candles and later as an industrial lubricant. In modern Norway, consumers covet whale meat as a dinnertime delicacy, but, unlike their counterparts in places like Japan and Greenland, they won’t eat blubber, so it gets thrown overboard. There’s a terrible ripping sound as the men peel it back; pieces hit the water with loud slaps. Soon, gulls swarm our 56-foot fishing boat, Sofie, to fight over the floating fat.

The crew methodically hacks 150-pound chunks of steaks off the whale’s back, stomach, and tail. Gallons of blood slicken the deck, and the men struggle to keep their footing. It takes two of them—wielding sharp, three-pronged hooks—to move the chunks, and it’s a miracle no one gets impaled. Captain Leif Einar Karlsen, balding and comfortably overweight at 43, nimbly hops around as he writes down the whale’s size, weight, and sex for the edification of Norwegian scientists. While I watch, one of the crewmen—a wiry 48-year-old named Kjell Edvardsen—sees my blank stare and puts a bloody knife in his mouth. He gives off a pirate’s snarl and, with a chuckle, digs back in.

It takes the men less than an hour to transform the 8,000-pound minke into a bony carcass and ice down the beet-red piles of flesh, worth about $40,000 in grocery stores. Job completed, they untie the 4,000-pound carcass and let it slide over the edge. It sinks like an anchor.

“Take care,” Karlsen says. “Thanks for the meat.” Then he closes the railing door and turns his back on the ocean.

THE UNITED STATES WAS ONCE a major whaling nation, but its involvement ended in 1972, when the last U.S. whale-processing station closed in Richmond, California. A decreasing demand for whale oil, the dwindling supply of whales brought on by overharvesting, and a vocal environmental movement put a stop to an industry that had thrived in America since colonial times. That same year, the United Nations passed a resolution calling for a halt to all whaling, and President Richard Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, banning commercial whaling in U.S. waters.

Worldwide, whaling is an ancient, widespread practice, with indigenous populations from Indonesia to Siberia taking part. Though the U.S. government opposes commercial whaling, it still allows Alaskan tribes to kill dozens of bowhead whales annually—even though bowheads are an endangered species.

These days, most Americans don’t approve of whaling in any form, though their reasons are often based more on emotion than facts. Richard Ellis, a 68-year-old research associate with the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, and author of Men and Whales, a sweeping 1991 history of whaling, says nations like Norway probably have a point when they argue that, for certain species such as the minke—which was rarely hunted for oil, because of its smaller size—numbers are healthy enough to sustain managed hunts.

But he’s against killing whales anyway, in part because he doesn’t think we know enough about the balance of ocean systems to be sure any species is numerous enough to be hunted. In part, though, it’s a gut feeling. “You’ll never convince Norwegians not to hunt whales, and that’s not the end of the world,” he says. “But I just don’t think they ought to be killed.”

To Norwegians, whaling is utterly normal. People in Norway’s coastal communities started killing them during the Stone Age, and today many of the nation’s two million households still enjoy this $10-a-pound meat on special occasions. Currently, Norwegian fishermen restrict themselves to one relatively plentiful species: the North Atlantic minke whale, Balaenoptera acutorostrata.

Called våehval (“bay whale”) in Norwegian, minkes are handsome mammals—shiny black on top, snow white on the underside—that can live for 50 years. They’re baleen whales, meaning they feed by pushing huge gulps of water through anatomical sifters that capture krill and fish. They winter in tropical southern latitudes, but no one knows where exactly. Come spring, they migrate north along Norway’s coast to gorge in its Arctic waters. Greenpeace, which strongly opposes Norway’s whale hunt, estimates there are approximately 67,000 minkes in the North Atlantic. (No one knows the total, but there are many more minkes in the Southern Ocean waters circling Antarctica.) Norway’s approximately 150 whalers, who catch cod and other fish the rest of the year, killed a total of 639 minkes during the 2005 season, which ran from April to October.

