But changing technologies such as exploding harpoon tips (invented in 1860) that were meant to quickly kill whales, cranes and bulldozers to move their carcasses, and motorboats that zip hunters to a potential target, have radically changed the nature of the hunt for many whaling communities over the last century.
But one whaling community steadfastly refused to adopt the new ways of hunting these marine giants—specifically sperm whales. Whalers in the Azores (map) in the eastern Atlantic used oars, sails, and hand-thrown harpoons right up until 1987.
One key factor in the death knell for Azorean whaling: Portugal, which claims the archipelago that lies about a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) off its coast, joined the European Union, which had formally adopted a ban on commercial whaling in 1982—although it was not fully implemented until 1986.
The last Azorean factory which processed whale carcases for their meat and oil closed in 1984, although a few whales were still taken until 1987.
Unlike many communities with a spiritual or traditional component to their whaling activities, whalers in the Azores engaged in the practice for purely economic reasons.
"People went into it for the money," explains Tufts graduate student Gemina Garland-Lewis. That's what attracted young men on the islands to join up with U.S. whaling boats from New England in the 1700s.
The islanders' descendants preferred to use the tools their forebears hunted with right into the 20th century.
Although the Azorean whalers adopted the use of motorboats to tow whaleboats toward sperm whale sightings, approaching the animal and getting into position was performed under sail or using oars. Crews killed their quarry with hand-thrown harpoons and reeled in lines with their hands.
But with the shuttering of the industry in the mid-1980s, men like 75-year-old Manuel Garcia Tavares Jr. became the last of a generation that knew what it was like to hunt the huge animals using these older techniques.
Although Tavares—pictured above sitting in a whaling storehouse on the island of Faial last August—had whalers in his family, he never had an interest in going out to sea, preferring to work in the whaling factories on land.
In order to document this unique whaling culture, Garland-Lewis—a National Geographic Young Explorer—spent six weeks in the Azores last year, collecting stories and taking photographs.
"[Whaling] was a really large chunk of the economy for a long time—almost everyone has a whaler in their family," says Garland-Lewis, who is now studying agriculture and disease in Africa, said in a recent interview. "Even though none of the young people [on the island] want Portugal to start whaling again, they still hold a very great respect for these men."
Now, the whaleboats are used by the next generation in sailing races. And though whales are still part of the island economy, they are now tourist attractions during whale watching trips.
—Jane J. Lee