Society for the Advancement of Animal Wellbeing

- Protecting Animals and Conserving the Environment


The Inner Lives of Whales

 Whales and dolphins belong to a group of animals called cetaceans, they are mammals and so are warm blooded, breathe air and give birth to live young. Cetaceans communicate with a variety of low pitched sounds and are highly social as well as caring parents. Bowhead whales have been known to carry their children on their back giving them a piggyback ride.

These gentle giants of the oceans are also extremely intelligent, it has been estimated that the average Beluga whale has an IQ of 155, in human terms that’s a genius, now consider that it is estimated that the great artist and visionary inventor DaVinci had an IQ of 158. Cetacean intelligence is usually gauged by allometric analysis of brain size compared to body weight.

Sperm Whales have the largest brain mass of any living animal, weighing in at 7.8 kg where as a male adult human brain weighs, at the most 1.4 kg. The whales form of song is also the most complex even more so than birds.

 Furthermore neuroscientist Professor Patrick Hof at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and Dr. Estel van der Gucht of the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology have discovered that the brain of whales contain a special cell that is thought to make humans loving and caring. The neurones known as spindle cells due to their long spindly shape allow humans to experience self-conscioussness and to interact socially. Previously it was thought that these spindle brain cells that allow us to feel empathy were only found in humans and greater apes. However the research conducted by Professor Hof has found these same cells in whales and they are also located in the same brain region as humans suggesting not only are they extremely intelligent but they are also able to experience empathy and love.

More over there are three times more of these empathy cells in the brain of a whale than there are in our own and it is thought that spindle cells have been present in whales twice as long as they have been in humans. As with humans the cells were found in the anterior cingulate cortex and frontoinsular cortex which allow us to feel the pain and suffering of another being. But spindle cells in whales were also found scattered through out the brain and in a third area known as the frontopolar cortex.

International Whaling Commission (IWC)

These aquatic beings have been nearly hunted to the brink of extinction. So inorder to monitor the situation in 1946 the global community set up the International Whaling Committee (IWC) to set quotas and limits on the number of these beautiful animal that could be ruthlessly killed.

The IWC was formed after Dr. Harry D. Lillie who served as a physician on a whaling ship made the following statement: “If we can imagine a horse having two or three explosive spears stuck into its stomach and being made to pull a butcher’s truck through the streets of London while it pours blood in the gutter, we shall have an idea of the present method of killing. The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it.”

In 1986 the IWC completely banned commercial whaling in order to protect the dwindling numbers of whales such as the Humpback whale of which there are only 20,000 left in the whole world. Despite the ban some countries still continue to mercilessly hunt whales. Norway ignores the ban and still commercially hunts whales where as Japan and Iceland hunt whales under the guise of “scientific” whaling. Scientific whaling is just an excuse to continue the inhumane hunt, the fact is that marine biologists have plenty of tools available to study whales without having to kill them. And as the basic goal of the so-called science is to see if whales eat fish this is obviously just a poor excuse to kill whales.

The Hunt and Kill

Whaling nations claim that the killing methods used are humane but how can chasing a whale across the high seas then shooting it with a grenade tipped harpoon that explodes once inside the animal be considered humane. Yet still there is much more suffering and pain inflicted on these poor creatures. Whaling methods have not changed much over the last 100 years, the main weapon used is the grenade tipped harpoon or “penthrite” harpoon.

When the whaling ship locates a whale, the chase ensues which may last for several hours causing extreme stress and anxiety to the poor whale. The whales try to dive or hide but to no avail, many whales are so struck with fear that they defecate which turns the water a deep orange color this in turn reveals their location.

The whales during the chase also suffer physically from a condition known as “exertional myopathy”; some whales are so sensitive that they die from the shock and exertion of the chase alone.


The whalers attempt to get as close to the whale as possible so that they can fire the explosive harpoon in to the whale’s nerve filled skin and body. The harpoon is fired from a cannon located on the bow of the vessel.

For a swift kill a head or neck shot is required however due to the motion of the waves as well as poor visibility and the movement of the whale, accurate shooting is near impossible. As the harpoon is shot it enters the body leaving a gaping hole 20 cm wide and 30 cm deep, however the harpoon has been known to on occasion penetrate right through the whale’s body.

Once embedded inside the whale the grenade explodes causing massive trauma and internal bleeding from lacerations, this results in agonizing pain and suffering.

In addition shockwaves from the blast cause neurotrauma, that is brain and spinal chord damage which is meant to kill the whale with in 2 minutes. However in order to better preserve the integrity of the flesh a lower amount of explosive is used, therefore the whale takes longer to die and consequently suffers for longer.

In most cases the whales are fully conscious as they slowly die from these horrific wounds and so suffer extreme fear and distress. So profuse is the bleeding that many of the whales spew blood from the blow holes on the top of their heads.

