The Falkland Islands and South Atlantic


Whaling in the South Atlantic and and sub-Antarctic seas was closely interwoven with sealing. Whale oil was often supplemented by elephant seal oil. In the Falklands, Louis de Bougainville, of the French colonly at Port Louis was the first recorded to have exported whale oil in 1766. News soon spread in the Northern Hemisphere of the abundance of whale and seal in the South Atlantic and soon American and other nationalites hurried there to harvest them.

During the Spanish occupation between 1767 and 1811 whalers continued their activities, disregarding any authority, much to the irritation of the Spanish. From 1806- 1820, the 'Lawless Years' when there was no authority to speak of on the islands, the whalers and sealers had free reign, with ships running in every year from the Northern hemisphere. They paid little attention to Colenel David Jewett's (who arrived to take possession of the Islands for the United Provices in 1820) letters forbidding whaling and sealing. The Buenos Aires Government granted Louis Vernet, who followed as Governor in 1828, the sole right to the seal fisheries for 20 years. He set up a whaling industry but again it was plagued by foreign whalers taking the spoils. The constant defiance of the whalers and sealers of any regulations imposed was bound to have repercussions, Vernet arrested 3 vessels, confiscating their cargo of skins. The master of one was taken to Buenos Aires for trial and in retaliation Captain Silas Duncan of the American warship 'Lexingon' trashed Port Soledad settlement, proclaiming the Islands free of all government. Vernet's deputy Brisbane was treated as a pirate, clapped in irons and taken to Montevideo. Whaling was causing serious political unrest, whalers and sealers continued as they pleased with no restrictions, and Britain was obliged to take action. Two British vessels Clio and Tyne were sent to re-assert British rights. They arrived in Berkeley sound on 2nd January 1833. The British flag was raised over the islands, they then departed leaving Vernet's storekeeper Dickson in charge and again the whaling went on uncontrolled as before. At this time there were a great many foreign vessels in the islands. Whalers had strongholds from where they could easily operate and New Island was one of these. They were also causing disturbances in the new town of Port Stanley.

Whalers set up bases on the small islands off the west coast of West Falklands, including New Island and Saunders Island (Port Egmont). Whales were most likely to be found in that region. These home ports were bases for the whalers and where large receiving ships lay, sometimes for months, taking on board oil from the smaller tender schooners that did the actual whaling. At this time whaling was done from open boats with hand thrown harpoons. Southern Right Whales, and also the small black pilot whales were likely to be taken. Sperm whales were rarer as they favoured warmer waters farther north. They were much more dangerous to take and often resulted in loss of life. However, along with the Right whale they were the basis of the industry. Right whales were the main prey of whalers around the Falklands, they were easy targets as they came close to land to calve. Tame plump and fat, they always floated after they were killed. Some other species sank immediately.

By 1854 whales were becoming scarce, only one had been caught in 8 months on New Island and the whalers based there had only 200 barrels of oil to show for 18 months of whaling.

In 1860 harpoon guns arrived and with faster vessels the big roquals were hunted down.

In 1892 Captain Larson, a Norwegian whaler reported that there were no Right whales to be found in the area but said that there were many Sei, Finner and Blue whales. With financial backing found in Beunos Aires the Compania Argentina de Pesca began operating at South Georgia. Encouraged by Larson's success Alexander Lange obtained a licence to fish Falklands waters with a base at New Island. In 1908 Salveson and Co. of Leigh took over New Island and started the Falklands only whaling factory. It was small scale and never produced more than 7000 barrels of oil in a single year. In 1916 the station was closed and moved to South Georgia.


Photographic credits: Whale at Sunders 2004 Biffo Tuson
Sources include: The Falkland Islands- Ian J Strange, James Lovegrove Waldron- Notebook and Diary 1866- 1867