Though Norwegian whaling is carefully controlled, it wasn’t always so. In the 19th and 20th centuries, industrial nations like Norway, the U.S., Russia, and Japan took several species to the brink of extinction. An estimated five to ten million whales swam in the world’s oceans before hunting went big time, starting in the 1860s. The industry eventually decimated stocks to a few hundred thousand and almost wiped out entire species, such as the blue, humpback, and right whale. Of the world’s 37 or so species, nine are still endangered, and it remains unclear whether the blue whale—at up to 150 tons the largest creature that’s ever lived—will ever rebound.

In 1982, a worldwide moratorium on whaling was decreed by the Cambridge-based International Whaling Commission (IWC), a governing body created in 1946 to set policies that were designed to conserve falling stocks while hunting continued. Norway, Japan, Iceland, and various native groups in Alaska, Siberia, Greenland, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific still kill whales. Many governments and private environmental groups—most notably Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society—want the big industrial nations to stop.

But the 66-nation IWC lacks an enforcement arm, which sets the stage for the intractable disputes we see today. As a result, the IWC, which will hold its 58th annual meeting from May 23 to June 20 in St. Kitts and Nevis, West Indies, has essentially been reduced to managing a stalemate.

Norway says its hunts are perfectly legal. It was one of four countries from the IWC charter group of 16 nations that didn’t endorse the ’82 moratorium. By 1992, when Norway resumed whaling after a one-year hiatus, the country had long since scaled back its industrial whale slaughter and was killing only a small number of minkes every year. The Norwegian government introduced a new system of quotas, and whaling was reborn as a supplemental income source for the fishing fleet.

Japan later signed on to the IWC moratorium but has continued killing whales—the country will take approximately 850 minke and ten fin whales in 2006—under the pretense that the animals are being collected for scientific research. Meanwhile, whale meat and blubber can still be found in Japanese markets.

Iceland resumed whaling in 2003 as well. But whereas Norway and Iceland hunt within their own borders, Japanese whalers still work in international waters, and that means its six-vessel “research” fleet is subject to serious high-seas interference. Last December and January, boats from Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd caused weeks of mayhem for the Japanese fleet in the Southern Ocean, with Greenpeace members acting as human shields trying to thwart the whalers and Sea Shepherd’s captain, Paul Watson, using his ship Farley Mowat as a floating weapon to sideswipe the hulls of Japanese boats.

Norway has weathered spirited protests over the years but draws less attention by hunting close to home. Government officials and whalers there, however, make it clear they’ll do what they want. The High North Alliance, an advocacy group based in Norway’s Lofoten Islands, publishes a newsletter, The High North News, that mocks the Western world’s supposed hypocrisy about whales and proclaims Norway’s hunt to be the best example going of “conservation in action.”

Currently, both the Norwegians and Japanese seem determined to increase their kills. Norway is raising its minke whale take to 1,052 animals this year and will allow the fleet to hunt in international waters. When asked if Norwegian whalers would like to start taking larger species, Rune Frøvik, the director of the High North Alliance, told me, “They’re definitely interested in that.”

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.

To the whalers, I was nothing but a burden: They have no need to open up to foreign journalists. But I speak Swedish, which Norwegians easily understand, and after a long process of discussing my motives and ironing out the logistics, they finally agreed to let me ride along, telling me where I had to be, and when, to catch up with Sofie.

From Stockholm, where I was living at the time, it takes two flights to get to Tromsø, a bustling city on Norway’s northwestern coast. I arrive on April 29. Spring has made it to southern Sweden but not here: Snow still covers the hills, and the scrawny vegetation is naked and brown.

Most whaling boats heading north pass through Tromsø, including Sofie. Using my cell phone to coordinate with Captain Karlsen, I meet him in a pizza place by the town’s quaint harbor. Norwegians are guarded at first, and Karlsen is no exception. He’s friendly enough, but sees little need for small talk. “OK, grab your stuff,” he says after a quick handshake. “We’ll join the others.”

Around the corner we find two more crew members, John Sommerseth, a massively potbellied and redheaded 39-year-old, and Kjell Edvardsen. Hellos all around. Silence.

Odd Olsen, 37, the boat’s pudgy, jovial cook, joins us a few minutes later, along with Sofie‘s co-owner and harpooner, Tor Raymond Skarheim, 39. Skarheim’s left eye was jabbed in a childhood archery accident, leaving it locked in a perpetual squint. Though Skarheim turns out to be a willing conversationalist, the effect is a look of guarded suspicion.

