By Meghan E. Marrero and Stuart Thornton. Tuesday, November 1, People have been whaling for thousands of years. Norwegians were among the first to hunt whales, as early as 4, years ago.
National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)
Whales and Hunting | New Bedford Whaling Museum
Energy experts predict that the global production of oil will soon start to decline, what's referred to as peak oil. Now while we may not be there yet, there was a time in our history when we did reach a similar plateau, but it was a very different kind of energy source — one that could only be extracted from the heads of sperm whales. It was the intense demand for this sperm whale oil, what's called spermaceti, during the 18th and 19th centuries that nearly drove the whales into extinction. And it was only through the development of a rather modest technological innovation that the whales were saved at the last minute. The above image of a scene from Moby Dick was drawn by Paul Lasaine. Back at the start of the industrial age, whale oil was used for heating, lubrication, soap, candle wax, and the processing of textiles and rope. But its true value came as a fuel source for lamps.
For the fictional crew of the Pequod, as for the real whalemen of the day, whaling was more mortal combat than straightforward hunt: Six sailors in a flimsy, open whaleboat, armed with only handheld harpoons and lances, pitting themselves at every opportunity against the singular terror of a true sea monster, the sperm whale, an animal that, when fully grown, could measure sixty-two feet in length, weigh eighty tons, and wield, to deadly purpose, a eighteen-foot jaw studded with seven-inch teeth. During that time, Nantucket, New Bedford, and other port towns sent hundreds of ships all over the globe in search of leviathans. It is a refreshingly clear perspective for those of us who may have thumbed quickly past the more technical chapters of Moby-Dick, or who imagine whaling through the narrow lens of those impressive painted and scrimshawed scenes of vicious whales smashing boats and tossing sailors in the air. Men went to sea for any number of reasons—to make a living, to escape the law, to find themselves—but once aboard a whaleship, their job was to supply the rapidly industrializing Western world with oil for its lamps, candles, and machinery, and baleen for its parasol ribs, horsewhips, and corsets.
Learn which whales were hunted and why; how they captured and processed them; how technology changed the industry. Whaling was an exceptionally dangerous business both physically and economically. In the Yankee whale fishery injuries and death were common to almost every voyage. Many vessels were lost.