How Do You Kill a Whale?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 19 2006 6:21 PM

How Do You Kill a Whale?

First, blow up its brain.

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On Sunday, more than half of the members of the International Whaling Commission declared that group's two-decade-old ban on hunting whales no longer necessary. (Click here for a PDF of the statement.) How do modern-day whalers make their kills?

With explosive grenade harpoons. Commercial hunters in Norway (an IWC member country that openly flouts the IWC ban) catch minke whales from small fishing boats with harpoon cannons mounted on the bows. Each harpoon comes loaded with explosives that go off once they've penetrated about a foot into the flesh of the whale. The internal blast is supposed to cause enough brain damage to kill or knock out the whale within a few seconds.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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If the whale survives the grenade harpoon, the gunner will usually pick up a high-powered rifle to finish the job. Norwegian harpooners have to take safety classes before they can head out on a hunt, and they must pass a proficiency exam to prove they know how to use their weapons.

The grenade harpoons in use today haven't been around for such a long time. In the old days, whalers used harpoons with black-powder grenades, but these unreliable devices weren't well-suited to catching the relatively small minke whale. Starting in the 1920s, Norwegian whalers abandoned the black powder in favor of a harpoon with an empty grenade casing—called a "cold grenade harpoon." Later, they replaced the empty grenade with a simple iron head—the "cold harpoon." The use of non-explosive (cold) weapons tended to prolong the whale's agony, and hunters would have to resort to other, more cumbersome methods to complete the kill.

In the 1980s, the Norwegians developed a new kind of grenade harpoon using a more dependable explosive called penthrite. The cold harpoons were banned, and penthrite grenades became the standard method for killing whales. Minke whalers in Greenland switched over from cold harpoons to penthrite grenades around 1990. The nations that have "scientific whaling" programs—Iceland and Japan—also support the use of explosive grenade harpoons. (Some Japanese whalers still use hand-held harpoons rather than the mounted cannon.)

Whale hunts in other parts of the world make use of more traditional methods. Faroe Islanders continue to hunt pilot whales by surrounding them with boats and driving them toward land. Some of the whales beach themselves, while others get stranded in shallow water. The whalers then use a metal hook to drag the animal onto the shore, where they slice through its spinal cord and main artery, one hand's width behind the blowhole. (In recent years they've switched over from pointed hooks to dull ones, which can be inserted into the vestibular air sacs without causing much tissue damage.) Traditional whalers in the United States use hand-held harpoons to ensnare whales, and then kill them with high-powered rifles. They have also used penthrite bombs and black powder.

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