Though hunting whales dates back at least 6,000 years, it didn’t hit its peak until the mid 1800s.

As Silicon Valley is to us now, so was New Bedford and Nantucket to the mid 19th century. The ships and crews were all headed for the Pacific and the slaughter was immense. How is it that men in tiny boats could capture and kill, much less haul aboard, these enormous creatures?

First, the world of whaling, principally by Americans, was an industry based on precise practices which, like the sharpened edges of harpoon, were honed to superb efficiency over centuries. Although ships had been built for millennia the standardization of whaling (and military ships) fostered precise engineering. This uniformity was adopted by other industries where standards across multiple manufacturers remain to this day. Sails, casks, blocks and rope became standardized and emerged with brand names that could be relied upon.

Folks today are appalled at the killing of these well-oiled creatures. Just add this to the list of things we used to do that we would never do now. Or should I say that most of us don’t because whales are still hunted. The Norwegians and Icelanders are still eating whales and whale and dolphin meat is part of Japanese school lunches. Amazingly the whales served in public schools in Japan have such high levels of mercury it can’t be sold in grocery stores. It’s ten times above the legal limit. Mercury makes you dumber. It really does (but Japanese kids were too smart anyway). https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/sep/05/japan.justinmccurry

But let’s fight that battle another day and look at the 19th century American whaling industry using a lens from that time. Before the Civil War whaling was the 5th largest sector of the GDP in America. Agriculture was a bigger industry as was the shipping of pond ice (shipping pond ice from New England was a huge business from about 1820 to 1880).

Whaling ships would set forth for two to three years from the East Coast and they would ply the Pacific from Pole to Pole. These ships were outfitted with four or five whale boats. Although made by many boat builders they generally followed the same pattern and were similarly equipped so experienced whalers could operate them without additional training. Because these 30-foot boats were subject to smithereening by irate whales they had to be replaced frequently and it has been calculated that between 200,000 and 300,000 were built in a 200 year period making them the most oft replicated sea craft ever.

I built this model

One might imagine that a large, powerful and savvy animal could outrun or outwit a person especially when the whales figured out that humans were their enemies. But whales are herd animals and their movements are somewhat predictable. They would attack the small boats and even ram and sink ships but mostly, once harpooned, they ran or dove and either way they took off with a boat or two in tow until they were exhausted and then they came to a halt, panting on the surface, where they were killed with harpoons plunged deep into their hearts.

Until the late 18th century whales were thought to be fish and were even eaten on Lenten Fridays by Catholics. For two thousand years these ‘mackerel snappers’ (this has long been an underused anti Catholic epithet so I expect excommunication) have been lingering in hell or at least purgatory because of this taxonomic miscalculation. Wait! this just in: In October 2017, “Pope Francis has abolished the places where souls were supposed to go after death: hell, purgatory, heaven.” I’m not making this up. So if bad people’s souls don’t go to hell or purgatory what about the Friday fish blasphemers? And, wait! Heaven is canceled too? What’s the point of being good if you don’t get a harp? Plus, as the following article indicates ‘indulgences’ are back which confuses me because Medieval indulgences were payment to the church to reduce your heel-cooling time in purgatory and Martin Luther broke with Rome over this. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/16/vatican-indulgences-pope-francis-tweets I find these decrees confusing.

“Fahgedabout it”

Back to whaling. When the whale expired it tended to sink as the air escaped from its lungs so they were quickly rowed to the ship, tied and sometimes pumped with air. Then the blubber was stripped, boiled and poured into casks. Once the hold was full the ships sailed for home; the owners sold the cargo and went forth to buy diamond stick pins, spats (absurd shoe coverings favored by Uncle Scrooge) and fashionable hats for their wives. You know, the essentials.

I can’t think of a caption that is funnier than this hat

The oil was used for oil lamps and gave a superior light to that of candles. Petroleum had not been made useful yet and it first appeared as kerosene which gives off a pretty wiffy stink when used for lighting. But it was really coal that eliminated the whale oil lamp. Gas could be made from coal and gas lamps took over in major cities where it was piped into homes. These gas lights were in use in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake and is one reason for the spread of the subsequent fire.

Whale oil was also a superior lubricant for fine machinery and was used in cosmetics and food. The whale bone was used for everything from bed frames and umbrellas to corsets.

By 1982, just prior to most of the world signing a whale hunting prohibition, the whales captured by Americans were used for pet food. OK, yikes!, but remember things change. Most folks recoil in horror at the idea of the majestic leviathan being fed to a Pekinese but now we put cows in dog food cans instead and from the cow’s point of view—yikes!

The biggest whales can live a long time. A bowhead whale was found on the beach not long ago with a 19th century harpoon still stuck in him. Whales can live over 200 years if not stabbed and canned. The whales taken today are mostly smaller ones—pilot whales and narwhals. Some whale populations are increasing but other species are declining. There are just a few hundred right whales left. They are called right whales this because they were the ‘right whale’ to hunt because they floated when killed.

The fact is (insert joke here if you can. I can’t think of one just now) life in the oceans is dying. 50% of sea life and 90% of the large ocean fish have disappeared in the last 50 years. Every year, at least 20,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest goes where the fish went. This is like losing West Virginia every year which frankly I can get behind. (Oh hell, there goes my reputation in West Virginia.) 

But maybe we need to step back…further…OK, furrrther.. OK, far enough. Let’s visualize Earth as a single living organism—Gaia, as James Lovelock named it. Mayflies live just a day (in fact they live two lives in one day) Some clams clock in at over 11,000 years. Does Gaia have a life span? Of course. How could it be otherwise?


Does this mean we should do nothing?  Well, no. I suggest we make this great gift of life as wonderful as possible but, to me, dreaming about humanity seeding other planets and lasting into deep-time is not a fruitful use of my time. We emerge from shadow and burst into the light hence to return to darkness (check with the Pope for clarity on this).

Largely, the Universe is composed emptiness and chaos because there is simply more entropy than there are Fabergé Eggs. But we can choose to live on islands of grace for the time we are here—between the clam and the mayfly.   

Easter egg (again with the Catholics) This is my favorite video of all time. 

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  • Bill Goss says:

    What a whale of a story!
    My new word of the month is “smithereening.”
    Seriously, the history of the whaling industry is both fascinating and sad.
    The highly intelligent – and world’s largest animal ever on earth – to be brutally slaughtered by mere humans is a sad story to tell. But you told it well.
    And thank you for sharing the wonderful video at the end.

  • ollie says:

    On a positive note, this story (thanx captain ) we have come to a better awareness of who what where. We just need to stay on the path.. We can doit we are doing it always slow yet we are .
    The video lifted these thought into now.. How wonderful the sharing of that
    sail on captain love the voyage

  • George says:

    Another fantastic article. Our whaling history is fascinating and full of historical adventures. Absolutely loved that book you lent me years ago, “The Whaleship Essex” which gave you an insight on the industry as well as the history of Nantucket.

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