By the 1950s, whaling had become highly mechanised and deadly in its efficiency. Ships with diesel engines had long ago replaced steam ships, which had been the successors to sailing vessels. This meant that fast-swimming whales that could outpace sailing ships – blue whales, minkes, fin whales – had now come into harpooners’ sights.
Helicopters lifted off from mother factory ships to spot whales. Once sighted, whales seldom escaped. Fleets of chaser boats accompanied factory ships. On the chasers, harpooners fired harpoons with exploding heads – guaranteeing the kill.
As the name implies, a factory ship had a ‘production line’ style of organisation. Once the whale was hauled on to the ship, the flesh was flensed (cut away), blubber boiled for oil, and bones ground up for fertiliser. An average 100-tonne whale could be reduced to raw ‘product’ in as little as 20 minutes.
The only break in the global slaughter of whales in the twentieth century came with World War II. Once the war was over, the whaling resumed with renewed vigour. For many nations, whales represented a cheap and easy source of protein after war shortages. Whale products also went into margarine and ice cream, cosmetics, and even pet food.