Tears of Blood – The Last of the Viking Whalers

Pilot Whales Slaughtered.

Norwegians caught whales off the coast of Tromsø as early as the 9th or 10th century. Vikings from Norway also introduced whaling methods for driving small cetaceans, like pilot whales, into fjords in Iceland. The Norse sagas, and other ancient documents, provide few details on Norwegian whaling. The sagas recount some disputes between families over whale carcasses but do not describe any organized whale fishery in Norway.

Spear-drift whaling was practiced in the North Atlantic as early as the 12th century. In open boats, hunters would strike a whale, using a marked spear, with the intent of later locating the beached carcass to claim a rightful share.

The Lofoten Islands in the far north of Norway have always been a world apart, a peninsula-like chain of wild, craggy shards jutting into the Norwegian Sea inside the Arctic Circle. In Norse folklore Lofoten’s long spine of mountains was said to be the haunt of trolls and valkyries (maidens who conducted slain warriors to Valhalla), and its fjords provided dramatic backdrops to some of the grandest of the Viking sagas.

A small wooden boat putters across the glassy expanse of the Vestfjorden, its wake rippling the mirror-perfect reflections of the surrounding mountains. The boat’s skipper, 69-year-old Jan Bjørn Kristiansen, has been sailing these waters for more than 50 years, the past 40 of them in the same weather-beaten vessel, also called Jan Bjørn. The name is fitting, for man and boat have much in common: both are tough, seasoned whalers, quintessentially Norwegian – stubborn, practical, strongly built – and both bear the scars of much hard work at sea.

Over the course of the summer whaling season, Kristiansen will harpoon perhaps 30 or 40 minke whales, butcher their carcasses on deck, and sell the meat dockside to seafood merchants along the coast. Despite there being an international moratorium on commercial whaling, Norwegians such as Kristiansen persist in hunting minke whales – for practical reasons they do so only in Norway’s domestic waters.

Model of a Viking Whaleboat.

In his five decades as a whaler, Kristiansen has weathered many a storm, both at sea and on land. He lived through the dangerous years of the eco-wars, when activists sabotaged and sank a number of Lofoten whaling boats. And he survived a horrific shipboard accident a few years ago when his harpoon cannon backfired, nearly killing him and leaving him with a mangled left hand. He was back hunting whales the following season.

But as he steers towards an old whaling station on this calm midsummer morning, Kristiansen sees not only his own long career drawing to a close, but also an entire way of life. His eponymous boat is one of only 20 that came out to hunt this season – a far cry from the nearly 200 whalers that worked northern Norway’s coastal waters in the late 1950s, when Kristiansen was getting his first taste of whaling as a deckhand.

It isn’t a scarcity of whales that is bringing down the curtain, or even the complicated politics of whaling. It is something far more prosaic and inexorable: Norwegian children, even those who grow up in the seafaring stronghold of Lofoten, simply do not want to become whalers any more. Nor do they want to brave storm-tossed winter seas to net fortunes in cod, as their forebears have done for centuries. Instead, they aspire to safer, salaried jobs in distant cities or with the offshore oil industry, and they have been leaving their island communities in droves.

Present day Norwegian Commercial Whalers.

There is irony in this turn of events. For most of its history, Lofoten exerted a gravitational pull on the young and ambitious. In his 1921 coming-of-age classic The Last of the Vikings, the Norwegian novelist Johan Bojer described the island chain as ‘a land in the Arctic Ocean that all the boys along the coast dreamt of visiting some day, a land where exploits were performed, fortunes were made, and where fishermen sailed in a race with Death.

The Lofoten islands, off the west coast of Norway.

For a few gold-rush months each year, millions of Atlantic cod migrate south from the Barents Sea to spawn among the reefs and shoals of Lofoten. Fishermen have been flocking here to cash in on the bonanza for more than 1,000 years. In addition to straddling one of the world’s richest fisheries, these islands are also blessed with a near-perfect climate for drying fish in the open air to make stockfish. This durable, highly nutritious cod jerky sustained the Vikings on their long voyages and became Norway’s most lucrative export in the Middle Ages.

The immense wealth of the dried-cod trade, and the possibility that jackpot riches might await any man with a boat, courage and a bit of luck, lured fortune seekers by the thousands. Grainy photographs from the 1930s show Lofoten’s harbours jammed with boats. Nowadays factory trawlers from the big seafood companies in the south do the work of many boats, netting and processing a high percentage of the catch. Small family-owned boats that brought their catches to local merchants and kept the Lofoten villages alive have now become endangered species.

