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Last Updated: Monday, 9 May, 2005, 22:55 GMT 23:55 UK
Hunting minke with the Norwegians
By David Shukman
BBC News science correspondent, in Tromso

Whaler prepares to fire harpoon (BBC)
The harpoon is primed and ready
Few environmental issues arouse more passion than the killing of whales, and this month sees the start of the biggest commercial hunt anywhere in the world. It takes place off the coast of Norway.

Each year, the Nordic nation allows its fishermen to take a set number of minkes, the smallest of the great whales.

It is not often that journalists are allowed to see the hunt firsthand, but I got that opportunity just a few days ago aboard the Reinebuen, an ultra-modern vessel kept spotless by its crew of six.

I don't think it is so bad to hunt a wild animal when we know there are enough and there is no danger for the species
Bjorn Andersen, Reinebuen skipper
We set off from the busy port of Tromso, and headed north across the dark blue of a spectacular fjord. Either side of us snowy mountains rose into a bright sky.

It takes a really powerful weapon to stop one of the world's largest creatures and the first step is to fit the harpoon inside the cannon that will launch it.

It is a tight fit to maximise the speed. Hooks on the end of the harpoon are designed to grip on to the whale's skin, while a grenade at the tip will sink a metre inside the animal's body before exploding. The whalers say it is quick and humane.

Whaling boat (BBC)
The Norwegian whaling ships are relatively small and few in number
Our journey had to be quiet - too much noise and the minke are driven away. Up in the crow's nest, the lookouts took their position. By this stage, we were so far north that daylight never really ended, and there was snow in the air.

The ship's captain Bjorn Andersen prides himself on having a hunter's eye. His quarry only surfaces for a few seconds at a time and he uses nothing hi-tech to help him.

"We have no instruments," he says. "If you use echo-sounder or sonar or something you scare away the whale. So, we just use our eyes."

'Efficient' business

The long watch stretched through the night - until suddenly a whale slipped into the line of fire.

Bjorn Andersen let loose the massive harpoon and the grenade plunged deep into the animal, exploding with a muffled crash. The deck reeked of gunpowder.

Harpoon grenade (BBC)
If the grenade does not kill instantly it should at least knock the animal out
This was not an instant kill, however. I reckon the whale lived on for another two minutes. Critics say this sight is all too common.

The waves rocking the boat were by now turning a bright red. A rifle was fired at close range and the whale was finished off.

The animal was then heaved on board. It weighed four tonnes and turned out to be a female.

She was too large to fit inside the boat - her huge head was left hanging over the side, her jaw slack and a vast eye stared lifeless at the sky.

Whalers pull a minke aboard (BBC)
The meat from the minke will fetch thousands of pounds at market
The butchering started immediately. This is a business after all. First, the blubber was cut off and thrown away. Nobody wants it except the gulls.

It is not a trade for the squeamish. There was blood all over the deck. But there is a market in Norway for this whale meat. It is not big but this one kill would earn several thousand pounds.

The meat is butchered into huge sections which are then left to cool on the deck.

Many people outside Norway find this business abhorrent - Norway itself is often threatened with trade sanctions. The bones are just dumped.

Whale meat (BBC)
The huge slabs are allowed to cool on the deck
I asked Bjorn Andersen what he had to say to his and his country's critics.

"Think about what happens to the pigs, sheep and cows in the slaughterhouse," he argued.

"Except this whale had a free life and lived naturally in a good environment; not on a farm. They have a good life.

"I don't think it is so bad to hunt a wild animal when we know there are enough and there is no danger for the species. My conscience is clear."

We left the boat after three days. Two whales were killed in that time; many more were to die later.

Norway is not bound by the 20-year-old commercial moratorium administered by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) because it objected to the ban's introduction.

In total, nearly 800 whales are to be caught by the Norwegians between now and the end of the season; and there are plans here to increase the total whale catch to 1,800 every year.

Graphic images from a whaling boat

'No surge' in minke whale numbers
20 Feb 05 |  Science/Nature
Whalers think they scent victory
23 Jul 04 |  Science/Nature
'When do whales die?' ask experts
07 Jul 04 |  Science/Nature


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