Is the catching of whales, which has been practised since the Neolithic period. The first large-scale whaling was carried out by the Basques, who were hunting the Atlantic right whale (Balaena glacialis) as early as the 10th century. They harpooned them from rowing boats, then towed the carcasses ashore where they were cut up and processed.
The use of hand-held harpoons thrown from small boats was the basis of most whaling until the invention of the explosive harpoon gun by a Norwegian, Sven Foyn, in the 1850s. By the 17th century even these primitive whaling operations had pushed the whale populations in the Bay of Biscay into a terminal decline and the Basques were forced to go further afield. By then whaling in the Arctic had already begun, following the discovery of Spitsbergen by the Dutch explorer Willem Barents in 1596.
The English and Dutch companies were set up using whaling ships of about 200 tons displacement. Small boats were launched from the whaler, to chase and harpoon the whales. Once killed, the whales were then cut up either aboard the ship or ashore, so the blubber could be rendered with try works to extract the oil. One of the most famous accounts of 19th-century whaling was written by William Scoresby Jr. (1789–1857). He undertook some of the first oceanographic observations in the Arctic to try and understand more about the whales' habits.
Britain's North American colonies began whaling initially hunting humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), then sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). When the first sperm whale was caught in 1712 by a Nantucket whaler it triggered a new wave of whaling in warmer waters, for the sperm whales' waxy oil and spermaceti, used to make wax candles and other useful commodities, quickly proved more profitable than the right whale's oil.
The key characteristic of the ‘right’ to hunt whales was that when killed they floated, and so their carcasses could be retrieved. It was not possible to harvest several of the baleen whales including the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) until the technique of inflating the carcasses with compressed air was invented. Yankee whalers operating out of Nantucket and New Bedford roamed the oceans of the world mostly in the search for sperm whales, a way of life well described by Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick. In the Pacific, whalers operated mainly out of San Francisco hunting mostly gray (Eschrictius robustus) and bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus). After the American Civil War (1861–5) this whaling operation flourished for several years until in 1871 almost the whole fleet was crushed in ice.
The Norwegians had probably been taking whales for several centuries before they opened a land-based whaling station in South Georgia. The main target initially was humpback whales, whose carcasses were towed back to the onshore factory for processing. The British government raised a levy on every barrel of oil collected to finance research and instigated the Discovery Investigations, but in the late 1920s the introduction of factory ships to process the whales at sea enabled whaling to spread to all sectors of the Southern Ocean beyond the limits of any national jurisdiction. Whale stocks had started to show signs of decline before the Second World War (1939–45), and minimum size limits were agreed internationally. After the war the whale populations temporarily showed some signs of recovery. The International Whaling Commission was established in 1947 to provide the industry with effective scientific advice. The hunting of some species—humpback, bowhead, and some of the right whales—was banned. Even so in the 1970s the populations of Southern Ocean whales were in such sharp decline that a moratorium on whaling was agreed, although some whaling for scientific purposes was still allowed. Limited aboriginal whaling was still permitted. For example, the Inuit continued to hunt for the beluga and bowhead, and the traditional pilot-whale (Globicephala melas) hunt continued in the Faeroes, though the islanders have now stopped eating them because the meat is heavily contaminated with pollutants. The Japanese, Russians, Norwegians, and Icelanders, who hunt mainly for meat for human consumption, also continued to take small numbers, particularly of minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), whose populations were still quite large, and they still do.