In the early 1940s a new form of marine resources was introduced in Madeira: the hunt for Sperm whales. In 1940 two lookouts and two whale boats along with the crews arrived in Madeira. These technical and human means came from the Azores.
These men began to build two lookout posts in the east and west ends of the island, namely in Machico and Porto Moniz. Besides these two buildings, a very rudimentary station to melt the layers of fat from the whales, known as blubber, was built. The whalers called it Tryworks and it was located in Ribeira da Janela, in Porto Moniz.
February 2nd 1941 is a milestone in the history of whaling in Madeira, for this was the day on which the first whales were killed in this archipelago. These animals were killed off the coast of Porto Moniz and were transformed into oil in Ribeira da Janela.
In 1942 a new Tryworks was built, this time on the south coast, specifically in the calhau do Garajau, located approximately 3,5 miles east of the Funchal pier. The Tryworks in Garajau was better equipped than the one in Ribeira da Janela, which led to the gradual abandonment of the latter one.
Over the years, the Madeira coastal lookout network was improved with the building of new lookout posts along the coast of Madeira, in the Desertas Islands and the island of Porto Santo. These lookout posts allowed the full coverage of the seas of this archipelago up to 15 miles.
Image 1: Lookout network of the Madeira Archipelago
Image 2: Lookout post in Caniçal, Image courtesy of Jacques Soulaire
The efficiency of the lookout network was based on two technical factors: The first was the correct positioning of the building that influenced the vision range, facilitating the location of the animals. The second was the availability of efficient communication, which made the communication between the watchmen and boats easier. Some of the lookout posts used for searching whales were built in 1943 by the Captaincy of the Funchal port, in order to strengthen the coastal surveillance for air and maritime military traffic control and during the Second World War.
In 1944 the Whaling Company of the Madeira Archipelago known as EBAM, from the Portuguese name: Empresa Baleeira do Arquipélago da Madeira was created and assimilated the existing capital available for the whaling fleet and allowed the entrance of external capital, essential to the modernization that followed.
Image 3: Plastic sack with the EBAM logo for packing whale flour
In 1946 a vessel entered into service in order to provide essential support to hunting, particularly by towing the whaling boats and the dead animals: The tug "Passos Gouveia".
Imagem 4: The tug "Passos Gouveia". Image courtesy of Cymbron family
In the late 1940s the newly created EBAM proceeded to the industrialization of dead animals’ transformation means, with the construction of a modern factory. Being well-equipped, the new plant enabled the full advantage of dead animals, making the production of oil from blubber and bones possible as well as the production of flour from meat and bones. Built in Caniçal, the new plant increased EBAM’s productive capacity, and also reduced the dependence on human effort.
Image 5: Aerial view of the EBAM manufacturing facility. Image courtesy of Cymbron family
Alongside the modernization of the means of transformation, in the 1950s EBAM invested in the modernization of the hunting means. This modernization happened with the acquisition of new vessels such as the tug "Persistência" and the building of different, motorized whaling boats.
Imagem 6: Motorized whaling boats. Image courtesy of Manuel Nicolau.
The motorization of whaling boats, combined with the acquisition of faster boats led to the development of a Madeiran hunting method: the surrounding operation. This method was based on speed and the new vessels manoeuvring agility in order to drive the animals near the coast, making the hunt easier. The new method replaced the hunting technique introduced by Azorean and developed by the Basques in the Middle Ages, which was based on stealthy approach to animals.
Image 7: Harpoon used in Madeiran whaling. The force exerted by sperm whales after being harpooned resulted in c.
The raw materials of sperm whales enabled the production of a great diversity of products. Oil was extracted from the blubber and the bones and it was used for lubrication of industrial machinery and chemical industry. In Portugal, its use was frequent in softening the leather used in the tanning industry and in Madeira it was used as fuel for marine engines and vehicles, during the scarcity of mineral fuels during the Second World War.
Image 8: EBAM brand for marking oil barrels
Image 9: Flask containing an oil sample produced by EBAM
The head of the sperm whale contains a huge mass of fat called spermaceti, which at room temperature is in the solid state. After refined, this material results in a high quality oil, whose properties have made it sought by aerospace industry.
Image 10: Removing liquid spermaceti from inside a sperm whale’s head. Image courtesy of Jacques Soulaire
The EBAM factory also processed bones, flesh, and blood of the sperm whales. These raw materials resulted in the production of protein meal for feeding cattle and the production of a fertilizer rich in minerals, for fertilization of agricultural land.
The EBAM even profited with the extraction of ambergris. This material is the result of a slow process that is characterized by the accumulation of natural non-digestible matter in the intestines of sperm whales, which formed a compact mass of dark colour. The amber was used as an aromatic fixing agent, by the French perfume industry.
Image 11: Pedra de âmbar retirada das vísceras de um cachalote
The sperm whales’ jaws and teeth were used by whalers and artists, in the production of artistic pieces known as: Scrimshaw.
In the 1970s, with the growth of the international movement for the defense of the whales, there was a ban on the sale of products derived from these animals on some countries, which until then were the main buyers of Madeiran production. This ban along with the decrease in the number of sightings led to the voluntary end to whaling in the archipelago in 1981.
From 1986 on, the Regional Legislative Decree No. 6/86/M turned the waters around the archipelago, up to 200 miles, into a sort of sanctuary for whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, especially for the rare monk seal.