I think whaling is really cool. I can’t help it. It’s one of those things like guns and war and space colonization which hits the adventurous id. The idea that people used to go out in tiny boats into the middle of oceans and try to kill the biggest animals to ever exist on planet earth with glorified spears to extract organic material for fuel is awesome. It’s like something out of a fantasy novel.
So I embarked on this project to understand everything I could about whaling. I wanted to know why burning whale fat in lamps was the best way to light cities for about 50 years. I wanted to know how profitable whaling was, what the hunters were paid, and how many whaleships were lost at sea. I wanted to know why the classical image of whaling was associated with America and what other countries have whaling legacies. I wanted to know if the whaling industry wiped out the whales and if they can recover.
This essay is the result. It is over 30,000 words long, a new record for my blogging. It’s broken into seven parts linked here:
Part I – Economic Value of a Whale
- Breakdown of the parts of a whale which have been harvested and commercially traded throughout history
- Description and valuations of whale oil, meat, baleen, and other resources
- Attempts at estimating quantities of resources extracted from a single whale
- Breakdown of the whale hunting methods throughout history
- Shore hunting, ocean hunting, and technological evolutions in hunting
- The many ways whale hunting can go wrong
Part III – Early Whaling History (6,000 BC-1700 AD)
- Overview of the origins of whaling
- Estimated value of a beached whale
- The commercial success of Basque whaling
Part IV – The Anglo Whaling War (1700-1815)
- Tracking the ascendancy of British whaling based on subsidies, tariffs, and military dominance
- Tracking the challenge of early American whaling based on innovation
- Explanation of why American whaling triumphed
Part V – The Golden Age of Whaling (1815-1861)
- Examination of the high point of global whaling, when whaling was one of the most important industries on earth
- Most in depth description of the economics and experience of whaling – 50% labor desertion rate, highly inconsistent payout matrix, 6% of voyages never returned, etc.
- Golden Age whaling did not have a significant impact on global whaling populations
Part VI – The Industrial Age (1865-1986)
- Fall of US dominance, rise of Norway and then European competition
- Overview of early attempts to restrict whaling for environmental purposes, and why they failed
- Collapse of whaling population, estimated species populations before and after industrial whaling
Part VII – Modern Whaling (1987-Present)
- Present state of whaling legality and population impacts
- Norway and Japan continue to hunt whales for opaque cultural reasons
- Commercial whaling can return, but I’m not sure if it should
As with my deep dive into K-pop, I advise that if you are interested in whaling, but not that interested, you should skip some sections and focus on others. Parts I and II are short and get into the fun nitty-gritty details of the practice of whaling. Parts III and IV are more about the history of the industry and how it interacted with politics, trade policy, etc, and are the most easily skipped sections. Part V is the longest and (IMO) most interesting section; it’s both an overview of American whaling and a deep dive into the economics of the industry, including crew payouts, profitability, venture earnings, and the impact of whaling on the global whale population. Part VI and VII bridge the gap between the high point of whaling and its near death in the modern age.
My two main sources are In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity, and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906 by Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman, and Karin Gleiter, and Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America by Eric Jay Dolin. The former is more for statistics, detailed industry breakdowns, and whale population figures. The latter is more for color commentary, and since I listened to it on audiobook, my citations for it don’t include page numbers. Yes, apparently leviathan is such a good symbol/metaphor for whales that both books used it in the title.
As with all my research posts, I’m open to comments, suggestions, and corrections regarding anything I’ve written here. I tried to stay close to the texts and numbers, with my speculations usually noted as such. I’m coming at whaling and maritime history as an outsider, so it’s entirely possible that I’ve made mistakes, and I’d appreciate having them pointed out.
NOTE – There are lots of pictures and paintings of dead and dying whales throughout this post.
Part I – Economic Value of a Whale
You have a dead whale in front of you. What can you get from it? What’s it worth?
Throughout history, whale oil was usually the most valuable part of the whale and the primary objective of whalers.
Whales are mammals that almost exclusively live in cold oceans (no whales live near the equator), so they need ample insulation to keep their bodies warm. Hence all whales have blubber, an extremely dense layer of fat ranging in thickness from two inches to over one foot. Just as your skin contains oil, so does whale blubber, though vastly larger quantities of it. This whale oil can be extracted through a process called flensing that consists of slicing the blubber into pieces and boiling it. Modern whalers use machines for this process, but back in the day they did it largely by hand. Cutting up the fattiest fat you’ve ever seen and boiling it over open flames is about as much fun as it sounds, especially since the whale was usually rotting during the process.
Due to the fattiness, quantity, and other chemical properties I don’t understand, whale oil was a uniquely effective oil for pretty much everything oil can do. Its primary historical use was as a fuel source for lamp lights since it emitted a fairly bright yellow glow at the expense of an unpleasant though not overwhelming odor.
