The Kosmos whaling fleet 1948/49 season

The Kosmos whaling company was based in Sandefjord, Norway, and owned and managed by the Sandefjord ship owner Anders Jahre. This fleet was typical of all the Norwegian and British pelagic whaling fleets which voyaged the Antarctic waters in the years immediately preceding and following the Second World War.

The factory ship - Kosmos III
The command centre of the fleet was the factory ship - in the case of the 1948/49 season this was Kosmos III (Though Kosmos IV joined the fleet later on). The factory ship was a large vessel, several hundred feet in length, with a forward superstructure housing the bridge, communications centre and officers accommodation, and amidships and aft superstructures housing deck crew accommodation and deck plant rooms. Kosmos III made her first maiden voyage in 1947, and was the most modern and best equipped whaling factory ship of the era. The vessel was equipped with a slipway aft, which cut through the below decks and the aft superstructure at an angle, from just below the waterline, to the level of the main deck. With the aid of winches aft of the forward superstructure and amidships, an entire whale could be hauled up onto the deck for butchering. The main deck was large enough to accommodate several whales at a time. During the 1948/49 season, it was not uncommon for the butchering crew to butcher up to five whales a day.

The butchering process involved removing the blubber from the whale, and cutting it into manageable sizes which could be dropped through a hatch in the deck, into the rendering area below. Here the blubber went into large tryworks - which on Kosmos III were fuelled by diesel. The blubber would be melted and rendered to oil, which would be stored in large holding tanks. Some of the meat was also processed as meat-extract for animal feed or agricultural fertiliser. But whale meat was a by-product on such voyages, one which was often simply thrown overboard.

Certain internal organs such as the liver were rich in oils which were rendered separately. The sperm whale was a prized catch, supplying valuable spermaceti - a waxy oil in the head of the whale which was rendered separately and used for candle production and various industrial processes. 

Some organs - such as the intestines would be processed as animal fodder, though usually these were discarded. The butchering process was essentially manual, the crew of 400 working two 12 hour shifts. It was hard work, using flensing tools and long knives the meat and blubber would be separated from the carcass. Winches would be used to pull large strips of blubber or meat away from the carcass, whilst the crew worked with their flensing tools. The deck was also equipped with large mechanical grabs which allowed parts of the carcass to be ripped apart and manoeuvred about the deck area. The entire deck area was covered in timber - a new deck laid for each voyage - to protect the flensing tools - and the steel deck underneath from damage during the butchering process. Each season, during the voyage home to Norway, the crew would rip up the deck and throw the old planks overboard, and replace the decking with new timbers before the next season.

Kosmos III was a modern whaling vessel in 1948, having completed her maiden voyage the previous year. It was a floating community, home for some 400 men, with all the necessary facilities for eight months at sea. Below decks, there was a pig sty with space for 100 pigs, which would be fattened and slaughtered at sea to provide food for the crew. There was a complete metalwork shop where deck tools were made and repaired, as well as a fully equipped hospital and operating theatre - a grim necessity in case of injuries from the work on deck. In the days before communications satellites , the fleet relied on short-wave radiotelegraphy - mainly morse code, to keep in touch with home and return their weekly harvest reports. The Norwegian radio broadcast a daily news summary in Norwegian, which was typed up and circulated amongst the crew.

The harpoon vessels
Kosmos III was kept busy by a fleet of 10 harpoon vessels - smaller craft which were equipped with a harpoon cannon on the bow. These small vessels, each with a crew of about 20 men, plied the whaling grounds in search of whales. Whilst most vessels hunted, some would be on standby - to undertake repairs, or to act as buoy-vessels which would look after the whales which the other ships had killed, until these were towed to the factory ship.

When a whale was killed, the crew would move alongside the whale and set a float onto the whale to mark its position. Some whales float naturally when they are killed, whilst others take in water and sink. The harpoon vessels were equipped with compressors, which could be used to pump air into the whale's abdominal cavity thus inflating the whale to keep it afloat. The venting of this air could be an unpleasant process for the butchering crew. A heavy rope would also be attached to the fluke of the whale, so that it could be tied off to the ship. When one of the harpoon vessels had enough whales - supplemented by the catch from other vessels in the fleet, it would sail to the factory ship, often with 3 or 4 whales tied along each side of the vessel.

Most of the harpoon vessel crew were hired for that particular vessel, though often they were moved from vessel to vessel to keep the fleet manned as best as possible. Thousands of miles away from home, replacement crew members to cover sickness or injuries were impossible to come by. This was particularly the case for the harpooners - who were the very elite of the fleet. For the crew of the harpoon ships, a good harpooner was worth his weight in gold, as the entire crew was paid according to a complicated system whereby each man received a share in the value of the harvest. Sometimes a harpooner would be injured or fall sick, in which case another crewman would be appointed to fill in for him - usually after a long discussion amongst the crew, whose earnings were dependent on the skill of the harpooner. During the 1948/49 season, several harpooners were transferred from one harpoon vessel to another.

Life at sea in the whaling fleet was extremely hard. The Antarctic weather was extremely cold, especially at the start and end of the season. Storms were frequently encountered, bringing their own special dangers - particularly over-icing - whereby the deck and superstructure would be quickly covered with near frozen sea water, which would turn to ice upon hitting the cold steel. Such a vessel could quickly become unstable, unless the all hands went on deck and broke of the ice with wooden mallets and shovels. The risk of capsizing in the frozen Antarctic waters, possibly hundreds of miles from the nearest help was to be avoided at all cost. Maritime clothing was not what it is today, everything became waterlogged quickly, and even fur and sealskin clothing was heavy to wear and prone to becoming waterlogged and frozen stiff.

In the 1948/49 season, the Kosmos fleet was made up of the following vessels -
Factory ship
(click to see harvest reports)
Harpoon vessels
KOSMOS III Kosmos 26
Kosmos 27
Kosmos 29
Fut's list principal Kosmos III crew Kosmos 32
Kosmos 33
Kosmos 36
Kosmos 39
Kosmos 41
Kosmos 15
KOSMOS IV Kosmos 24
Kosmos 28
Kosmos 30
Kosmos 31
Kosmos 34
Kosmos 35
Kosmos 40
Kosmos 42
Kosmos 38
Kosmos 37

Vessels are listed in the same order in which they appear in the harvest report for the season (5th April 1949).

The Kosmos III and Kosmos IV fleets owned by Anders Jahre were just two of many fleets participating in the 1948/49 Antarctic whaling season. In all there were 10 Norwegian fleets, 4 British / Norwegian fleets, 3 British fleets, 2 Japanese fleets, 1 Dutch fleet and 1 Russian fleet. 21 fleets in all. Based on an estimate of the size of the Kosmos III fleet, this would give approximately 350 men per fleet - a total of some 17,850 men pursuing a quota of some 24,000 whales.

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