100 years of Irish Whaling

Don't worry folks, Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours is not about to set up an Irish whaling Co. but during our "off" season we like to read up on various aspects of whales and most of the historic literature is about whaling rather than whale watching and even some of the naturalists and whale and mammal biologists of the time seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards whaling which they saw as an opportunity to dissect and study the anatomy and physiology of a species which they could not study properly in the wild. Some even took the view that like any fishery ( even though whales are mammals, the hunting of whales for commercial reasons is referred to as a "fishery") if it were properly managed there could be a sustainable commercial fishery rather than the non sustainable slaughter that was taking place. At the time this was considered an enlightened point of view!


Arranmore Whaling Co. 1908-1913; Blacksod Whaling Co. 1910 - 1914; Akties Nordhavet Co.(Northern Seas) / Blacksod Whaling Co 1920 - 1922


Not many people know that from 1900 to 1925, with the exception of the Great War years 1914 - 1918 and other intermittent years, there was a substantial whaling operation in Ireland mainly based in Blacksod Bay off the coast of Mayo which is the nearest point in Ireland to the continental shelf edge and the abysmal  plain.

During that period 125 blue whales were harpooned off Ireland at an average distance of 40 miles off the Mayo coast - Dept. of Fisheries, report of public enquiry on the erection of a whaling station in Blacksod Bay.

600 fin whales were harpooned during that period, which represented 66% of total landings.

Only 6 humpback whales were harpooned over this period which represents approx. 1% of the total catch and is indicative of the fact that at the time "this species is rare in Irish waters" - James Farley (1981)

Other whales hunted were Right whales and Sei whales, probably saved from extinction by the fact that there was a narrow window when they passed by the Irish coast (about 10 miles off) in the first two weeks of June.

Sperm whales were also hunted beyond the continental shelf edge and the order of abundance of the catch for that period was firstly fin whales, followed by blue whales and sei whales, then sperm whales, right whales and lastly humpback whales. It was only when the "fishery" ended in 1925 due to economic and commercial reasons and following the setting up of the International Whaling Commission in 1931 and in Ireland the Whale Fisheries Act 1937 that all this whaling effort officially stopped.

Even then there was a Norwegian fishing effort in Irish waters for Minke whale and basking shark in summertime from 1966 to 1976 ( about 70 miles offshore) until the introduction of the Wildlife Act 1976 which gave further protection.




Reviewing the records of the catches by commercial whaling companies in Ireland from 1900 to 1925, and using a simple model for statistical analysis and projected populations, and based on our own knowledge of whale sightings and effort watches both locally and around the coast as recorded in databases such as the IWDG and comparing the recorded sightings (and killing) by the targeted efforts of the whaling companies in the past compared to the recent targeted sightings of whale watchers (both operating commercially as whale watch companies and voluntary dedicated whale watchers) and based on our own knowledge and intuition our informed guess, taking all of the above into account as to the present state of the population of the different species of whales in Irish waters at the moment is:

Fin whales seem to have made a reasonable recovery and numbers appear to be fairly constant and after the Minke whale are the second most plentiful whale seen in Irish waters ( eg Minke whale are more commonly seen by Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours on any of our three daily trips than common dolphins. Our almost daily sightings of Minke whale are not recorded on the IWDG database but for 2013 with a researcher on board we may rectify this omission)

Blue whales and sperm whales are probably present in reasonable numbers beyond the shelf edge, as proved by acoustic recordings by Berkley University scientists using deployed deep water acoustic monitoring systems put in place during the Cold War to detect the presence of Russian submarines but which also recorded the presence of up to 50 blue whales, or more as this method only recorded the song of the male blue whale trying to attract a partner. Yep its a hard life out there, if you cant sing you are out of the (whale) race!

The presence or otherwise of Sei whales and Nordcaper or Right whales is a huge mystery as literally no research or effort that we are aware of has been undertaken for the brief two week period in early June when they formerly cruised off the Irish coast.

The great news story is that according to accurate historical records kept by the various commercial whaling enterprises operating off the Irish coast there is only a record of 6 humpback whales being slaughtered in this 25 year period. Yet in the 2012 season alone, whale watching around the Blasket Islands and Dingle Bay we had 4 humpbacks resident for 4 months off the Blasket Islands and there were 5 humpbacks recorded off West Cork later in the winter and only two of these animals were identified as being the same as the ones identified off the Blaskets. To put this in perspective 3 different whaling companies over 25 years recorded (and killed) six humpback whales but in 2012 alone 4 were spotted off the west Kerry coast and 5 possibly 6 recorded off the west Cork coast only two of which were identified as belonging to the Kerry group.

The only conclusion can be that in the last 100 years the humpback population off the Irish coast has increased. This increase appears to have happened in the last couple of years which we believe can be put down to climate change as we explored in our last wildlife log due to excess fresh water runoff with accompanying minerals and nutrients from the land coming down the Shannon river as far as the Blaskets where it is churned up in the tidal streams creating optimum conditions for phytoplankton blooms and zooplankton swarms which in turn attract sprat and juvenile fish and the resulting live broth is the stuff of dreams for baleen feeders.

Minke whale numbers are very healthy especially around our area of operation which is the Blasket Islands and Dingle Bay.




The sad facts are that whales would definitely have been hunted to extinction were it not for two historically important events - the discovery of oil in Oil Creek, Pennsylvania in 1859 and also the fact that women's fashions changed in line with emancipation as the economic viability of whaling was directly related to the price of the two main products of whaling - whale oil from the blubber and the bones; and whale bone for corsets and hoops for dresses from the baleen plates. It is interesting to note that around 1800 ( the Victorian age) the price of whale bone dropped from £300 per ton to around £100 and then when the Victorian age was past and corsetry again became popular the price for whale bone (baleen plates in the mouth of the whales used for filtering out water and retaining food) rocketed to £2,300 per ton leading to a increased frenzy in whaling activity.

Thankfully with the discovery of oil there was less of a demand for expensive oil obtained from rendering down the blubber and bones of whales and with a change in women's fashions and emancipation from corsetry and hoops whaling became uneconomical and gradually ceased apart from some whaling by mainly Norwegian boats and presently by Icelandic and Japanese boats for whale meat.

It is symptomatic of mans devious way of thinking that one of the products from whaling is nitro glycerine (explosive) based on the glycerine obtained from whales. Really as a species we would be hard to reinvent for malicious intent and it will be interesting to see how long more our span of evolutionary time will last considering how short our evolutionary sprint has been so far since we were swinging from the trees... Those knowing whale eyes tell it all - they are here for the long haul and we are just passing through, heading at a rate of knots towards our own extinction and trying to bring as many other species with us as possible.


Lets slow down and look at the world around us before we go.  It may not be too late !


Join Captain Whalesgalore and his merry crew aboard "Blasket Princess" to continue the conversation at a more leisurely pace and press the "Book Tour" button now. We hope you enjoy the tour.








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Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry

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