In pictures: how Greenpeace stopped commercial whale hunting – and why we’re still fighting

The ban on commercial whaling in the 80s was one of Greenpeace’s first major victories, but whales are still under threat today. Here’s a brief look at the history of whaling and what we still need to do to protect the world’s oceans.


Whales are incredible creatures. They are the largest animals on earth, can be found in all oceans and play an important role in the marine environment. Warm-blooded and air breathing mammals like us, whales are our allies in the fight against climate change. Their poop fertilises the ocean, which produces large blooms of microscopic algae that absorb enormous amounts of carbon dioxide.

For thousands of years though, whales have been hunted for their meat, blubber and bones. But it was in the 20th century that they became hunted on a large commercial scale, because of factory ships and explosive harpoons. 50,000 whales were killed yearly by 1930, which led to a rapid decline in whale numbers.

After years of high profile anti-whaling campaigns and public pressure, the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) landmark conference in Brighton in 1982 decided there should be a pause in commercial whaling. Known as a whaling moratorium, the ban allowed some types of whales to recover their populations. For example, humpback whales have made a remarkable comeback. In the mid 1950s, only 450 remained. And now their population stands at around 25,000. Likewise, a recent sighting of 150 fin whales feeding have given scientists hope for whale recovery.

Humpback whale with its fin and head out of the water

Breaching Humpback Whale in the Indian Ocean, Wild Coast, South Africa 2013 Ⓒ Reinhard Dirscherl / ullstein bild / Getty

But since its announcement, the success of the whaling ban has been at risk. Both Norway and Iceland’s governments objected to it and continued to hunt. And under the pretence of scientific research whaling continued in Japan too. In 2019, Japan’s government left the IWC and began commercial whaling as soon as it was no longer bound to the agreement.

These pictures illustrate the journey that led to the ban of commercial whaling and the loopholes in the moratorium. As well as what still needs to be done to save the whales and protect our oceans for the future.

1950s: commercial whale hunting

Factory ships and explosive harpoons meant that whales were hunted on a larger, commercial scale. This reduced their numbers hugely.

A whale captured on deck of a ship
A man loading a harpoon with the sea behind him

1: A commercial whaling ship in 1957 © Getty
2: A whaler loads an explosive harpoon in 1957 © Graphic House Archive Photos / Getty

1970s: taking action to save the whales

Greenpeace’s Save the Whales campaign shone a spotlight on the brutal and unnecessary hunting of whales. The campaign publicly showed images of whales being killed, staged demonstrations and used non-violent direct action to stop whaling.

Large whaling ship on the water with a small inflatable boat of protestors alongside

Greenpeace activists protest against whaling in the North Atlantic in 1978. © Greenpeace / Jean Paul Ferrero

Large group of protestors with banners outside a building, with police standing guard in front

Save the Whale demonstrators call for a ban outside an IWC conference in London in 1979 © Graham Turner / Keystone / Getty

1980s: the ban on commercial whaling

Dedicated campaigning led to the IWC declaring that commercial whaling had to be stopped to allow shrinking whale populations to recover. The ban on commercial whaling started from 1985.

Activists holding a banner that reads: 'Victory first one to the whales' and on the floor, mussels spell the words: 'Thank you'

Greenpeace activists hold a banner outside the International Whaling Commission meeting held in Brighton in 1982 © Greenpeace / Pierre Gleizes

Two black and white orca whales swimming along the water with icy land in the distance

Orca whales in Icy Strait, Southeast Alaska, USA 2009 © Francois Gohier/ VW Pics /Universal Images / Getty

1990s: The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary

As well as the moratorium, the IWC declared a Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. This was an area of 50 million square kilometres around Antarctica where all commercial whaling was banned. However, whaling for “scientific research” was allowed and the government of Japan continued to do so.

A large whaling boat with steams of red liquid coming out the side. A small protest boat alongside holds the banner "Stop killing"

A protest against whaling in 1992. While a small Greenpeace boat protests against a factory ship in the Southern Ocean, whale blood from a processing deck spills out through the sides of the ship. © Greenpeace / Robin Culley

2000s: whaling and corruption

In 2008, Greenpeace investigated whistleblower claims that thousands of dollars worth of whale meat was stolen each year from Japan’s scientific whaling fleet. Officials from the government’s Institute of Cetacean Research in Japan and the fleet operators Kyodo Senpaku knew about the embezzlement but ignored it – even though it was the Japanese taxpayer who funded the expeditions.

Four whales on the deck of a boat
A man holding a large slice of whale meat with more meat in a bag on the table in front of him

1: A factory ship in 2006 © Kate Davison/Greenpeace.
2: Greenpeace uncovered the large-scale theft of whale meat from the Japanese government-sponsored Southern Ocean whaling programme © Naomi Toyoda/Greenpeace.

Activist on top of a harpooned whale next to a large whaling ship

A Greenpeace action in 2005 to stop a whale hunt. A campaigner climbed on a harpooned minke whale to try to hinder the shooting and eventual transfer to a catcher ship. © Greenpeace / Kate Davison

2010s and beyond: protecting our oceans

Continued hunting is no longer the main threat that whales face today. Pollution, noise, fishing, shipping and habitat loss also put them under pressure. Now, the fate of our whales depends on protecting the oceans.

Worldwide, our oceans face threats from deep sea mining, plastics and climate change, which are growing bigger and more urgent each day. Whales need healthy oceans. And whales also help make our oceans work properly – they store carbon, recycle nutrients and mix layers of ocean while they travel. Our seas are weaker without whales. So we need to protect areas for whales to live, breed and thrive.

A whale with plastic waste under the water

A sperm whale plays with plastic waste in the Atlantic Ocean in 2008. © Reinhard Dirschel/Ullstein Bild/Getty

Large cloudy bubbles under the water, with a boat show in the distance above the water

Norwegian company TGS Nopec conducts seismic blasting off the coast of Greenland in 2015. © Christian Åslund / Greenpeace

Governments are working on a Global Ocean Treaty. If they get it right, it’ll create a vast network of ocean sanctuaries, which could protect over a third of the world’s seas. This would make parts of our global seas off-limits to destructive industries – creating safe zones for whales and protecting our waters for all life on earth.

The ban on whale hunting shows us that even the biggest of all marine life can bounce back, if governments choose to take action and protect it. Will you ask our leaders to take the next vital step to save the whales by protecting our oceans too?

A mother and baby whale in the ocean

Humpback whales travel north to the warm waters of Ningaloo Gulf to give birth to calves but sometimes they don't make it in time. These newly born humpback whales were photographed just moments after they were born in 2022. © Alex Westover / Greenpeace

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