The men head toward the docks, shuffling along in their clogs as I lug my bags a few steps behind. We shove off the instant my gear hits the deck. The crew has been motoring north nonstop for the past 20 hours from their home port in the Lofotens—a mountainous island group about 170 miles to the southwest that’s surrounded by some of the world’s richest cod waters—but time is precious, so they have to keep moving. Karlsen pokes his head out the window, throttles the engines, and slips Sofie into a long blue-water channel, pointing north.

Sofie was built in Hardanger, Norway, in 1940 and has been in constant use ever since. She carries 898 gallons of diesel and a six-cylinder, 550-horsepower Volvo Penta engine that burns about six gallons an hour, giving her a range of 1,150 miles. Five different captains have piloted Sofie to go after cod, herring, haddock, coalfish, and, since 1996, minke whales. Tall in the bow, low in the stern, and wide at the beam, she’s a classic Scandinavian fishing vessel, ideal for absorbing rough seas.

A steel-reinforced second deck level was added in ’96. Essentially a platform that raises and extends the bow—with a narrow walkway connecting to the bridge—this upper deck serves as a mount for the whalers’ harpoon cannon. Inside, the electronic equipment (sonar, GPS, autopilot) is state-of-the-art. For entertainment, there’s a television and a DVD player in the forward cabin, along with a kitchen stereo that warbles a steady rotation of Shania Twain, Delbert McClinton, and A-ha.

The vessel is worth around $240,000, but co-owners Karlsen and Skarheim could get $500,000 just by selling their commercial fishing licenses. Whale-hunting licenses, although granted at no cost by the Norwegian government, are nontransferable. To keep them, Karlsen and Skarheim must undergo yearly tests of their harpoon-cannon marksmanship, while Sofie has to pass annual inspections. The crew are all year-round fishermen, and to a man they’re unsentimental about minke whales.

“There’s no difference between a whale and a moose,” Skarheim tells me one afternoon. He knows all about the widespread disdain for his vocation and isn’t fazed. “We’re fishermen—that’s what we do,” he says. “Besides, what’s a better use of fossil fuels: car racing or providing food for people?”

Shortly after launch, I take in the view on the second level. Our course to sea follows a stunning waterway that winds between the Norwegian mainland and its coastal islands. Glaciers, steep chutes, and wide bowls drop to the ocean all around us. It’s like floating through a flooded ski resort.

Before long, Skarheim joins me. He’s carrying a soot-blackened broom handle and stops to ask if I get seasick.

“Not really,” I respond.

“Hmmm. Do you have seasick pills?” he asks, sizing me up with his one good eye.


“Good. Take them.”

Then he wraps the broom handle with a filthy rag and shoves the makeshift Q-tip into the cannon barrel to clean it. Next, he front-loads the barrel with an explosive charge, which he gently tamps down. From an ammo box at his feet, he grabs a grenade and screws it onto an odd-looking shaft made of two parallel bars and two folding barbs. The assembled harpoon weighs 40 pounds; Skarheim uses both arms to lift the four-foot projectile and slide it into the cannon. The shaft’s parallel bars allow for a stout rope to slide up and down the harpoon’s length and rest neatly outside the cannon’s mouth. The coiled rope is gathered in a basket in front of the cannon, then extends back to a heavy winch.

Skarheim finishes loading in two minutes. Sofie is now armed and ready to hunt.

OUR DAILY ROUTINE IS DETERMINDED by weather. When it’s stormy or windy, we hunker down in port. When it’s calm, we go out, day or night, always hunting close to shore. Once we hit promising waters, three crew members take a position: Karlsen steers from the flying bridge while two more men sit in the crow’s nest atop the 30-foot mast.

With the windchill regularly dipping into the single digits, each man swaddles himself in fluffy coveralls, insulated boots, mittens, and thick hats with earflaps. Like members of any expedition, they develop their own lingo. Before I flew out from Sweden, Sommerseth asked me to bring a few tins of dipping tobacco, which is three times cheaper there than in Norway. When I rib him about this expensive and nasty habit, he shrugs and says, “It costs a lot to be a man.” That becomes the trip’s version of “Put up or shut up,” and the guys start mumbling it before heading out into the frigid air.

