Gemina Garland-Lewis is a National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee recording the stories of former whalers in the Azores who used 19th century techniques until ending their hunts entirely in the 1980s.
Greetings from the field!
It’s been one of my busiest weeks yet with the festivities of the largest celebration on the island of Faial, Semana do Mar (Sea Week) on top of my interviews with whalers. With the happenings of the week, I’ve also been able to get up close (literally, as well as figuratively) to the whaleboat regattas that comprise the heart of the current culture surrounding the whaling days, as well as join in the procession for Senhora da Guia, the patron saint of whalers on this island.
I’ve heard the stories of six more men this week, with an incredible range of diversity in what they liked about whaling, when they left and why, how they view the whale watching industry, and what bothered them the most about the hunt. I’ve had some of the most interesting conversations yet this week, in part due to the fact that two of the men I spoke to were on the boats that killed the last three whales in 1987, three years after whaling officially ended in the Azores. I’d like to share some of their sentiments and stories for this post, as they were two of the most articulate men I’ve encountered.
Francisco “Barbeiro” Joaquim Machado, age 92, is from the whaling village of Lajes do Pico. The men from this town are arguably the most competitive and I’ve come to understand the differences in regions by the nature of the stories they tell; if they are more boastful and proud (and maybe a little more grandiose in storytelling), they’re probably from Lajes. Barbeiro gets his nickname from the fact that he was a barber in the army, and kept his trade afterwards. Perhaps the most famous story about him is when he was in the middle of giving a marine corporal a shave and the rocket went off to announce a whale sighting. He said he was sorry, but he had to go, leaving the corporal to clean off the foam and walk home with a half-shaven face. Whalers’ immediate response to the rockets were well understood, though, and the corporal happily came back the next day to have Barbeiro finish the job.
Barbeiro started whaling in 1935 and finished when the last whale was killed on November 14, 1987, meaning he has seen more of the evolution of whaling in these islands than anyone I’ve met (and quite possibly anyone still living). At the time the last hunts were conducted in 1987, whaling had officially been over for 3 years, the last factory closing in 1984. When I asked what the purpose and the emotion behind the last few hunts was, he said that killing an industry with over 100 years of history was a crime no different from killing these men because it was taking away their livelihood. When the former President of Portugal, Mário Soares, visited the Azores, he spoke with Barbeiro, who told him that it was a mistake to join the EU (then the EEC) because it cut off the possibility of whaling as an industry in the future – they should have defended their right to whale, like Norway, he said.
Today he advocates for a small quota for whaling, he says only three or four whales, so that people here could make extra income off the products that are still valuable, which he listed as flour for fertilizer (made by grinding up the bones) and the teeth. He is aware that there is no market for oil anymore, which is relatively rare among these whalers. He said if he knew the sperm whale population was in peril he would be the first to say that whaling needed to stop, but if they were taking so few it would be okay (side note: for the whalers here, the word “whale” refers only to the sperm whale. For them no other whale existed – just some random “big fish” they saw that had no economic worth to them. Also, if you’re wondering, the sperm whale is classified as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List).
Manuel Homem da Silva, age 74, had an interesting perspective to add to Barbeiro’s, as he was also in the last boats that went out in 1987. I made a major faux-pas though when I got excited upon hearing he was one of the (last) last whalers, asking if he was in Barbeiro’s boat – only realizing after his adamant “No!” that Barbeiro was from Lajes and he was from Ribeiras, the two towns who had more competition between them than any others. For him, the general feeling behind hunting the last few whales was a revolt against the Portuguese government, which falls in line with what Barbeiro spoke about with the President. He described whaling as a piggybank that allowed families to save for the future – without this income they lost this ability and he spoke about many going hungry. He was very adamant that I know he feels that the government forgot these men, speaking about a monument to whalers in Lajes do Pico that cost 42,000 contos (about $250,000) to build, but when it came to actually supporting these men and their families who lost their income there was never any money. They paid lip service, but forgot about the real men behind the history, he says.
Manuel Homem is the first man I’ve interviewed who’s responded to the question “What did you like least about whaling?” with the answer: “That we had to kill the whales.” He became angry recalling a time when some journalists asked him if he liked killing whales, saying that he was incredibly offended – of course he didn’t like killing whales, no one likes killing another creature, but that it was what he had to do to survive. He spoke of how horrible it was to watch the whales suffer, describing some of the hunting techniques as “pure torture.” That being said, he still advocates for a small hunt today. He believes that allowing a regulated hunt for only old males, leaving young males and females alone, would help to boost the economy of the islands by allowing them some valuable products like animal food, fertilizer, teeth, and ambergris (a solid, waxy secretion from the intestines of sperm whales, particularly older ones, that was used as a fixative in perfumes before it was mostly replaced with synthetics). He said this would also allow them to keep this important part of their culture alive. When I asked if he would want to teach the same killing methods or use improved technology he replied that he would love to see a faster method to kill whales in place and would advocate for the use of a harpoon that had more instantaneous kills.
Of course he didn’t like killing whales,
no one likes killing another creature.
When I asked Manuel Homem about whale watching, he said he is revolted by the industry, stating that it is cruel and based solely off of scaring whales for pleasure. He spoke of watching whales playing from his home, only to see whale watching boats crowd around and scare them away. He believes whale watching is more damaging than whaling because you’re affecting larger numbers of whales and it’s not for necessity, just for fun. When whaling existed, he said, it fed everyone in the village, whereas whale watching feeds the few families who have monopolized the business. For me, getting an answer other than “it’s nice for people to see the whales” was an incredibly interesting talking point, and I have to thank Manuel Homem for indulging me in my questions to him.
As a final note, I’d like to spotlight Alberto Macedo Broum, age 82, a whaler from Cais do Pico. When I asked if he could stand next to an old whaleboat on display in the whaling factory turned museum, I had barely blinked before I saw him put his crutches down and climb into the whaleboat like he was sixty years younger and heading out for the hunt right then. He was a harpooner, and true to form, braced his knee in the half moon cut-out at the bow of the boat and raised his arms as though I was a whale he was about to hit. The look of joy on his face to be back in a boat was priceless, and afterwards, when he climbed out, grabbing his crutches, I could see years of memories flooding his eyes and he looked the boat up and down. Before we parted, he told me “you get weaker, but your body doesn’t forget.” I am glad our meeting was able to give him that moment in the boat. There likely won’t be another such opportunity.