The cod are still there, still in the millions, still a lucrative business. But as the older fishermen sell out and retire, seafood companies snap up their quotas for big money. Even the fishermen’s sons who want to carry on the family business may find their paths blocked by the cost of buying a boat and a quota – typically £500,000.

Atlantic Cod.

‘Banks don’t want to lend you that kind of money when you’re my age,’ says 22-year-old Odd Helge Isaksen, who nevertheless is determined to follow tradition and become a fisher­man. A resident of Røst, a close-knit island community at the heart of the Lofoten cod banks, Isaksen is making his way into the business the hard way, in an open boat hauling in cod one by one on handlines, in much the way his Viking forebears did 1,000 years ago. Such dedication is rare. In the past 10 years only Isaksen and one other young man on Røst have decided to pursue fishing as a career.

‘I’m one of the new Vikings,’ he jokes one bitterly cold evening as he motors into the harbour after a long day at sea. Coming in hours after the rest of the fleet returned, his boat is laden to the gunwales with hundreds of pounds of cod. Black Sabbath is blaring on his iPod as he steers his boat with one hand and updates his Facebook account on his mobile phone with the other.

‘My friends from school think it’s kind of funny that I decided to become a fisherman,’ Isaksen says. ‘But they sure are impressed with the money I’m making.’

Compared with Lofoten’s cod industry and its 1,000-year history, commercial whaling was a latecomer. ‘Whaling from boats was unknown in my grandfather’s day,’ recalls Oddvar Berntsen, now 83 and the last surviving resident of his fishing village. ‘The boats were just too small. Occasionally the villagers might kill a whale from shore if it came in close, but this was opportunistic, done for food.’

Norwegian workers butchering a Whale.

When commercial whaling finally arrived in Norway, it did so with a bang – literally. In the 1860s a Norwegian shipping and whaling magnate named Svend Foyn devised the grenade-tipped harpoon. It was a game-changer, thrusting Norway to the fore of the world’s whaling nations.

Norway’s fishermen, however, blamed the new industry for poor catches during the 1870s, since whales were believed to drive schools of fish closer to shore, where fishermen in small boats could catch them. After a series of bitter disputes between fishermen and whalers, Norway became the first nation to ban whaling in its territorial waters, declaring a 10-year moratorium in 1904. From then on, Norway’s commercial whalers sought their quarry in the wider North Atlantic and in the rich waters of the Antarctic.

At about the same time, the Lofoten fishing fleet began shifting from sail to engine. With their newfound mobility, some of the fishermen took up whaling as an additional means of putting food on the table – no small consideration later on during the Great Depression, when both cash and meat were scarce. The banner year for Lofoten’s whalers came in 1958, when 192 boats caught 4,741 minke whales. But change was already in the wind. By 1973, the year when Kristiansen bought his boat, the number of whalers had dropped by nearly half, and numbers have continued falling ever since.

The reasons are more economic and social than ecological. The cost of hunting whales is high, and returns are low. Although fashionable restaurants in Oslo still offer whale steak, many Norwegian grocery shoppers regard the rich red meat as Depression-era food, or as un-ecofriendly, or perhaps worse still, as a novelty cuisine for tourists. And because of a variety of factors – including restrictions imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – there is little export market. So although Norway’s government sets an annual quota of 1,286 minke whales, in practice whalers take far fewer (only 533 in 2011).

Even some of Norway’s green groups, staunchly opposed to whaling on principle, are content these days to maintain a death watch for a way of life they expect to disappear within a generation. They can afford to wait it out. With the North Atlantic minke whale population estimated at a healthy 130,000 animals, Norway’s modest annual catch is considered highly sustainable. It is the whalers who are heading for extinction.

The demise of whaling and the consolidation of the cod industry are changing the face of Lofoten, and nowhere is that change more glaring than at Skrova. A generation ago this was a thriving fishing port with no fewer than eight factories working overtime to process cod, herring and other fish. Fishing and whaling were booming then, and Skrova was the place to be. By the early 1980s the tiny community was deemed to have the highest percentage of millionaires in all of Norway.

Wealthy factory owners and fishermen liked to take their ease on a dockside bench, which bemused locals christened the millionærbænken, or millionaires’ bench. The old bench is still there, weathered and worn, but most of the millionaires who sat on it were put out of business long ago by the seafood companies down south and their fleets of factory ships. All but one of Skrova’s fish factories have closed, most recently in 2000. With the loss of jobs, the island’s full-time population has dwindled to about 150.

Only Ellingsen, an old family-run seafood company, remains in business. It is still prosperous, nowadays turning out 12,000 tons a year of its own locally farmed salmon and, for a few weeks each summer, buying whale meat from the handful of whalers who still work these waters.

