Testimony of an ex-whaler

Page - January 9, 2009
By John Burton

Former whaler John Burton, pictured at the old deserted whaling-station on Hvalfjordur, western Iceland.

In 1949 I became a boy whaler. In the three 'seasons' I spent whaling in the Antarctic, I felt no disgust at being a participant in the killing of many Blue, Fin, Sperm and Humpback whale.

Nor did any of my fellow crew members, to my recollection, ever question or criticise the inhumane aspects of killing whales. In those days, the idea of animal rights didn't exist.

At that time, all we cared about was how many whales were caught on a given day, how many barrels of whale oil that represented, and how much of that meant for us in pounds, shillings and pence come pay day at the end of the trip.

For the entire four-month season - apart from the occasional day when bad weather prevented hunting - the whole fleet worked 24 hours a day in 12-hour-on, 12-hour-off shifts.

In the three seasons I spent whaling, I earned roughly £500 - a fortune by today's standards -enough, in 1950, to have bought three terrace houses for cash.

And mindful of the fact that I would have been (as the most junior member of the crew) one of the lowest paid, imagine what a gunner on a catcher would have earned in what I now see as 'blood money'.

Today, as then, whales mean big money. But only to those who are prepared to circumvent the ban on commercial whaling - killing them under the guise of 'research' and selling them on to commercial outlets.

Looking back, I am now disgusted and ashamed that I ever participated in such vile and unforgivable acts - assisting in the brutal and bloody slaughter of such beautiful and intelligent animals.

My remorse is made greater by the knowledge that I played a part in the killing of not only one whale, but of thousands.

Perhaps, in the past, a lack of resources made it necessary to kill whales. Industry, particularly during the war, depended on their valuable oils, and their meat supplemented the nation's diet at a time when of all types of protein were scarce.

But now there is no conceivable reason that can justify the killing of whales - on commercial, research or supplementary grounds.

Why have I written this testimony after all these years? My regret and remorse surfaced in the 1980s, soon after Greenpeace had startled the world with their audacious direct action against the whaling fleets.

Seeing them in their tiny, vulnerable red inflatables, attaching themselves to the sterns of huge factory ships, it dawned on me that here were human beings willing to put their lives at risk to save an animal that I had been quite prepared to see die for a few pound notes.

Greenpeace has given me an opportunity to expiate in some small way the guilt I have harboured all these years. Therefore it is now my intention in the future to do all I can to help Greenpeace secure the abolition of whale hunting worldwide and provide safe sanctuaries for the whales' future survival.