History Of Exploitation

Sealers from Britain and America were first on the scene, being attracted to the islands of the Scotia Sea, South Georgia and South Shetlands in particular. The elephant seal and Antarctic fur seal were the prime targets from about 1778 onwards, because of their valuable oil and fur respectively.

Fig. 9.2. Relative abundance of krill and plankton (A), and relative feeding activity of the main Antarctic consumers (B), on a seasonal basis (after Laws, 1977).


Fig. 9.2. Relative abundance of krill and plankton (A), and relative feeding activity of the main Antarctic consumers (B), on a seasonal basis (after Laws, 1977).

The ensuing slaughter was so effective that by 1823 elephant seals were almost extinct in the Scotia Sea, and sealers began moving into the Pacific, especially the islands to the south of New Zealand and Australia (McNab, 1907; Hindell and Burton, 1988a). Hunting of seals continued in these areas until after the Second World War, with some population extinctions. Surveys of fur seals and sea lions over the past 20 years have shown, however, that at least on the islands of the southwestern Pacific, the numbers are generally recovering (Croxall and Gentry, 1984; papers in Ridgway and Harrison, 1981a, b).

Whaling ships worked the Chilean and New Zealand coasts from 1785 and 1791 respectively and many shore-based whaling stations began in the latter country in the 1820s (McNab, 1913; Morton, 1982). The deep-sea whalers from Europe and America hunted mostly right whales and sperm whales to the south and east of New Zealand, while "bay whalers" took only the highly vulnerable right whale close to the coast (Fig. 9.3), (papers in Tillman and Donovan, 1983, and Forster, 1985).

Despite the fact that both coastal and deep-sea whaling in the sub-tropical and temperate waters of the South Pacific declined after the 1840s, it was a further 50 years before whaling activities reached into the Southern Ocean south of 50°S, towards the Antarctic continent. Antarctic coastal waters were still poorly explored at that time, and indeed the first landing on the continent was not made until 1895.

Although Cook, Weddell, Ross and other explorers had reported concentrations of whales close to Antarctica, nothing was known about them, not even what kinds were present there. Eventually, expeditions to the western parts of Antarctica by Dallman in the German whaling ship Gronland in 1873-74, and the Norwegian whaler C.A. Larsen in 1892, established that the abundant whales (several hundred would sometimes surround their boats) were not the sought-after right whales, but the then commercially less-attractive rorquals — blue, fin, and humpback whales. It was not until after the turn of the century that the value of the oil from the "great whales" was fully appreciated (Tonnessen and Johnsen, 1982).

The first reconnaissance of the Ross Sea area of Antarctica since Sir James Clark Ross's 1842 visit in Erebus and Terror was by the Norwegian whaling ship Antarctic in 1894-95, looking for right whales. The only ones seen were at Campbell Island on the voyage south from New Zealand, but the expedition achieved distinction by placing the first people (Bull and Borchgrevink) on the Antarctic continent at Cape Adare, Victoria Land.

Around the turn of the century, knowledge of the zoology of the Southern Ocean, particularly its whales and krill, increased markedly as a result of a number of scientific expeditions from Belgium, Germany and Britain (Deacon, 1984). The study of Antarctic natural history was further enhanced by investigations carried out in conjunction with the Heroic Age of Antarctic land exploration prior to the First World War.

Modern commercial-scale whaling began in Antarctic waters in 1904 and, like the sealing industry over one hundred years before, it centred on the islands of the South Atlantic.

Intense competition amongst whalers in the North Atlantic, and low world

Fig. 9.3. Historical (pre-1900) whaling and scaling grounds in the South Pacific.

prices for a significant amount of the whale oil from the region (50% of the oil was second-grade and thus unusable for soap manufacture), forced whalers to transfer their operations to the southern grounds. Here, the whales were so abundant that whalers could afford to render down only the best portions of blubber, thus increasing the percentage of top quality oil for use in the soap, tanning and textile industries, and for lubrication and lighting.

South Georgia was the base for Antarctic whaling in the first years of this century. The industry evolved fast, and technological changes soon increased the catching and processing efficiency to levels previously undreamt-of. C.A. Larsen, who had set up the original operation on South Georgia, introduced factory ships which were capable of processing whales at sea, independent of the shore station. This was in fact the same system that operated in the early whaling years, with sailing boats, tri-pots on deck, and oil storage below. But the technology was better - explosive harpoons, fast steam-driven whale chasers, and increased oil storage capacity on the factory ships.

The advent of mobile whale-processing factories meant that, as the numbers of whales in the South Atlantic declined, the chasers and factory ships began following the whales to the other parts of the Southern Ocean, including the Antarctic Sector of the Pacific. The abundance of whales in this sector supported a major whaling industry for 60 years, which successively over-exploited the various species there (Mackintosh, 1965; Clark and Lamberson, 1982).

The highly efficient factory ships, with their slipways for hauling whales out of the water, rotary steam cookers for rendering blubber to oil, and large capacity built-in oil tanks, were initially modified tramp steamers or passenger ships. Later, in the 1930s, purpose-built whale processing ships of up to 21,500 gross tonnes were constructed for the Southern Ocean whaling industry.

In 1923-24, the modern whaling pioneer Larsen was again to the fore by being the first whaler to use a factory ship in the Ross Sea. The Sir James Clark Ross, a 14,000 tonne ship, searched for blue and humpback whales along the coast of Victoria Land, but the expedition was not a success because the ship did not have a slipway, and flensing whales in the freezing conditions alongside the ship amongst ice-floes, proved impossible. The following year Larsen died on the Ross Sea grounds, but his ship encountered better conditions and found numerous whales, resulting in the first large-scale catching of whales in Antarctic waters (Tonnesen and Johnsen, 1982).

During the first three seasons south of New Zealand, Larsen's company operated 1 ship and 5 chasers, but in 1926-27 another more efficient ship, the C.A. Larsen, named after the founder, went south from the company's base at Stewart Island, New Zealand. Many whales were caught in the Ross Sea, along the Victoria Land coast, and around the Balleny Islands (Fig. 9.4.). This region was at that time a dependency of New Zealand, and all whaling was carried out under licences controlled by the New Zealand government. The licences were intended to ensure that the whale carcasses were not discarded, but were utilized to the fullest extent for oil production.

Larsen's company was joined in the Ross Sea in 1926 by an unlicenced whaling ship, the N.T. Nielsen Alonso, which, it was suspected at the time, was wasteful in

Fig. 9.4. Blue whales alongside a Norwegian chaser in the Ross Sea; protected for many years, these whales are recovering slowly (Photo : National Museum of N.Z.).

its processing methods. This practice stimulated the need for licences. Catch figures for the first six seasons in the Ross Sea are as follows (from Tonnesen and Johnsen, 1982):

Season No. of Whales Barrels of Oil

Season No. of Whales Barrels of Oil

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