‘To be honest, whale meat isn’t really commercial for us any more,’ says 42-year-old Ulf Christian Ellingsen, the third generation of his family to run the company. ‘We continue to buy it mainly out of respect for tradition and our old roots. My grandfather started this business in 1947 primarily as a whale-meat buyer. We’d like to keep that going for as long as we can.’

Skrova’s most significant export these days is not salmon or whale but the precious cargo that leaves on the passenger ferry to Svolvær every autumn – a small clutch of schoolchildren who have outgrown the island’s tiny community school and are obliged to pack their bags and leave home to attend the regional high school. For most of them, this introduction into the larger world is the start of a whole new life, one that leads away from Skrova.

The Lofoten Islands.

The five teenagers who depart Skrova this autumn will be followed by two more next year and another three the year after. And with no youngsters entering school at the other end of the line, the island’s already critically small community school will shrink still further.

‘We need to get more young families moving in here,’ says Ellingsen, whose own daughter, Aurora, is among this autumn’s group of teenage émigrés moving to Svolvær to continue their education.

‘I’d like to come back and retire here some day when I’m old,’ says 17-year-old June Kristin Hauvik, whose mother has worked in the Ellingsen fish factory for 35 years. For now, though, June Kristin is following in the footsteps of her two older sisters, both of whom are leading successful urban lives, one a doctor, the other a lawyer, worlds away from the sleepy island where they grew up. On a bright autumn afternoon, June Kristin and the other departing teenagers board the ferry and set off into the future, past the old millionaires’ bench, out beyond the headlands and into the wide open waters, where everything seems possible.

  • This article first appeared in National Geographic Creative


  • Official Norwegian minke whaling: Norwegian Government environmental policy site explaining Minke whaling policy (English).
  • Mark Cioc, The Game of Conservation. International Treaties to protect the World’s Migratory Species (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009), Chapter 3 The Antarctic Whale Massacre, 104-147.
  • Kurk Dorsey, “National Sovereignty, the International Whaling Commission, and the Save the Whales Movement,” in Nation-States and the Global Environment. New Approaches to International Environmental History, Erika Marie Bsumek, David Kinkela and Mark Atwood Lawrence, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 43-61.
  • Kurk Dorsey, Whales and Nations. Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).
  • Charlotte Epstein, The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).
  • Anna-Katharina Wöbse, Weltnaturschutz: Umweltdiplomatie in Völkerbund und Vereinten Nationen 1920-1950 (Frankfurt: Campus, 2011), Chapter 6 Der Reichtum der Meere, 171-245.
  • Frank Zelko, Make It a Green Peace!: The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), Chapters 7-9, 161-231.




27 thoughts on “Tears of Blood – The Last of the Viking Whalers”

    1. They do GP. There is absolutely no logical reason for killing these incredible creatures. The nations that do so do not suffer from food shortages, and any ‘scientific’ research that they claim to perform can be achieved through alternative means.

  1. This is really interesting, and rather sad. I don’t like when traditional types of communities die out. It almost makes me want to move there and take up fishing! 😉 Actually, I’d love to visit places like that, and would probably love living in Norway if I had the means and opportunity. Why does anyone want to live in urban settings?

    1. I can’t understand urban living. I lived in Finland for three years. I used to go mushroom picking in the forest, I had to take a rifle just in case we came across a bear, but being so far from civilisation was wonderful and peaceful. I was in Iceland last year. That is a beautiful volcanic country with plenty of wilderness. Reykjavik, the capital is like an old American west frontier town! It’s well worth a visit. I do wish the Norwegian’s would stop whaling though, but I do sympathise with the communities dying out.

      1. That must have been amazing! The closest I’ve come to visiting Iceland is a layover in Reykjavik on my way back to Germany. I did live four years in a small mountain town in Idaho. My childhood was spent on a farm and roaming the woods and wild places in Florida. You know, swamps, snakes, alligators, etc. Good times!

      2. Aw, the gators are so cute! My siblings and I used to sit around the lake and feed them, mostly the babies. We were always swimming in the lakes, rivers and creeks. We’d go canoeing and see them everywhere, sometimes just feet from the boat. You get used to it. And you know when they do most of their hunting and stay out of the water during those times. Most of the attacks I’ve heard about involved ignorant people living in suburbs which decimate the natural wildlife habitats, and these nitwits swim at dusk and after dark in gator infested waters, then wonder why they get attacked. I don’t know how many times I tromped barefoot through the swamps in the woods. The wildlife is sadly being driven out fast with everyone flocking to the sunshine state. Idaho was wonderful, but too dry for my liking. Great for hiking, natural hot springs, snowboarding, and a great place to be for a horse enthusiast like me.
        How did you end up in Finland, if I may ask? And what was it like?

