Whaling crews and their encounters with polar bears and sea ice in 17th century Svalbard

A new paper published today by Dagomar Degroot is a long but interesting historical account about sea ice and whaling in the 1600s around Svalbard that includes some details on interactions of whalers with polar bears (Figure 4 from the paper copied below). These were the early days of whaling in the Arctic: the wholesale slaughter of whales and polar bears didn’t happen until the 1800s.

The paper is open access, so free to download but I’ve copied the abstract and a short excerpt here.


In the seventeenth century, the climate of the Arctic cooled, warmed briefly, and cooled again, just as European merchants established new industries to extract the region’s resources. Few were larger or more violent than the whaling industry that exploited bowhead whales between Jan Mayen and Svalbard. This article argues that linked changes in climate and animal behavior influenced violence among whalers in different ways during three stages of the seventeenth-century industry. In the first, cooling discouraged violence by increasing the regional extent of sea ice, which led both whales and whalers to congregate in tight quarters, raising the cost of hostilities among whalers.

In the second, violence provoked attempts to colonize fortified whaling stations year-round, leading to a shift in polar bear behavior and exposing overwintering whalers to some of the coldest weather of the Little Ice Age in the Arctic. In the third, sweeping changes in climate and whale culture helped doom whaling companies and their fortified whaling stations, while encouraging open-sea whaling that transformed where and how whalers could fight one another. This article reveals, above all, the potential of combining climate history with animal-human history to provide fresh perspectives on the past, present, and future.


During the first decades of the seventeenth century, up to one hundred thousand bowhead whales calved and mated near Jan Mayen early each year. In the spring, the whales migrated northeast along the retreating edge of the vast expanse of congregated sea ice—ice formed by frozen salt water—that constitutes the Arctic ice pack (fig. 1).

By early April, they entered feeding grounds in bays along Svalbard’s largest islands, Spitsbergen and Edgeøya, that were now largely clear of sea ice (fig. 2).

Mature individu­als strained nearly two tons of zooplankton through some six hundred baleen plates, the longest of which could reach four meters long, occasionally by swimming in coordinated formations near the surface.21 Feeding on this scale at low trophic levels—near what ecologists call “primary production”—nourished bodies that could reach nineteen meters in length and well over one hundred tons in weight. Huge bodies allowed for vast stores of energy in the form of insulating layers of blubber that could be more than fifty centimeters thick.22 When fast ice—sea ice anchored to the shore—returned to the bays of the Svalbard marine ecosystem in the fall, bowheads departed for the open ocean.23

The springtime retreat of sea ice across the ecosystem coincided with the arrival of European whalers, because the evolutionary adaptations that attuned bowhead bodies to the Arctic environment made them ideal targets for human hunters. Their blubber and baleen hairs were cooked and carved into valuable commodities on the European market, and they were too slow to escape the boats, or shallops, that whalers deployed from ships.

Gases generated by decomposition lifted their bodies above the water roughly one day after they were killed, where they were easily stripped bare.24 To hunt this tempting prey, seventeenth-century whaling captains usually recruited poor young men in coastal villages across western Europe. Since it was hard for these men to find winter employment as sailors that would allow them to depart with the whaling fleet in the spring, their financial security typically depended on “making” a voyage—catching enough whales to fill their ship with barrels of oil—in the summer.25

Success was by no means guaranteed. Logbooks and letters written aboard whaling ships, as well as mutilated skeletons buried in shallow graves across Svalbard and Jan Mayen, reveal that whalers faced harrowing dangers in the Arctic. Ice was a particularly treacherous antagonist. Whalers slipped to their deaths from ice-covered masts and were crushed by the sudden collapse of glaciers. They died when sea ice punctured the hulls of their ships, or when they slipped beneath the ice after falling overboard.

Whales in their death throes hurled whalers from shallops into frigid water, where some succumbed to the shock and cold. In the cramped and unhygienic quarters of whaling ships, illness plagued those lucky enough to survive. Rations rarely provided whalers with sufficient vitamin C, and most crews suffered from scurvy. The disease bruised and bloodied their bodies while provoking anxiety and depression, a combination of symptoms that must have left whalers even more vulnerable to the Arctic’s other hazards.26

The ease with which bowheads escaped pursuit in violent, frigid weather forced the whalers to rely on other animals. Yet when polar bears appeared around their cabin in late October, the crew discovered that they had become both predator and prey. They pursued individual bears for their meat and fur, but they were repeatedly trapped in their cabin by groups of bears that tried to break in.

Eventually, the crew learned to fortify the cabin and to exploit the fearlessness of bears that charged directly into their muskets. Still, they held their fire when too many bears gathered nearby. Since their weapons could only with difficulty bring down individual bears, they did not risk provoking an all-out assault on their cabin.65

Although this state of war between humans and bears endured for nearly three months, it was not long before the whalers gained the upper hand. They killed enough bears to accumulate precious stores of meat, while the bears never killed a whaler. By January 13, they observed that bears near their encampment had learned to flee as soon as they perceived movement, heard the click of a gun, or spotted a burning match.

On February 2, van der Brugge reported that the bears were “so shy now” that even groups would run away after catching sight of the whalers. On February 8, an expedition to a nearby island encountered bear “troops” that, upon “seeing the men, stood up on their hind-legs, as did also the cubs beside them,” while staying at safe distance. For the rest of the spring, the whalers chased bears and even tempted them with meat, “but as they had played at the game before,” van der Brugge recounted, “we could never get within range of them.”66

Polar bears are aggressive carnivores. Before whalers arrived in the Svalbard marine ecosystem, the bears had no experience of predation on land and no familiarity with human beings. The English overwinterers in 1630 had encountered large numbers of bears for only two months and made no mention of any change in bear behavior.

Polar bears, however, are endowed with keen memory and the capacity for complex social behavior, and in 1633, it took them roughly three months to adapt to the arrival of a rival predator. The shift in bear behavior benefited the whalers to some extent; it eased a threat to their lives and allowed them to hunt other game unmolested. Yet bear meat—once a crucial and readily accessible source of protein and vitamins—was now much harder for whalers to acquire, and scurvy started to set in despite the grass they had harvested. Overall, the shift in bear behavior made it harder for whalers to endure the long winter.67


Degroot, D. 2022. Blood and Bone, Tears and Oil: Climate Change, Whaling, and Conflict in the Seventeenth-Century Arctic. The American Historical Review 127(1):62–99. https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/rhac009 Published 26 April 2022.

Comments are closed.