Industrial whaling began in the second half of the 19th century, with two technical innovations that revamped this activity: the invention and improvement of the harpoon cannon by the Norwegian Svend Foyn on the one hand, and on the other, steam propulsion and metal hulls. Until then, whaling had been artisanal and not without risk.
At the time, whaling had gradually declined globally due to the increasing demand for mineral and vegetable oils that rendered whaling expeditions unprofitable. In addition, the depletion of traditionally hunted species, especially right whales, became evident, threatening them with extinction. Other whale species swam too fast to be hunted. But with the progress in technology and shipbuilding, no species could be out of the reach of the hunters, however fast they might swim. In addition, whale oil recouped its value due to its use in cosmetics and margarine manufacturing.
A new drive to whaling was brought about by the Norwegians, and theirs were the first industrial companies. Companies with Norwegian capital were also the ones to restore whaling activities in Galicia in the 1920s, particularly between 1924 and 1927.
There are two kinds of industrial whaling: coastal whaling, in which the whales are caught and then processed onshore or on floating factories in sheltered bays, and pelagic whaling, which is developed fully at sea by means of a factory vessel served by several auxiliary vessels dedicated exclusively to whaling. The first kind was constrained by the need to bring the catch to land as soon as possible in order to prevent it from losing quality. In our country, this was the mode used until the entry into force of the moratorium that put an end to this practice. In Spain, there are two locations suitable for this industry: the Strait of Gibraltar and Galicia. At that time, the area of the Gulf of Guinea could also be accounted, as Spain had a colony there.
Two whaling companies were operating in Galicia at that time. First, the Compañía Ballenera Española, incorporated in 1914 on the initiative of Norwegian capital, though it did not start its activity until years later, because of World War I. It started operating in the area of the Strait of Gibraltar, with Norwegian technicians who advised the local staff, and in Galicia in 1924 with the opening of the factory at Caneliñas.
The second company was Corona Sociedad Anónima, with registered office in Vigo, which obtained its first authorization for whaling in December 1923 in the name of Don Cipriano Roque de Careaga and Cortina. This company was also associated with another Norwegian one. The following year, 1924, and before the factory was opened at Caneliñas, it began its industrial activity on the factory ship Alfonso XIII, initially anchored at the inlet in Barra, and also later at the Ría de Aldán. In light of these data, we can proudly support that industrial whaling in Galicia started in our town. This company used vessels built by Norwegian and British shipyards, suitable for its purpose, the Corona I, II, III and IV, that supplied the factory ship with their catches.
In 1927, this first phase of industrial whaling ends due basically to economic factors. The onset of the Spanish Civil War and then WWII led to the interruption of this activity until many years later, once the war period was over.
In Galicia, the activity resumed at the refurbished Caneliñas factory run by the company Industria Ballenera S.A. (IBSA), which started its activity in 1951, obtaining the relevant licence which was renewed until the arrival of the moratorium. The second authorization granted at this time was issued in favour of Factoría de Balea CB. This company belonged in equal shares to Massó Hermanos S.A, Barreras and IBSA, and it started operating in 1955 at the factory of Balea in Cangas, using material from the dismantled factory of Benzú, nowadays in Moroccan territory.
In 1964, a licence was granted to Massó Hermanos S.A. to work from Cabo Morás, in the Mariña district in Lugo. The three companies later merged and under the name of IBSA, which name remained until the end of its activity, when the moratorium came into force. That is why that name was given to the last two whaling vessels brought to the fleet that caught whales for our industry.
The factory of Cangas remained active for thirty years, from 1955 to 1985. In his book Ballenas y balleneros en Galicia (Whales and whalers in Galicia), Lino Pazos collects some oral testimonies of the time, where on the one hand reference is made to the profitability for the local economy from exploiting whales, employing many people at the factory. On the other hand, there are those who think “it was good that they closed down, in summer one could not go to the beach because of the huge amount of blubber floating in the water”.
The best season for whaling was during the summer and autumn months, taking advantage of the migration of these cetaceans. At the beginning of the activity at Salgueirón, the campaign used to start in April, although when catches began to dwindle it was delayed until the month of June. The whaling zone was located 40 to 50 miles from the coast, with few catches east of nine degrees west longitude. Normally, a boat would sail from the factory in Cangas and another two from Caneliñas and Cabo Morás respectively. Catches were landed regardless of the port of origin, depending on the distance to the factory on land, because in coastal whaling it is very important that the catch is processed immediately to prevent losing the quality of the product.
Vessels with well-known names like Lobeiro, Carrumeiro, Temerario, Cabo Morás, and the last of the IBSA series were responsible for supplying the factories with raw material. In general, they were small boats, specially prepared for their activity since they were engaged in coastal whaling, they all had high crow’s nests where watchmen waited for the whale spurts to appear since the first light of dawn. In addition, the ominous presence of the harpoon cannon mounted on the prow rendered the profile of this type of ship unmistakable.
Until relatively recently, after the end of the whaling activity, several of these ships were anchored in the harbour of the port of Cangas, a picture that we may still recall admiring the great photographic panel that we encounter at the entrance of the Autonomous Municipal Tourism Agency, located next to ex-Collegiate Church. Many people from O Morrazo still remember the event at the port of Marín, when several of these boats were attacked, supposedly by environmentalists, literally waging war against whaling, going beyond simple demonstrations as they placed devices that damaged one of the ships, and they achieved their goal with others.