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On Assignment In Search of Minkes
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By Douglas H. Chadwick Photographs by Flip Nicklin

With a million of these sleek, fast-breeding creatures in the seas, whaling nations, led by Norway and Japan, urge an end to the 15-year ban on all commercial whaling.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Today the stronghold of Norway’s oceangoing whaling industry is Lofoten Island, about a hundred miles (160 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle. There, men from the Olavsen family have been whaling for generations, and they continue to net fish and hunt minkes today. Olav, the captain, invites me aboard their ship, the Nybrœna, in the harbor near the village of Leknes. His younger brother, Jan Odin, and son, Leif Ole, lead me to the bow, where I come to grips with my first modern harpoon. Resting in the throat of a laser-sighted cannon, the lance carries a thermal grenade. Once the metal tip punches two feet into a minke, its charge of penthrite will burn at more than 5,000 degrees (2,750 degrees Celsius). It isn’t the heat that kills; it’s the shock waves from this stuff’s supersonic rate of combustion.

On board is a veterinarian, Egil Øen, who shows me minke brains he has collected for autopsy. From the degree of damage, he hopes to deduce the animals’ final state of awareness. When is a minke—whose tail might still be trembling—brain dead, as opposed to concussed but partially conscious? It is a tricky, unsettling subject, a disquisition upon the nature of existence and dying.

“I am on the animals’ side in a way,” says Øen, who is under contract with the government to train whalers in the use of the penthrite harpoon. “They are going to be killed, so I want to see it happen as fast and painlessly as possible.” Almost as he speaks, a Norwegian whaling boat farther north is reeling in a harpooned minke when the animal revives. It rams the ship, causing the mast to break and sending two crew members in the crow’s nest toppling into the sea, busting the ribs of one. Then the whale escapes. The news soon zings around the world under such headlines as “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Listen to the unusual song of minke whales.

Should whaling nations be allowed to expand the hunt for minkes? And should whales be considered a commodity?
Tell us what you think.

Should the international ban on commercial whaling be lifted?

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Recent genetic evidence has indicated that the whales we call “minke” are not one, but two or possibly three different species. Dale Rice in Marine Mammals of the World recognizes two species—Balaenoptera acutorostrata in the Northern Hemisphere, and B. bonaerensis in the Southern Hemisphere. Rice calls the southern species the Antarctic minke whale. A third form of minke, called the dwarf minke and proposed as a subspecies, occurs in the Southern Hemisphere. Though found in the same waters as the southern species, the dwarf minke is actually more closely related to the northern minke.

—David O’Connor

International Whaling Commission
This site contains a wealth of information about the commission, whales, and historic and contemporary whaling.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Look here to learn about the current U.S. policy on whaling. This site also includes current press releases and links to other marine mammal sites.

CITES member countries ban commercial international trade of certain endangered species and regulate and monitor trade in other threatened species. Find information about CITES and its mission and programs at this site.

Institute of Cetacean Research
This nonprofit Japanese research organization specializes in whale biology. Involved in the study of minkes in the Southern Hemisphere and the North Pacific, this organization is funded in part by revenue from the sale of meat from whales harvested for research purposes.

Discover Whales—The Minke Whale
This site offers general information on the biology and distribution of minkes.

Southwest Fisheries Science Center
How are minkes doing off the U.S. Pacific coast? This site provides population estimates, stock assessments, and fisheries information.


Cafiero, G. and M. Jahoda. Giants of the Sea: Whales, Dolphins, and their Habits. Thomasson-Grant, 1993.

Carwardine, M. ed. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, 2nd ed. Checkmark Books, 1999.

Clapham, P. Whales of the World. Voyager Press, 1997.

Hoelzel, A. R. and J. S. Stern, Minke Whales. World Life Library, Voyager Press, 2000.


Chadwick, Douglas H. “Listening to Humpbacks,” National Geographic (July 1999), 110-129.

Nathan, Amy. “Mystery Whale,” National Geographic World (October 1998), 26-28.

Marshall, Joyce. “In a Whale’s Eye,” National Geographic Traveler (November/December 1996), 40-43.

Whitehead, Hal. “The Realm of the Elusive Sperm Whale,” National Geographic (November 1995), 56-73.

Norris, Kenneth and others. Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises. National Geographic Books, 1995.

Norris, Kenneth. “Beluga: White Whale of the North,” National Geographic (June 1994), 2-31.

Darling, James D. “Whales: An Era of Discovery,” National Geographic (December 1988), 872-909.

Jones, Mary Lou and Steven L. Swartz. “Gray Whales of San Ignacio,” National Geographic (June 1987), 754-771.


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