On a typical day, we troll in a grid about a half-mile from shore, with Karlsen moving Sofie slowly to avoid speeding past any feeding minkes. “What should I look for?” I ask the first time I stand beside him on the flying bridge.

“Whale,” he says. Touché.

Minkes surface for only about three seconds every five to ten minutes to grab a quick breath. If the seas are calm, spotting a dorsal fin isn’t difficult. But crews usually have to hunt in choppier waters, where seeing the prey requires a trained eye.

Forty feet above the water, the crow’s nest swings wildly through the air, but the perspective is superior. Typically, the guys up top are the first to shout “Whale!” When that happens, they trip an alarm, a weird clanking noise that resonates throughout the boat.

Anytime a whale is sighted, the harpooner mans the cannon, while the captain steers to where he expects the creature to resurface. Constantly feeding, minkes like to weave around and double back. But as I’ll see, Karlsen always seems to guess correctly about where they’ll emerge, and when he does, it’s game over. Of the six minkes we would pursue while I was on board, only one would safely slip back into the ocean.

The green-painted cannon gives Sofie a menacing look. Its base, a wide tripod of steel tubing, supports a four-foot-long cast-iron barrel that swivels freely in all directions. The firing mechanism is shaped like a big pistol handle, and a spotting scope runs the length of the tapered barrel. The grenades are specially designed explosives that cost $600 each. The boat carries 18 of them—about $11,000 worth.

The grenade’s tip features a strange-looking feature that is meant to help the harpoon stay its course while moving through water. It’s round, with a concave nose and sharp, toothy edges. This scooped-tip shape chews into the whale’s skin on impact and makes the harpoon plunge in deeper. At the grenade’s base, where it attaches to the harpoon, it’s mounted with a hook that sets in the blubber as it enters the whale. A cord from the hook pulls tight and detonates the grenade’s penthrite explosive once it gets two feet in, obliterating up to 70 pounds of flesh or vital organs.

Shooting these rounds at moving targets involves a lot of pressure to aim true, so the boat’s owners almost always shoulder the responsibility. “When I hit a whale, we all hit it,” Skarheim tells me solemnly. “When I miss, it’s only me that missed.”

NORWEGIANS WILL TELL you that whaling is a deep-rooted folk tradition for them, but they don’t always mention the industrial brutalities of the past. In the early days of whaling, strong-armed men threw harpoons at whales from small boats, a hunting style that gave whales a fighting chance. But around 1865, Norwegian whaler Svend Foyn changed everything by inventing the cannon-fired grenade harpoon, which allowed whalers to fire from ships, removing most of the risk and dramatically increasing kills.

Foyn’s cannon ushered in whaling’s bloodiest period, from the 1880s to the 1960s. According to official records from Norway, in 1930 and ’31 alone, Norwegian whalers accounted for 60 percent of all whales killed—25,952 marine mammals, including blues, fins, sperm whales, and humpbacks. Whaling remained a pillar of the Norwegian economy into the fifties, but after whalers decimated the largest species, the industry retooled.

Over the next 20 years, Norway docked its fleet of factory ships but continued hunting for meat in coastal waters. Today, Norway has 12,677 fishermen on 8,000 boats, but only about 30 to 35 of these craft pursue minkes. The numbers vary over time, but in 2005 the largest boats were allowed to take 26 whales each per season. The smallest, like Sofie, got 15. Sofie‘s crew met its 2005 quota in seven weeks, piling up 46,226 pounds of meat, worth nearly $100,000 on the wholesale market. The crewmen divide the net profits equally—about $9,000 per man.

These numbers aren’t large, and whaling is only a small part of Norway’s commerce. Halvard P. Johansen, an Oslo-based official with Norway’s Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, says oil and natural gas are the strongest sectors of the economy, providing 19.6 percent of the GNP. Fishing makes up 0.37 percent, and whaling just 0.002 percent.

Even so, whaling is a big part of Norwegian fishing, it has universal backing in the national government, and it is overwhelmingly supported by citizens.