      3. I was a diving instructor for ten years, mostly in Turkey, then Thailand and I ended up in Finland ice-diving in the north. I love the wilderness. Cold climates are definitely my favourite. My daughter lives in Minnesota and it gets very cold there!

      4. Ice diving!?! Haha! You’re brave! I love cold climates, but not so fond of being cold. It’s fine when there are plenty of outdoor activities. Where I’m at in Germany, though… Not so nice. I don’t like being outside here. Too wet and cold and nothing to do. Minnesota gets a lot of snow, if I’m not mistaken. Sounds like you’ve had an exciting life!

      5. I ice dive with a dry-suit which is heated and a 1000gram thinsulate undersuit – no way I’d get wet! I was in Brüggen for two years in the 90’s. I loved Berlin so much. I couldn’t believe how green it was! So many trees and parks. Is it not nice outside where you are in Germany?

      6. I’ve always been afraid of deep water, and could never even get the hang of snorkeling. Can’t you get trapped under ice when diving?
        The cities in Germany are very beautiful, there’s no denying it. I live amongst farming villages, about an hour from Bremen. It’s all just fields, very few trees, and hardly any land untouched. There’s no true wilderness anywhere around here. It’s better than living in the city, but I still miss side open spaces, real wildlife, and being able to go out and not meet a single human being. But the architecture in this country is amazing! The Dom in Bremen is truly a work of art, and then there are castles! I’ve visited a couple palaces years ago, and hope to see more. My three year old daughter some how got it in her head that there are dragons in castles. Now she begs to go to a castle so she can find the dragon! 😄

      7. Germany does have some beautiful cities. I loved Cologne and Heidelberg. It’s funny you mentioned deep water. I got into diving to conquer my fear of deep water. I got hooked, I never imagined I would be working at 100 metres as a professional diver. You can get trapped ice diving because it’s an overhead environment. But diving is all about planning. You plan a safe dive, work out your exits and emergency drills and you will be safe. I always had a team on the surface (and a chainsaw to cut through the ice because the hole closes up behind you when you get in) with a safety line so that you can get back to your entry point. Manage your air and never push the limits. Ice diving is breath-taking. Truly beautiful and peaceful. I really miss it. I love that your little girl wants to find a dragon. Never let her stop believing.

      8. It sounds amazing, but also terrifying! Interesting that you had a fear of the water, too. I started snowboarding because I was up at the ski hill with friends. Heights is another of my fears, so I spent the first day and a half on the training hill where all the little kids were. Getting onto a chair lift just wasn’t something I wanted to do. After relentless instigation from my friends, I finally did it. Then I was hooked, and my favourite run required riding the longest and highest chair lift. First time at the top, it looked like I was going to go over a steep drop, so I sat on my butt and slid part way down! Haha! It took me a while, but I finally got over some of the fear.

      9. I am very impressed! I love cold countries and I love the snow, but the thought of snowboarding or skiing truly terrifies me! I think it has something to do with the feeling of a lack of control as I launch myself down a steep slippery slope. At least my long, ululating scream would provide some entertainment for the other snowboarders as I disappeared over the horizon! Serious respect to you for conquering your fear in such a robust way 🙂

      10. Haha! Thanks! I expect death by plummeting down a mountain would be swift and less painful than drowning, at least. 😂 It was so much fun navigating through the trees at high speeds! I only crashed into a tree once, but kicked my snowboard out in front to stop myself from colliding into it. Oddly, the danger was part of the fun. With the exception of that one summit, I steered clear of the really steep drop offs. There were enough hazards already without taking on black diamond runs. Lol!

  2. After reading this, and the fact that I grew up with movies like Moby Dick and a sort of romanticized image of old world whaling, I feel somewhat conflicted. The thing is, I love whales, and the thought of killing those magnificent creatures has always felt somehow wrong to me, yet at the same time, having grown up with hunting, my stance is usually for sustainable hunting. Should that be extended to whaling in moderation?

