Norwegian small-type whaling began in the early 1930’s.
It was a time of no work, poor clothing, poor housing and a lack of food. In other words, the hunt began as a result of poverty and unemployment and has nothing whatsoever to do with the infamous large-scale whaling operations that were brought to a halt in the late 1960’s due to the over-exploitation of several species.
Ragnvald Dahl from Mortsund, Lofoten, was one of the many who, amid the collapse of international banks and meagre conditions along the coast, was responsible for a large family. He was, like the great majority, living in poverty. But in one respect he was also well off. He owned an åttring – a large rowing and sailing boat used for fishing.
With this boat, and others like it, the real story of North Norwegian small-type whaling began in 1933. But first on the scene were a few boats from the Møre district and the Aasjord brothers from Steigen. They shot their first whales in the Vestfjord in 1932.
Ragnvald Dahl was soon to become a leader in the whaling community, and in his and the Aasjord brothers’ wake, a handful of pioneers followed, people like Jakobsen from Skrova and Tømmerås from Hamarøy.
They just called it the Åttringen.
It was a vessel of scarcely 14 metres in length with a 20 hp Bolinder engine that they drove as hard and as long as the liner, cylinder head and oil pan could take it. They soon realised that the engine gave more if it was run hard, and they fastened the waterpipe to the top of the hot bulb, allowing them a couple more knots. This was the origin of the type of engine that was to be nicknamed the “Vassbolinder” – the Water Bolinder.
Ragnvald Dahl managed to get hold of a 37 millimetre Bottlenose gun from Finnmark. At the time they loaded the gun with black powder that exploded immediately, as opposed to the less smoky gunpowder that had a longer firing time. To begin with, the recoil of every shot beat the shooters hands bloody, because the gun was not properly secured to the deck. Gradually, they began to wrap rags round their hands to fend off the worst blows.
It was difficult to fasten the gun securely enough, even though the first gun stand was a fir tree trunk from the sacristy of Svolvær church. Fir had the necessary rigidity and resilience, but didn’t last for ever. The recoil wore it down. They tried to make up for that by propping it up with wire and rope, but it was not until the Lofoten Blacksmith came up with the idea of iron stays and buttresses, that the problem was solved.
Ragnvald Dahl had his four sons onboard with him, they were nurtured on bullets and gunpowder, guns and harpoons. There are innumerable stories in circulation about the family’s escapades, both on land and at sea. Ragnvald himself was soon given the nickname of Pirate Dahl, due to insinuations about smuggling during prohibition, audacity with regard to rules and regulations, and a general recklessness that few could match. But there was honour in the nickname, too, referring to the fact that he never failed to lend a helping hand when needed.
To begin with, people laughed at the whole idea of whaling. And not without reason. They couldn’t manage to kill one of the first whales they shot because they had no experience with such large animals. It took several days before they finally managed to bring it ashore for flensing.
Even so, more and more people joined in this new industry, and things began to get out of hand. One man turned up in Lofoten with a gun that apparently was unique anywhere in the world. It had two barrels, one of which pointed slightly upwards, the other slightly downwards. If the shooter missed with one of the barrels, he would it with the other –at least that was the idea.
Another whaler wasn’t careful enough pressing the harpoon all the way down to the stemming material. A vacuum occurred in the barrel and he blew his head off when the gun exploded.
There were also difficulties with sales. The meat was used as animal fodder and prices were low. Ragnvald Dahl soon identified the problem and began a unrelenting campaign to get people to eat whale meat. They ate it themselves, and whenever he got the chance, he slipped a cut to the local housewives.
The lack of food during the last war led to a breakthrough for whale meat for human consumption. Mrs. Thindberg from Svolvær arranged major events in Oslo promoting whale meat, and it was soon on the menu of many families all over the country.
One of the biggest problems was getting within range. The engines were small and the whales were scared off by the propellers. Ragnvald Dahl tried using an aircraft propeller mounted behind the wheelhouse and driven by a 20 hp car engine. In the late 1930’s, Dahl acquired a 48 foot vessel called the “Ørna”.
There were no regulations governing the hunt during the first few years, but everything was to change in 1938. By chance a bureaucrat from Trondheim came over some whalers who were struggling with a whale at a place called Høla, just off Svolvær. The whale had been harpooned, but nobody onboard knew how to kill it. Through his binoculars and to his great dismay, the bureaucrat was able to watch as one of the crew members climbed on to the back of the whale with an axe in his hand.
A telegram was sent to the directorate and the following day it was announced that whaling operations had been brought to a halt. Dahl then stepped into the breach for the formation of a whaler’s union. Fees were decided upon and the directorate issued licences for 10 kroner each.
The system of licensing still applies today and additionally, a number of regulations have been introduced to ensure humane killing methods. Exploding harpoons have been introduced, ensuring that the whales are killed instantaneously. Furthermore, shooters are required to pass a marksman’s test and maximum quotas have been imposed.
Today, Norwegian whaling only involves the hunt of the minke whale and, according to scientists, does not pose any threat to stocks. In 2006, permission was granted to catch altogether 1052 minke whales in the Norwegian economic zone, including the area around Svalbard. 28 vessels with a crew of altogether 140 men took part.