Last of the Viking Whalers

In Norway a maverick way of life is ending.

This story appears in the June 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The Lofoten Islands in the far north of Norway have always been a world apart, a peninsula-like chain of wild, craggy shards jutting into the Norwegian Sea above the Arctic Circle. In Norse folklore Lofoten’s long spine of mountains were said to be the haunts of trolls and Valkyries—maidens who conducted slain warriors to Valhalla—and its fjords provided dramatic backdrops to some of the grandest of the Viking sagas.

On this bright summer morning, a small wooden boat putters across the glassy expanse of the Vestfjorden, its wake rippling the mirror-perfect reflections of the surrounding mountains. The boat’s skipper, 69-year-old Jan Bjørn Kristiansen, has been sailing these waters for more than 50 years, the past 40 of them in the same weather-beaten vessel, which by no coincidence is also called Jan Bjørn. The name is fitting, for man and boat have much in common: Both are tough, seasoned whalers, quintessentially Norwegian—stubborn, practical, strongly built—and both bear the scars of much hard work at sea.

Over the course of the summer whaling season, Kristiansen will harpoon perhaps 30 or 40 minke whales, butcher their carcasses on deck, and sell the meat dockside to local seafood merchants along the coast. Despite an international moratorium on commercial whaling, Norwegians like Kristiansen persist in hunting minke whales—though for practical reasons they do so only in Norway’s domestic waters.

In his five decades as a whaler, Kristiansen has weathered many a storm, both at sea and on land. He lived through the dangerous years of the eco-wars, when activists sabotaged and sank a number of Lofoten whaleboats. And he survived a horrific shipboard accident a few years ago when his harpoon cannon backfired, nearly killing him and leaving him with a mangled left hand. He was back hunting whales the following season.

But as he steers toward an old whaling station on this calm midsummer morning, Kristiansen sees not just his own long career drawing to a close, but also an entire way of life. His eponymous boat is one of only 20 that came out to hunt this season—a far cry from the nearly 200 whalers that worked northern Norway’s coastal waters in the late 1950s, when Kristiansen was getting his first taste of whaling as a deckhand.

It isn’t a scarcity of whales that is bringing down the curtain, or even the complicated politics of whaling. It’s something far more prosaic and inexorable: Norwegian kids, even those who grow up in the seafaring stronghold of Lofoten, simply don’t want to become whalers anymore. Nor do they want to brave storm-tossed winter seas to net fortunes in cod, as their forebears have done for centuries. Instead, they aspire to land safer, salaried jobs in distant cities or with the offshore oil industry, and they have been leaving their island communities in droves.

There is irony in this turn of events. For most of its history, Lofoten exerted a gravitational pull on the young and ambitious. In his 1921 coming-of-age classic The Last of the Vikings, Norwegian novelist Johan Bojer described the legendary island chain as “a land in the Arctic Ocean that all the boys along the coast dreamed of visiting some day, a land where exploits were performed, fortunes were made, and where fishermen sailed in a race with Death.”

For a few gold rush months each year, millions of Atlantic cod migrate south from the Barents Sea to spawn among the reefs and shoals of Lofoten. Fishermen have been flocking here to cash in on the bonanza for more than a thousand years. In addition to sitting astride one of the world’s richest fisheries, these islands are also blessed with a near-perfect climate for drying fish in the open air to make stockfish. This durable, highly nutritious cod jerky sustained the Vikings on their long voyages and became Norway’s most lucrative export during the Middle Ages.

The immense wealth of the dried cod trade, and the possibility that jackpot riches might await any man with a boat, courage, and a bit of luck, lured fortune seekers by the thousands. Grainy photographs from the 1930s show Lofoten’s harbors jammed with boats. Nowadays factory trawlers from the big seafood companies down south do the work of many boats, netting and processing a high percentage of the catch. Small family-owned boats that brought their catches to local merchants and kept the Lofoten villages alive have become endangered species.

The cod are still there, still running in the millions, still a lucrative business. But as the older fishermen sell out and retire, seafood companies snap up their quotas for big money. Even the sons of fishermen who want to carry on the family business may find their paths blocked by the cost of buying a boat and a quota—typically three-quarters of a million dollars.

“Banks don’t want to lend you that kind of money when you’re my age,” says 22-year-old Odd Helge Isaksen, who nevertheless is determined to follow in the Lofoten tradition and become a fisherman. A resident of Røst, a close-knit island community located at the heart of the Lofoten cod banks, Isaksen is making his way into the business the hard way, in an open boat hauling in cod one by one on handlines, in much the way his Viking forebears did a thousand years ago. Such dedication is rare. In the past ten years only Isaksen and one other young man on Røst decided to pursue fishing as a career.

“I’m one of the new Vikings,” he jokes one bitterly cold winter evening as he motors into the harbor after a long day at sea. Coming in hours after the rest of the fleet returned, his boat is laden to the gunwales with hundreds of pounds of cod. Black Sabbath is blaring on his iPod as he steers his boat with one hand and updates his Facebook account on his mobile phone with the other.

