Caught on Tape

The killing of a minke whale by the crew of the Norwegian whaling vessel, Willassen Senior, is captured on videotape by undercover investigators. © WSPA/EIAUndercover investigators shoot a hard-hitting film of a Norwegian whale hunt.

The Norwegian government claims about 80 percent of whales the country's hunters kill die instantly, and the remainder die within two minutes of the impact of the harpoon. Footage from a new film reveals this is not always the case. In May 2005, two investigators from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) filmed a whale hunt off the northern tip of Norway. Susan Tomiak of the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) spoke with EIA Director Jennifer Lonsdale to hear how the film was made and why it's so important.

Was this a difficult or dangerous mission?

Well, we knew that it would be difficult—not because anyone would be harmed, but because if the investigators were discovered attempting to document a hunt, efforts would have been made to stop them. Another problem was the 500-meter exclusion zone around whaling vessels at sea. The penalty for entering this zone is about $10,000, and it was up to the investigators to figure out how to film the hunt without being caught or fined.

So how did they do it?

They traveled inside the Arctic Circle to the most northwesterly tip of Norway to the town of Vardo. There they could see whalers operating offshore, but they were too far away to film. Later, the investigators woke up at about 6 a.m. to see a whaling vessel leaving Vardo. As they drove along the coast road, it became clear that the vessel was looking for whales about 400 hundred meters from the shore, despite choppy seas and considerable pitching and rolling of the vessel. The investigators hid in the rocky cliffs and began to document the vessel's activities.

You mean they started filming?

Yes—as soon as the vessel started following a minke whale, the camera started rolling and did not stop until the whale was brought aboard the vessel. The pursuit took over one-and-a-half hours. Finally, the harpoon was fired, impaling the whale in the lower abdomen. Eleven minutes later, a rifle shot was fired in an attempt to kill the whale. Six more rifle shots followed in the next three minutes, as the men on board struggled to winch the whale to the side of the vessel. The harpoon appeared to have passed right through the lower abdomen, tearing a massive hole.

How did the camera capture all these details from so far away?

The camera operator used a high definition video camera so the footage could be magnified extensively without a great loss in quality. This revealed a huge amount of information, including the last blow from the whale, which marked the time elapsed from the initial harpoon strike to the last visible sign of life at 14 minutes and 28 seconds.

Why is that so significant?

It demonstrates the inherent cruelty of whaling and the inability of whalers to ensure that they achieve an immediate or at least quick death each time they fire a harpoon.

What kind of impact does a film like this have?

The film is unique because it is the first time a whale hunt has been filmed without a break from the beginning of the pursuit to the final death of the whale, including the subsequent hauling of the animal aboard the vessel. It includes crucial scientific information that will make a significant contribution to discussions on the methods used to hunt whales, and it is a clear demonstration that whaling is not just about numbers—it is also about the suffering inflicted on each individual whale who is harpooned. We distributed 100 copies at the 2005 International Whaling Commission meeting, where the UK Government presented data on the hunt to the Working Group on Whale Killing Methods. As a result, the welfare concerns of whales were given greater attention at the meeting than ever before.

For more information, please visit www.eia-international.org and www.whalewatch.org. To obtain a copy of this video, contact Susan Tomiak at susan(@)awionline.org or 202-337-2332.