After my two weeks aboard Sofie, I would speak with Jann Engstad, a 50-year-old sea-kayaking guide from the Lofoten Islands hamlet of Kabelvåg. Engstad is an ardent environmentalist, but he’s in favor of the minke hunt. He points out that, in Norway’s far north, you’ve got to eat what’s available.

“Since I’m not a millionaire, I can’t afford being a vegetarian during our winter and spring,” he says. “I have 33 pounds of top-quality whale meat in my freezer—along with 66 pounds of local carrots—stored for the coming winter.” Engstad says his relatives in Oslo have just one complaint about whaling: There isn’t enough meat in stores, and it’s too expensive.

SOFIE‘S HUNT STARTS SLOWLY, thanks to relentless bad weather. We spend 12 days in the harbors of two villages—Honningsvåg and Mehamn—waiting for attacking northern winds to calm down. Bordered by acres of cod drying on tall wooden racks, these towns reek of fish and boredom.

The whalers are a strange combination of blue-collar and genteel. No one says hello when you cross paths; no one excuses himself for farting; and calendars starring the busty ladies of Lorentzen Hydraulics decorate the boat’s interior.

But their European manners also come through. The men keep the kitchen spotless, have a touching habit of calling Captain Karlsen far (“father”), and fuss over creature comforts like hand-rolled cigarettes and personalized coffee mugs.

One afternoon, docked in Honningsvåg, I come across Olsen and Karlsen engrossed in making a cake. They’ve built up delicate layers covered with berries and cream, garnishing their masterpiece with grated chocolate. “I guess you’ll be doing this every day from now on,” I say. “Because once you spoil us, we’ll expect nothing less.”

“In that case, you won’t be getting any,” Olsen retorts.

The men aren’t above the occasional prank, including one I should’ve seen coming. One afternoon, Olsen serves us baked cuts of meat that I assume are beef. Not until I’ve wolfed down two helpings does he ask me how I like the taste of minke whale.

Everyone pauses to listen, so I choose my words carefully.

“Flavorful,” I say. “Juicy.”

The truth is, I didn’t want to like the taste of whale and wasn’t sure I’d try it if they offered, but it’s not bad. It’s lean like veal and has a rich, gamy taste.

Pleased by my assessment, the men tick off their favorite recipes, sounding like Bubba from Forrest Gump touting the joys of cooked shrimp: fried whale, baked whale, barbecued whale . . .

Overall, though, there isn’t much levity with this group. They answer my questions in a curt amalgam of Swedish, Norwegian, and English, and they’re not shy about telling me to shut up. “You’re too little to know everything and too big to know nothing,” Skarheim says one day when I ask him to explain a minor detail.

To pass the time when we’re docked, I spend hours lying around reading Moby Dick, a novel Skarheim obviously doesn’t care for. “That book is totally inaccurate,” he protests one afternoon before pulling out a photo album. “This is what whaling is really like.”

His album, filled with color shots of whale butchering, makes Herman Melville’s gruesome descriptions seem quaint—and Skarheim realizes he’s sending the wrong message. “Don’t photograph too much blood,” he tells me. “Believe me, there’s a reason you never see pictures from slaughterhouses. Those places would make anyone sick, but people still want their bacon.”

I’d feel blessed if gory pictures were my only problem: Aboard Sofie, I suffer terrible bouts of seasickness. On our first overnight transit, six-foot seas pitch us at a rate of 1,200 jarring slams an hour, and Sofie keels so badly that I have to prop one foot against a wall to stay vertical.

“Did you take your pills?” Skarheim asks when I climb to the bridge.



Actually, not so good. Earlier, I ate some dried cod and chased it with chocolate. The pills are acting like a cork, keeping me from throwing up this horrible mix. Skarheim razzes me, saying the seas we’re in are nothing but “little bubbles.”

“So where are we going?” I ask weakly.

“There are two rules on a boat,” he says. “First, the captain makes all the decisions. Second, the captain makes mistakes, but he still makes all the decisions. And I’m not the captain.”

“We’re still going north, right?”