    1. I think the issue with whaling right now is that whilst there are an estimated 515,000 Minke Whales, most whale populations were decimated in the 19th century and are still struggling to recover today. Plastics in the oceans are now threatening their survival, especially the Baleen whales like the Humpback, Grey, Blue, Sei and right whale species that employ skim feeding or lunge feeding techniques, in which they engulf vast volumes of water to strain krill through their baleen plates, ingest large amounts of plastics, (an estimated eight million metric tonnes of plastics enters the oceans each year) which threatens their existence. In that case, sustainable whaling may not be possible. Whaling was only undertaken for their usable products like meat, oil and blubber. … By the late 1930s, more than 50,000 whales were killed annually In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling because of the extreme depletion of most of the whale stocks. The oil was used for oil lamps, soap, Margarine and candle-wax. All of these products have long since been manufactured without the need for whale oil. The only other reason to hunt them is for their meat, that is something that we simply don’t need with modern farming techniques. Science is also discovering so much more about cetaceans – are they intelligent? Or even sentient? There are 12.8 billion neocortical neurons in the Minke whale brain. Human females have 19 billion. This poses many questions about the moral implications of whaling.

      1. I’ve heard about the environmental threats whales face, although I don’t know much specifically about individual breeds, but 500,000 doesn’t sound like a whole lot to me. Is that just for one area, or is this their global population?
        The thing about intelligence and sentience is what really turns me against whaling, and a large part of why I love them.

  3. The 500,000 Minke whales is the total population. They are a small species, not much bigger than a dolphin. I totally agree with you. The question of intelligence in cetacean’s makes me firmly on the side of marine mammal conservation.

  4. Whaling is a contentious issue, unnecessary on the one hand but a life long tradition on the other. The state of our seas is appalling, and the effects it is having on the world’s wildlife population just mind blowing. The Norwegians have been barraged by anti-whaling groups in a bid the end the practice, as have the Japanese too! Whatever your views it’s a shame to see old communities die out.

    1. I agree Andy. I think the slaughter of a species to near-extinction can have no logical argument to support it. I was a diving instructor for ten years. I have seen first hand the damage we are doing to our oceans. Thankfully, with organisations such as Sky and their Ocean Rescue campaign, the poor state of our oceans is now being taken seriously. There is a long way to go and still an attitude in many circles of ‘what you can’t see doesn’t affect me’, but this is slowly changing. Thanks for your comment my friend.

  5. I’m glad the whaling industry is dying – and whales will live! I am totally opposed to the whole idea of any kind of whaling – they are magnificent creatures, as you point out, they’re likely self-aware in similar ways to us, and even if they weren’t, what right have humans got to kill them anyway? I shudder to think of the damage we’re also doing, indirectly, by pouring pollutants and plastics into their environment. (There’s legislation afoot here right now to ban ‘microbeads’ in washing powders, for ecological reasons).

    On this side of the world whaling is a fraught problem because although it’s been commercially banned internationally, legally sanctioned ‘scientific’ whaling (mostly from Japan) continues in the southern ocean – presumably to ‘scientifically’ prove that each new whale tastes the same as the last – along with flat out poaching. One of the international roles of the RNZN is to patrol those waters for infringements – leading, a couple of years ago, to a tense standoff between HMNZS Wellington and a whale-poaching ship, flagged under Equatorial Guinea, who defied the order to accept a boarding party. Our ship’s commander, quite correctly, continued to offer discussion and nothing more. However, that caused problems when the news broke here because public opinion (also quite correctly) is totally against all whaling, illegal or otherwise – leading to suggestions that the commander should have just opened fire with his 25-mm Bushmaster, you know, these guys were pirates and whale murderers. Of course he didn’t – the other guys were obviously breaking the law, but all due process was properly followed by OUR guys. Even sending a boarding party required proper legal authorisation, and quite rightly too. Unfortunately that didn’t help the whales. Sigh…

    1. I agree Matthew. There is absolutely NO justification for whaling whatsoever. It is an abhorrent practice. Marine scientists are just beginning to discover that there is a very real possibility that cetaceans may be sentient. Why on earth would anybody want to destroy these beautiful, magnificent creatures? The same goes for Great White sharks (A February 2010 study by Barbara Block of Stanford University estimated the world population of great white sharks to be lower than 3,500 individuals, making the species more vulnerable to extinction than the tiger, whose population is in the same range), African and Asian Elephants (According to the World Wildlife Fund, in 2014 the total population of African elephants was estimated to be around 700,000, and the Asian elephant population was estimated to be around 32,000), the Bengal Tiger (The Bengal tiger is found primarily in India with smaller populations in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. It is the most numerous of all tiger subspecies with more than 2,500 left in the wild) and many other near extinct species. Chinese medicine is a sham and there is no justification for murdering these magnificent animals in order to manufacture male erectile dysfunction drugs that DO NOT work. As for hunting whales for ‘scientific’ purposes, if it weren’t such a disgraceful practice, the very notion would be laughable. Thanks as always for your comment Matthew.

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