It is said that it is difficult to kill a whale (at sea) in a humane way:

Experience has shown that it is very difficult to kill a whale at sea humanely; that is, by causing minimum pain or instantaneous death.

See also:

Whales are the largest animals on the planet – which means killing one is no easy task. The practice of whale hunting is therefore one of unimaginable cruelty and suffering.

My question is, is that true?

My reason for doubting this claim is that whales have large brains: so using a high powered rifle, why is it difficult to deliver a lethal shot to the brain? Will that not result in instantaneous death?


Commercial / scientific whaling is primarily done with explosive harpoons which were designed to be efficient:

Each harpoon comes loaded with explosives that go off once they've penetrated about a foot into the flesh of the whale. The internal blast is supposed to cause enough brain damage to kill or knock out the whale within a few seconds.

If the whale survives the grenade harpoon, the gunner will usually pick up a high-powered rifle to finish the job.

How do you kill a whale?

The Minke whales that have been the primary target of whaling in recent decades are relatively small (~8m) and fast moving. Presumably, this makes them harder to hit, but easier to kill.

According to Do Harpooned Whales Suffer?:

Norway, as we mentioned, has worked particularly hard to improve Norwegian whalers' ability to hit the sweet spot as often as possible, through training classes and mandatory certification tests.

The Norwegians and other vested parties have also conducted studies on ways to minimize time-to-death by analyzing which areas of whales' bodies are the most effective to target, what angle of fire delivers the best results, in addition to honing the technological improvements mentioned previously.

But the same article refers to witnesses who say that a poor shot can lead to suffering:

According to some volunteers from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, it's not pretty. When members saw a whale harpooned in 2009, they claimed it took 25 excruciating minutes for the animal to die (and they say that when managed poorly, it can take much longer).

"Why is it difficult to deliver a lethal shot to the brain?"

Both the boat and whale are moving. The whale's head is primarily submerged and high-powered rounds don't penetrate water very well. It seems logical that if a lethal shot was not difficult, whalers would have adopted the presumably-much-cheaper rifle round over the explosive harpoon.


A "humane" killing is relative: some killings more humane, some less. Let's compare whaling with farming and with hunting.


The usual/legal standard for slaughtering farm mammals is to stun them (perhaps using a bolt gun) before bleeding them.

Whether that's always done successfully is another story.

The slaughter of farm animals using such methods is more-or-less widely seen as humane: legislation such as the Humane Slaughter Act implies that method is humane by definition and by law.


Here's a description of hunting:

During regular hunting of wild terrestrial game with rifles, the projectiles are usually directed at the thorax area to damage the circulatory system by injuring the heart, lungs and/or main thoracic vessels. The animal loses consciousness and subsequently dies from the impact shock and/or the rapid fall in blood pressure by puncture of the circulatory system.


This method can't be used for whaling:

However, this method cannot be successfully used for euthanasia of whales during hunting as the thorax is under water and water has a considerable braking effect on a rifle projectile. In trials on dead common minke whales, Øen (1995a) found that a 20mm 3 66mm high-velocity bullet with impact energy of 60kJ, which is about ten times the impact energy of the rifle projectiles used in the present study, travelling 1m or more through water before hitting the whale, stopped in the blubber. Only direct hits went sufficiently deep into the animal to give the potential to kill. A rifle bullet will therefore hardly penetrate the blubber if it hits water first.

Therefore a 'heart shot' can be used to attempt euthanasia only for a beached/stranded whale:

However, for euthanasia of stranded whales, which in many cases have the thorax area out of the water, a rifle shot through the heart or main vessels with sufficient ammunition, will probably kill the animal rather quickly, although not instantaneously.

Therefore they shoot for the brain as suggested in your question:

Consequently, for the euthanasia of whales in water, the primary target area for rifles is the brain and for a whale of the size of a common minke whale a heavy, round nosed or semi butt, full-jacketed bullet with high impact energy and sectional density is recommended to avoid splintering, ricocheting and deviation by passing hard tissue. The brain of a common minke whale is approximately 20cm in length, 20cm in width and 15cm in height (Knudsen et al., 1999). This is a relatively small target as it is exposed over water only for a couple of seconds at a time. However, the shooting range is usually short and the results from the present study demonstrated that the .375 and .458 missiles caused fatal damage to the brain, and killed the animal instantaneously or very rapidly also when it hit and penetrated the skull as far as 20cm from the brain. Consequently, when using the recommended .375 and .458 calibre bullets, the lethal hitting area will be larger than the brain itself, increasing the potential for rapid kills. Additionally, the study also demonstrated that hits in the spine in the neck resulted in brain damage and very rapid death. This was demonstrated even when the whale was hit as far back as to the 2nd thoracical vertebrae.

Whalers first hit the whale with an explosive harpoon. Reasons for using a harpoon might include:

  • They travel through water better than a bullet
  • They're an explosive weapon, not a kinetic weapon
  • A whale will sink when it's killed, so they want to spear it with a line to catch/hold it

The rifle is used as the second/backup method if the harpoon strike didn't (in the opinion of the gunner) kill the whale.