There is no prior stunning for these defenseless souls. In the tips of the harpoons lie two spring loaded claws which extend in to the flesh of the whale so as to anchor the line or rope in to the animal which is now tethered to the vessel. These claws cause further injury and pain as they widen the hole by more than 60 cm.

Secondary Killing Methods

If the first penthrite harpoon does not kill quickly enough a secondary weapon is deployed which is usually another explosive harpoon. In fact 60% of whales caught by Japanese whalers require a secondary tool for killing.

The reason it take so long to kill a whale is because of its massive size and its complex vascular system so it takes time for the brain to become depleted of oxygen or for complete bleed out to occur. As the whale thrashes around or tries to dive in attempt to remove the harpoon, some whaling fleets may use an old fashioned cold harpoon as a secondary weapon. These so called cold harpoons have been banned by the IWC since 1981 as they were deemed too cruel. These harpoons did not use explosives but just consisted of sharp barbs which dug in to the animal's body, this was particularly cruel as it took the whale approximately 5 to 8 excruciating hours to die.

Another secondary method used when the penthrite harpoon fails is the rifle gun. The terrified whale will be shot multiple times until it stops moving. There is no upper limit to the number of bullets that can be used; it could be as high as 200 rounds. Each burning piece of metal pierces through the creature’s body causing searing pain as well as internal organ damage and bleeding. More often than not the wrong type of gun and caliber of ammunition is used, this further extends the suffering of the whale as it is not killed quickly enough, instead the bullets often can not penetrate the skull or may get stuck in the blubber thus the whalers will need to fire multiple shots.

Another secondary killing method is the use of an electric lance, however to protect the safety of the crew members on the whaling ship a low voltage is used which instead of inducing the death of the whale causes additional anguish as it is fried internally. Whatever the method employed, in total it may take 30 minutes to over an hour to kill the whale, all the time it is fully conscious and feeling immeasurable pain.

Instant death is never guaranteed and an IWC report concluded that 2 out of every 16 whales die from asphyxiation. This happens when the whale is harpooned in the tail area, when the whale is hauled out of the water its head and blow hole are submerged and therefore they suffocate and drown this maybe done on purpose by the whalers in order to kill the whale.

Butchered Alive

As it is very difficult to gauge whether a whale is dead or not due to the fact that they can store a vast amounts of oxygen in their internal organs, sometimes the whale is winched on to the factory boat still alive.

Although there are no statistics it has been known that some whales are still alive or maybe are just paralyzed but are still capable of feeling pain as they are sliced opened, butchered and processed. So much blood pours out from these oceanic giants that the factory ship deck will be submerged in 6 to 8 cm of blood.

Worse still 60% of all females caught are pregnant, usually the baby fetus will die shortly after the mother or else it will be brutally killed. All of the mentioned methods of capturing and killing run counter to the humane slaughter and animal welfare standards as laid down by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) which is an intergovernmental organization responsible for improving animal health. Not only does it have 172 member nations but it is also recognized as a reference organization by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In addition to the captured whales there are a significant number of animals that are categorized as “struck and lost” that means they have either been hit by a harpoon or shot but have managed to escape. These animals almost certainly die from their wounds but it may take days or even weeks for that to happen, this is a slow agonizing death. Whether caught or lost, the suffering is not only limited to the whale itself but the entire pod suffers emotionally and physically as these creatures are very social and have close relationships with one another.

Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling

A small number of countries and people take part in what is known as Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW). The IWC does allow aborigines to hunt whales if they need whale meat for nutrition or it has been recognized as culturally relevant to their survival however strict quotas and humane killing methodologies are encouraged. However many animal welfare groups have shown that aboriginal killing methods are extremely crude and thus cause the animals extended suffering as they take longer to die.

It has also been shown that some ASW whalers go on to sell the meat thus negating their excuse that it is a cultural hunt.

In the ASW Russian gray whale and bowhead hunt it took an average of 47 bullets to kill each whale, each of which took approximately 53 minutes to die. In one instance it took 180 rounds and 3 hours 40 minutes to kill one single gray whale. On the St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean, 8 foot long lances are used to repeatedly stab humpback whales in the heart and lungs. These are just some of the brutal methods used by so-called ASW whalers found also in Peru, Russia, Japan, Denmark in the Faroe Islands and Alaska.


Whether for profit, nutrition or cultural reasons there is no justifiable reason to viciously and torturously murder another being. Each year Japan, Iceland and Norway hunt more than 2,500 whales this does not include dolphin and whales caught by nets and other methods. There is nothing scientific about these hunts, the whales are processed and their meat is sold, some of the bones and by-products end up in pet food.

These countries and a few others are seeking to overturn the IWC ban and resume commercial whaling. To stop this, please write to your government telling them how you feel about these atrocious acts. You can also spread this information to friends and family to increase awareness of this issue. Most importantly do not consume or purchase any whale products! Please visit our online action campaign for whales at

Watch whale hunting video here

To find out what else you can do please visit the How You Can Help section or read more the animal issues.


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