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A whale’s tale

(Apologies for the title of this post! I’ll bet there have been more bad puns and bad titles and terribly rhymes with the word whale than anything else in English. It’s just too easy.)  I’ve been thinking about whales since visiting Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard over the weekend. Another east coast whaling town, like Salem, MA, where the World History Association met last June. What a huge industry whaling must have been. We tried to remember details from Moby Dick, but not a lot of detail came to mind (it has been a while). I did remember a fatty substance into which one of the characters falls during the on-board whale processing. But I was able to learn much more by turning to Berkshire’s Encyclopedia of World Environmental History 2003 for an article on the “Whale.” We’re going to include more about this in the Encyclopedia of Sustainability’s Volume 4: Natural Resources and Sustainability. What intrigues me in the article I’m including here is that the whale has in recent decades become one of the best-known symbols of environmentalism. I wonder what the whalers of times past, in Salem or Edgartown, would have made of that?


Whales are a group of marine mammals that includes seventy-eight species in the order Cetacea, which traces its evolutionary path back 40 to 50 million years to forebears that lived on land. Biologists classify whales in two general groups: toothed whales and baleen whales. The former range from sperm whales to the smaller dolphins and porpoises, and the latter, named for the large fibrous plates that they use to strain food from the ocean, range from minkes to the blue whale, the largest organism ever. Cetaceans are distributed over all of the world’s seas and a few of the rivers.

It is, perhaps, ironic that the largest whales eat the smallest food. The Antarctic baleen whales, which have adult weights of from 10 to 100 tons, subsist largely on krill, a crustacean only a few centimeters long, with the occasional small fish thrown in. The smaller toothed whales generally feed on larger sea creatures, from midsized fish to giant squid and other mammals. The baleen whales tend to migrate from the equator toward the poles, where they spend the summer feasting on the rich aquatic resources and building up a layer of fat, whereas the toothed whales have a more general distribution.

Just as whales can be classified in two groups, so, too, can whalers. For untold years, people around the world have used small boats to catch whales close to shore, dragging them onto land for processing; for at least one thousand years, since the Basque whalers first began hunting right whales in the Bay of Biscay, others have pursued whales on the high seas. Those who operate shore stations have to choose their locations carefully and take what comes by, but the pelagic whalers can be much more effective and selective as they seek out specific species. Pelagic whalers need to be more effective because they have to take elaborate equipment with them to process their catch, a very capital-intensive process.

A Source of Meat and Oil

Whales have supplied two main products for people: meat and oil, although a host of other products has evolved from the whaling industry, such as ambergris (a waxy substance used in perfumery), scrimshaw, bone meal, and liver oil. Whale meat has long been a source of food for people and their animals, and in the last forty years it has been the main product of the whaling industry. Whale oil was a very desirable commodity from the middle of the nineteenth century until the 1960s. Oil from the head cases of sperm whales has been used as a high-quality industrial lubricant. Oil from the blubber and flesh of baleen and sperm whales served into the twentieth century as a fuel until the rise of the petroleum industry made it uneconomical. Then, in the 1920s, scientists invented a way to refine baleen whale oil into margarine. This refining technique was one of several breakthroughs that revived the whaling industry. It was perhaps the most important because it created a new market for the whalers, but without new technology in hunting and processing of whales, whaling would have continued its decline. The whalers of previous centuries had been so efficient that the only major pocket of whales left was in the Antarctic seas, where hundreds of thousands of huge blue and fin whales lived. Given their size and speed, these species could not be caught by men in small boats throwing harpoons. Instead, catching and killing them required an exploding harpoon mounted on a small steam-powered ship that could travel at at least fifteen knots. Flensing (stripping blubber) and processing such huge animals presented new challenges that were solved by the invention of the floating factory: a huge vessel with a stern slipway for dragging the behemoths on board and an array of equipment for rendering them into oil.

Conservation Efforts Begin

In the 1930s the industry boomed, leading to a series of efforts to conserve whale stocks and culminating in creation of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1946. Whaling on the high seas proved to be difficult to regulate, and despite efforts by conservationists the catch of whales grew until, in the 1963<N>1964 season, whalers took more than sixty-six thousand whales. The industry declined after that because blue, fin, and humpback whales had all been driven to the edge of extinction, with the Sei and Bryde’s whales following shortly thereafter. Most striking was the decline of the blue whale, from perhaps 200,000 before whaling began to about 3000 today. Likewise, there may have been as many as 125,000 humpback whales before widespread commercial hunting, but there are only about 20,000 left in 2002. Today, only the minke whale exists in numbers that might make commercial whaling feasible, but those numbers are a matter of some debate. In 1982 the IWC voted to ban all commercial whaling, but Japanese whalers in particular continue to catch minkes in the name of scientific research, a highly controversial practice because the meat ends up on the market in Japan.

Until the 1970s most people saw whales as commodities to be exploited rapidly or slowly, depending both on how many were left and the demand for their products. Since then, though, whales have become a symbol of environmentalism, species with special qualities that deserve protection under most circumstances. This change in attitude was in part also a product of technology as people in 1967 heard for the first time recordings of humpback whale songs and soon became exposed to many television shows about whales, all of which suggested that whales are more than just really large slabs of meat or tubs of margarine. The clearest sign of this new attitude toward whales has been seen in the rise of whale-watching, which draws millions of participants each year.

But even as environmentalists have celebrated the growth of whale-watching, they have been struggling to reconcile the whales’ new status as icons with the continued desire to hunt whales among some Native peoples in North America. The Inuit in Alaska won a bruising battle with the IWC, environmentalists, and the U.S. government in the 1970s and 1980s to allow continued harvesting of bowhead whales, and in the 1990s the Makah tribe of Washington won a similar fight to take one gray whale per year.. Environmentalists frequently argue that whales are sentient beings and that even one killed is too many, but the native peoples contend that whaling is an integral part of their culture.. Because Japanese and Norwegians often make similar claims, the victories of the Makah and Inuit have compromised the argument of the United States government that Japan and Norway should cease whaling. This problem was quite clear at the 2002 IWC meeting in Shimonoseki, Japan, when the Japanese delegates made a strong case that aboriginal whaling in the United States should face similar levels of scrutiny to Japanese whaling.

Kurk Dorsey

See also International Whaling Commission

Further Reading
Connor, R. C., & Peterson, D. M. (1994). The lives of whales and dolphins. New York: Henry Holt.
Ellis, R. (1991). Men and whales. New York: Knopf.
Evans, P. G. H. (1987). The natural history of whales and dolphins. New York: Facts on File.
Scheffer, V. (1969). The year of the whale. New York: Scribner’s.
Starbuck, A. (1989). History of the American whale fishery. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books.
Tønnessen, J. N., & Johnsen, A. O. (1982). The history of modern whaling. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

From Berkshire’s Encyclopedia of World Environmental History 2003. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “A whale’s tale

  1. Who knew that game-show host Bob Barker is a saver of whales? Here’s an article from the Rewilding Institute:

  2. I think my hero would have to be George Costanza. I thought it was amazing on Seinfeld when he faked like he was a Marine Biologist and he pulled the golf ball out of the whales blow hole and saved it’s life. Anyway…you’re doing an excellent job with your blog. I love your articles!

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