During hunting, the rifle is kept beside the marksman and the whales are to be hauled in rapidly for control after the impact of the harpoon. The rifle is usually fired from close range and when the whale’s head is out of the water. The hunter aims at the brain (Fig. 1), which, depending on the size of the animal, lies 55 to 75cm behind the blowhole (Knudsen et al., 1999). An illustration chart with the position of the brain and aiming point from different shooting angles and directions has been distributed to all Norwegian whaling vessels. Rifle shots are fired at any whales that show movement, if the flippers or jaws are not relaxed or if the hunters suspect it may still be alive. In 2001, 79.6% of the animals were recorded instantaneously dead from the grenade detonation (Øen, 2002). Nevertheless, the hunters used the rifle on 45% of the whales as many use the rifle as a matter of routine when the whale is alongside the boat (Øen, 1995;2002).

So according to this, somewhere between 20% and 50% of the whales are not killed by the first (exploding) harpoon, and are finished by rifle a close range.

Norway's technology is state of the art (i.e. others are worse). This 2003 IWC report says things like,

Norwegian grenades showed superiority in every experiment. TTD of Norwegian grenades in every experiment were shorter than Japanese grenade and Instantaneous Death Rate (IDR) of Norwegian grenades in every experiment were higher than for Japanese grenades. Norwegian grenades showed excellent results especially for small individuals. However, financial concerns may be the most important factor related to the decision on whether or not to introduce them to Japan.


It was commented that this was a very valuable and interesting paper. In reply to a question about the possible use of these bullets at shooting ranges of up to 50-100m, ÿen answered that they had no experience of longer distances since all the whales in Norway were shot at a much shorter distance. In the present study the mean shooting distance was 9.3m.


New Zealand indicated that the research presented tp this Workshop suggested a current level of best practice for determining the minimum specifications of rifles used to kill whales (being a minimum calibre of .375 inches with round nosed full metal jacketed bullets) and that it would be appropriate to consider a broad implementation of these best practice standards. While there was general agreement that all countries should be encouraged to use the best available techniques to kill whales, it was acknowledged that there were substantial practical and financial constraints for aboriginal subsistence whalers. It was agreed that the Workshop had been constructive in striving to improve whale killing methods and the encouragement of the adoption of such measures would be warmly welcomed.

The above are quotes from IWC and Norwegian papers. I used them because:

  • They're first-hand or expert witnesses
  • They are not overtly anti-whaling

There's a longish page titled HUNTED DEAD OR 'STILL' ALIVE which argues from the opposite point of view.

It has dozens of points to make (which you can read there but which I won't summarize here). One of them is this,

During the 1999 IWC Workshop on Whale Killing Methods, one expert noted that ‘causing humane death without pain in meat animals usually includes the induction of instantaneous insensibility by stunning. Instantaneous in this context is embodied in European Union Legislation which requires a limit of about 100 milliseconds between stimulus (application of stunning device) and unconsciousness. The figure of 100 milliseconds is based on the pain perception delay of 100 to 150 milliseconds found in meat animals.’

Clearly, modern whaling techniques do not come close to delivering ‘death without pain, stress or distress’. All current whaling methods include a chase and, even in hunts where more powerful killing weapons are used, irreversible insensibility or instantaneous death – the key to a humane kill – is still not achieved in a significant number of cases.

That seems to be to be true, i.e. matching the evidence previously presented above:

  • "Humane" for farm mammals is defined as meaning near-instant unconsciousness
  • This (being killed semi-immediately) doesn't happen for a large number (at least 20%) of the Norwegian whales

The numbers are worse for non-Norwegian kills; for example,

Norwegian whalers aim the explosive harpoon at the whale’s head, or just behind it, which results in a greater number of animals dying instantaneously (79.7% in 2001) and a shorter average time to death (2 minutes and 25 seconds). In contrast, their Japanese counterparts deliberately avoid the whale’s head in order not to damage the fragile “ear-plugs” which they collect as part of the study that supports their claim to be conducting ‘scientific whaling’. A strike to the body of the whale can cause extensive tissue and organ damage, but may deliver insufficient energy to the brain. Japan only achieved instantaneous death in 33% of its minke whale hunts in Antarctica in the 2001/2002 season and an average time to death of 3 minutes and 23 seconds. Since 2000, Japan has expanded its hunts to species much larger than minke whales (Bryde’s whales are at least twice as heavy, sei whales about five times heavier and male sperm whales are not only nearly six times heavier but have an entirely different anatomy). Despite this wide variation, Japan is believed to use the same size harpoon on each species, but refuses to provide data on the time they take to die.

Older techniques e.g. old-fashioned grenades used in 1995 resulted in some times-to-death of an hour or longer, and up to 40% of the whales not being landed (e.g. escaped wounded).

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