BOTH THE WHALERS and their foes seem to agree there’s a sizable population of minkes, so for that species at least, the old extinction-via-harpoon arguments aren’t compelling anymore. And both sides know that whaling is not the world’s main killer of cetaceans. The fishing industry is. In 2003, Duke University Marine Laboratory and the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, co-released a study that estimated that 308,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises drown each year when they get caught on the fishing industry’s dragnets and longlines.

These days, Greenpeace is more likely to focus on whaling’s bottom line—arguing that, since it’s relatively puny compared with revenues from whale watching, whale killing doesn’t make economic sense. “People resonate most with the idea that whales should be protected because they’re sensitive, awe-inspiring, and intelligent,” says John Hocevar, 37, the Austin, Texas–based oceans specialist for Greenpeace. “But when it comes to legislating, that argument has the least traction. It all has to be about numbers.”

Greenpeace cites a 2001 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts–based animal-advocacy group, which estimates that nine million people go on whale-watching tours every year in 87 countries, generating $1 billion. Whaling, by contrast, generates roughly $4.1 million a year for Norwegian fishermen.

The number crunching doesn’t mean Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd have become nothing more than accountants: Their opposition is still driven by a strong conviction that whales have an inherent right to swim free. In January, via satellite phone, I would talk to activists aboard the Greenpeace ship Esperanza and the Sea Shepherd ship Farley Mowat during their clashes with the Japanese whaling fleet. Nathan Santry, 37, is one of 32 Greenpeace crew members who put his life on the line for whales—his job was to drive a small jet boat, and himself, between Antarctic minke whales and Japanese harpoon cannons. “Whales are a metaphor for the ocean,” he says. “If you kill them, you’re killing the ocean. There’s just no logical justification, economic or otherwise, for whaling.”

Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, 55—who in 1992 sabotaged a whaleboat docked in the Lofoten Islands—uses similar rhetoric. “To me, intelligence is the ability to live in harmony with nature and to survive within the ecosystem,” he says. “Whales do this, but we are fouling our own nest. Who’s more intelligent?”

Such arguments don’t sway the Norwegians, and two can play the numbers game. Alan Macnow, a New York–based public-relations specialist who works for Japanese whalers, likes to frame the issue in terms of protecting the planet’s depleted fisheries. “The world’s whale species eat three to five times as much fish each year as all of the world’s fisheries catches combined,” he says. “Whale populations need to be managed in order to protect fish resources.”

Greenpeace calls that argument nonsense, but it’s a powerful propaganda tool in the whaling lobby’s ongoing attempt to overturn the IWC moratorium. For years, Japan has been accused of trying to sway smaller IWC members—like Nauru, a tiny nation-state in the South Pacific—into siding with it by paying their IWC membership fees and extending favorable trade arrangements. Whatever its motives, Nauru sides with Japan, claiming that whales threaten the country’s fish stocks. At the 2005 IWC meeting, Nauru voted in favor of Japan’s “schedule amendment” for accelerating the implementation of a “revised management scheme”—a far-reaching overhaul of everything from quotas to membership rules that, if passed, would essentially replace the moratorium. Pushing it through would require a three-fourths majority, and both sides are girding for a fight at this year’s meeting in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Of the 57 nations present at the 2005 IWC meeting, 23 voted in favor of implementing Japan’s RMS changes, while 29 voted to stand firm, with five nations abstaining. The commission has grown by 26 members since 2001, with the percentages for and against staying roughly the same. But support for the moratorium has eroded since it was adopted in 1982, when it passed with a resounding 25 votes in favor and seven against.

Considering the trend, the RMS has at least an outside chance of passing in 2006. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all,” sighs Richard Ellis, who from 1980 to 1990 was a member of the U.S. delegation to the IWC. The end of the moratorium may simply be a matter of time.

I’M OUT COLD when a loud clank, clank jolts me awake. It’s the whale alarm. Edvardsen launches out of his bunk, dresses in a flash, and hustles up the ladder.

When I take a position next to Karlsen and Sommerseth on the flying bridge, everybody is craning their necks. It’s 3:30 a.m. A low amber sun has burned off the haze; visibility is perfect as we skim across a glassy sea.