“My friends from school think it’s kind of funny that I decided to become a fisherman,” Isaksen says. “But they sure are impressed with the money I’m making.”

Compared with Lofoten’s cod industry and its thousand-year history, commercial whaling was a latecomer. “Whaling from boats was unknown in my grandfather’s day,” recalls Oddvar Berntsen, now 83 and the last surviving resident of his fishing village. “The boats were just too small. Occasionally the villagers might kill a whale from shore if it came in close, but this was looked upon as opportunistic, done for food.”

When commercial whaling finally arrived in Norway, it did so with a bang—literally. In the 1860s a Norwegian shipping and whaling magnate named Svend Foyn devised the grenade-tipped harpoon. It was a game changer, thrusting Norway to the fore of the world’s whaling nations.

Norway’s fishermen, however, blamed the new industry for poor catches during the 1870s, since whales were believed to drive schools of fish closer to shore, where fishermen in small boats could catch them. After a series of bitter disputes between fishermen and whalers, Norway became the first nation to ban whaling in its territorial waters, declaring a ten-year moratorium in 1904. From then on, Norway’s commercial whalers sought their quarry in the wider North Atlantic and in the rich waters of the Antarctic.

About the same time, the Lofoten fishing fleet began shifting from sail to engine. With their newfound mobility, some fishermen took up whaling as an additional means of putting food on the table—no small consideration later on during the Great Depression, when both cash and meat were scarce.

The banner year for Lofoten’s whalers came in 1958, when 192 boats caught 4,741 minke whales. But change was already in the wind. By 1973, the year Kristiansen bought his boat, the number of whalers had dropped by nearly half. The number has continued falling ever since.

The reasons are more economic and social than ecological. The cost of hunting whales is high, and returns are low. Although fashionable restaurants in Oslo still offer whale steak, many Norwegian grocery shoppers regard the rich red meat as Depression-era food, or as eco-unfriendly, or perhaps worse still, as a novelty cuisine for tourists. And because of a variety of factors—including restrictions imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)—there is little export market. So although Norway’s government sets an annual quota of 1,286 minke whales, in practice whalers take far fewer (only 533 in 2011).

Even some of Norway’s green groups, staunchly opposed to whaling on principle, are content these days to maintain a deathwatch for a way of life they expect to disappear within a generation. They can afford to wait it out. With the North Atlantic minke whale population estimated at a healthy 130,000 animals, Norway’s modest annual catch is considered highly sustainable. It’s the whalers who are headed for extinction.

The demise of whaling and the consolidation of the cod industry are changing the face of Lofoten, and nowhere is that change more glaring than at Skrova. A generation ago this was a thriving fishing port with no fewer than eight factories working overtime to process cod, herring, and other fish. Fishing and whaling were booming then, and Skrova was the place to be. By the early 1980s the tiny community was deemed to have the highest percentage of millionaires in all of Norway. Wealthy factory owners and fishermen liked to take their ease on a dockside bench, which bemused locals christened millionærbænken, the millionaires’ bench. The old bench is still there, weathered and worn, but most of the millionaires who sat on it were put out of business long ago by the seafood companies down south and their fleets of factory ships. All but one of Skrova’s fish factories have closed, the most recent in 2000. With the loss of jobs, the island’s population has dwindled to about 150 full-time residents.

Only Ellingsen’s, an old family-run seafood company, remains in business. It’s still prosperous, nowadays turning out 12,000 tons a year of its own locally farmed salmon and, for a few weeks each summer, buying whale meat from the handful of whalers who still work these waters.

“To be honest, whale meat isn’t really commercial for us anymore,” says 42-year-old Ulf Christian Ellingsen, the third generation of his family to run the company.

“We continue to buy it mainly out of respect for tradition and our old roots. My grandfather started this business in 1947 primarily as a whale meat buyer. We’d like to keep that going for as long as we can.”

Skrova’s most significant export these days isn’t salmon or whale but the precious cargo that leaves on the passenger ferry to Svolvær every autumn—a small clutch of schoolchildren who have outgrown the island’s tiny community school and are obliged to pack their bags and leave home to attend the regional high school. For most of them, this introduction into the larger world is the start of a whole new life, one that leads away from Skrova.

The five teenagers who depart Skrova this autumn will be followed by two more next year and another three the year after. And with no youngsters entering school at the other end of the line, the island’s already critically small community school looks set to shrink still further.

“We need to get more young families moving in here,” says Ellingsen, whose own daughter, Aurora, is among this autumn’s group of teenage émigrés who are moving to Svolvær to continue their education.

“I’d like to come back and retire here someday when I’m old,” says 17-year-old June Kristin Hauvik, whose mother has worked in the Ellingsen fish factory for 35 years. For now, though, June Kristin is following in the footsteps of her two older sisters, both of whom are leading successful urban lives, one a doctor, the other a lawyer, worlds away from the sleepy island where they grew up. On this bright autumn afternoon, June Kristin and the other departing teenagers board the ferry and set off into the future, past the old millionaires’ bench, out beyond the headlands and into the wide open waters, where everything seems possible.