The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects

This harpoon gun is from the abandoned whale-catcher Petrel.  Built in Oslo in 1928, the ship operated in the Antarctic region until being abandoned at Grytviken on the island of South Georgia.  Steam-driven, the Petrel was one of the first whale-catchers to feature a catwalk that allowed a gunner to run from the bridge straight to the harpoon gun. During the 1930s, whaling was big business, with a number of different whaling corporations operating in the area.  After being harpooned and towed to port, whales were winched onto the shore to the flensing deck where they were butchered by hand.  Using sharp blades two incisions were made either side of the carcass to allow the white blubber to pour out from either side.  After the blubber had been cut away from the whale’s skin, it was fed into huge pressure cookers where it was processed to extract the oil.  The resulting oil was then pumped into tanks whilst the remaining skin, meat and bones were ground up for fertiliser or animal feed.

The modern Antarctic whaling industry was established in 1904, centred around the British islands of South Georgia, South Shetland and the Falkland Islands.  Norwegian explorer and whaler, Carl Anton Larsen, supported by British, Norwegian and Argentinian funds, founded the first Antarctic whaling corporation- the Compañía Argentina de Pesca (Argentine Fishing Company), and built the first whaling station at Grytviken on South Georgia.  Whaling in the area quickly proved to be a lucrative business with a single whale capable of raising over £2,000 in oil and by-products.  Lured by soaring profits, dozens of companies rushed to set up operations in the region, helping the whaling industry boom.  In 1908, the British government set up the Falkland Islands Dependencies in order to regulate the number of whales taken, as well as licensing the onshore processing operations.  Overfishing in the region was rife, with nearly 12,000 whales killed in 1915-16, driven by the wartime demand for whale oil used in the production of glycerine for explosives. By 1915, the newly formed Whaling Committee reported grave concerns with the numbers of whales being slaughtered, warning that restrictions would need to be put in place if the industry was to remain viable longer term.

In 1923, concerned by the diminishing numbers of whales in the region, the British government established the Discovery Investigations, named after Robert Scott’s ship the Discovery that was to be used as the primary research vessel.   Commissioned by the Royal Society, the investigations were a series of scientific cruises that ran over the period of 1925-1951.  The aim of these investigations was to conduct research into the habits and ecology of whales, so that appropriate restrictions on whaling might be put in place.  A comprehensive research programme was designed to explore the southern ocean and to create a scientific foundation for the industry.

The first expedition sailed into South Georgia in February 1926, captained by John Stenhouse,  an experienced sailor and navigator, who had commanded the Aurora on Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic expedition.  Accompanying Stenhouse were a team of 8 oceanologists and marine biologists, who collected data as they sailed, developing new understandings of whales’ breeding patterns, gestational length, rates of growth and age at maturity.  Their work was to act as the foundation for modern scientific whale conservation and eventually led to restrictions being put in place. It was not a moment too soon, as during the 1930-1931 season Antarctic whaling had reached its peak, with a total of 40,201 whales being killed.  Whale populations had been decimated with some species like the humpback whale virtually extinct in the region by the mid-1930s.  Finally in 1936 the International Whaling Convention was established, and regulation was put in place, although by this stage the industry was already in decline.

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More can be found out about the Antarctic whaling industry at South Georgia Museum