Edvardsen joins Olsen in the crow’s nest, and for the first time I see Skarheim crouched behind the cannon. He’s wearing hard-shell protective earphones that can block out the noise from a blast while amplifying low-intensity sounds like speech, allowing him to hear the crew if they see something.

Almost immediately, Olsen yells, “Right!” Every man swings his head, and Skarheim whips the cannon around. I see a dark form amidships to starboard, about 30 yards from the boat. It’s a small, hooked dorsal fin, but it vanishes before Skarheim gets off a shot.

Over the next 20 minutes, the whale appears randomly, exhaling loudly and exposing a black, shiny back, causing Skarheim to jerk his cannon around. Then . . . nothing. The whale is always too far away, spotted too late, or positioned at an angle that would require an ill-advised shot across the deck.

But after several frustrating peekaboos, the whale starts moving north in a consistent line, surfacing twice. Karlsen moves Sofie closer, shadowing the whale’s relaxed movements, until we’re within about 15 yards and . . . boom!

The cannon’s powerful six-ton recoil jerks the ship. I hear the muffled whump of a grenade going off. Skarheim has scored a direct hit just behind the whale’s left flipper. The harpoon is lodged deep inside the chest cavity.

“All right!” Olsen yells. Karlsen throws the boat into reverse and the whale is winched in. During the next few minutes, all five crew members gather at the bow and teeter dangerously close to the unrailed edge. “That’s a portly gentleman,” Olsen proclaims.

The men take turns looping a noose around the flukes, a difficult maneuver that no one gets right on the first try. A dead whale will sink if it slips off the harpoon, so the urgency is palpable. When it’s finally secured, the whale is left to dangle, and the crew changes into bright-orange coveralls. Skarheim stays behind to clean and reload the harpoon cannon. “They say we’re the best cannon shots in the world,” he says, beaming. “The shot window is only 1.5 seconds, you know.”

Out of the water and held with steel cables, the four-ton whale rests on the elevated hold cover at Sofie‘s center. Standing on the bow, I look with awe at the creature’s beauty and majesty. The whale’s black backside fills my field of vision, and its wet sheen reflects the sun, throwing off prismatic colors.

It’s painful to watch it die, and I’m not usually sanctimonious about mankind’s carnivorous ways. I can’t be: My ancestor and namesake was Philip D. Armour, the 19th-century Chicago meatpacker whose infamous factories inspired Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle. Still, there’s no denying it: A dying whale grabs my heart like nothing else can.

OVER THE NEXT 16 HOURS we’ll kill four more whales. Skarheim never misses, and the steaks pile up, covering every inch of walking space on the deck.

The only unknown in this process is how quickly the whales perish. Earlier in the trip, Skarheim had assured me that the exploding grenade “knocks the whales unconscious, and they die almost immediately from shock or blood loss.” That was true with the first whale, but the next four suffer a great deal. The harpoons hit muscle, and appear to drive the whales mad with pain and fear. One of them shoots out of the water and writhes like a marlin on a hook.

The wounded animals try two techniques of evasion—diving or speeding across the surface—but the flight never lasts more than ten minutes. The whales, tired from pulling against the boat, are listless by the time the winch hauls them to the bow, where Skarheim waits with a .458-caliber rifle. Then he fires into the whale’s brain until it stops moving.

After the fourth kill, a male, the next whale we spot is deemed too large to fit on the meat-crowded deck. In a celebratory mood, Karlsen cuts off the dead male’s penis and holds the two-foot-long organ up to his chest. “It makes a damn nice tie,” he jokes.

Late in the day, I retreat to the bridge. In my mind, I have no problem accepting the argument that hunting minkes is defensible culturally and perhaps even ecologically. But I never want to witness a whale’s death again. “One man’s sign of the apocalypse is another man’s daily bread,” I write in my notes. On this day, the omens look grim, and I’m not hungry.

After the last whale is killed, the bloody deck, tools, and clothes are sprayed down before the men retreat to their bunks. Sofie drifts for the next 12 hours, a silent, sleeping ghost ship.

At lunch the next day, Skarheim rubs his sore arms and says, “These are just for decoration today. Useless.”

“Yup,” somebody says, “it costs a lot to be a man.”

From Outside Winter Traveler 2006
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Lead Photo: Philip Armour