Whale oil’s second major historical use was as a lubricant, particularly for heavy industrial machinery. Demand for lubrication rose in tandem with lighting during the early industrial revolution, and it was apparently more effective than animal fat or vegetable oil for the task.
Whale oil’s third major historical usage was as a key ingredient in margarine. Starting in the 1920s, margarine emerged in Europe as a viable butter alternative, especially after the destruction of World War I, and whale oil initially served as one of many fat bases, until in 1929, the margarine manufacturing process was refined so that whale oil alone could serve as the fat basis for the product. By the 1930s, 30% of British margarine and over 50% of German margarine was whale oil-based.
Lesser historical uses of whale oil include the manufacture of soap, explosives, condiments, and medicine (especially to treat trench foot during WWI).
I had a hard time tracking down the average amount of whale oil in each whale. The lowest estimate I found in the mid-19th century American context was an average of 20 barrels per whale (one barrel = 42 gallons). In Pursuit of Leviathan found a historical estimate of 25 barrels which the authors still deem too low. Their preferred average estimate range is 33.6 barrels to 45 barrels for sperm whales (the most commonly caught species) and 60-73 barrels for baleen whales (most other types caught). On the lowest end, pilot whales provided only a few barrels of whale oil, while right whales could reach well over 100 barrels.
The quality of whale oil varies considerably by species, which impacted the brightness and smell of its light when burned and its viability for other uses. The faster a whale is flensed before it rots, the higher the quality of oil. Sperm whales produced the highest quality whale oil, followed by right whales and bowheads.
In the head of the sperm whale (which takes up about 40% of its body) the whale oil is so pure that it takes on a different chemical form and becomes a wax. It doesn’t even need to be flensed from the whale’s blubber, it can simply be scooped out from the decapitated sperm whale’s head. This substance is spermaceti oil, the highest quality oil to be found in any whales. It typically sold at 2-3X the price of high-quality whale oil.
(Note – Spermaceti oil is technically a misnomer since it wasn’t an oil, but that’s what everyone called it.)
Spermaceti oil was most commonly used for lighting, either as candles or refined to a more oily form for lamps. It was considered the highest quality light of its day, emitting a bright white flame with no smell, and it was uniquely resistant to freezing in extremely low temperatures. Due to its price, spermaceti oil was almost exclusively purchased by wealthy people for personal use and governments for lighthouses. Benjamin Franklin wrote of his love of spermaceti candles as a nighttime reading light.
Spermaceti oil could not be used in soap or margarine due to its chemical nature, though it had cosmetic uses in makeup. It was more often used as a lubricant and anti-rust substance for delicate, fine-tuned machinery (while standard whale oil was better-suited for heavy machines). In the mid-20th century, a small-but-steady sperm whaling industry persisted on demand from the aerospace industry where spermaceti oil’s extremely low freezing point proved valuable. Weirdest of all, spermaceti oil was used as car transmission fluid in the United States and Europe. When such use was banned in 1973, the number of transmission failures in American cars rose from 1 million in 1972 to 8 million in 1975.
Ambergris is a waste byproduct formed in sperm whales. Sperms eat squid and cuttlefish which have beaks and other inedible components; these materials gather in the whale’s digestive tract, form a solid ball, and eventually get coughed up. So ambergris is essentially a combination of vomit and kidney stones.
But ambergris always has been and always will be the most valuable whaling product on a per-weight basis. This is largely owing to the sweet smell of aged ambergris which serves as an ingredient in high-end musky perfume. The substance is also alleged quite tasty, with eggs and ambergris being the favorite food of English King Charles II (who restored the monarchy after Oliver Cromwell and ushered in a notorious era of lax hedonism at court).
A single chunk of ambergris ranges in size from half an ounce to 110 pounds. In mid-1800s America, a pound of ambergris sold for $200-600; for comparison, the average 1850 American farmhand made $7.88-$13.55 per month with room and board. However, from 1836 to 1880, the entire American whaling fleet produced less than a ton of ambergris, so it was never a major factor in whaling, just a random massive bonus for occasional lucky whalers.
There’s a fun section in Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America where the author describes how ambergris was a scientific mystery throughout the world for centuries. The substance sporadically washes up on beaches pretty much everywhere there are whales, and so people from England to China were familiar with this extremely rare and valuable substance, but no one knew where it came from. There were lots of theories about monstrous fish, dragons, and the earth itself spitting up ocean gold, and it wasn’t until whalers started cutting open lots of sperm whales in the 1800s that the question was settled.
If the prospect of gathering ambergris intrigues you, you’re in luck! Ambergris is the only whale product that is still legal to harvest in most coastal countries.
Surprisingly, whale meat was not a historically important resource in whaling until the 1940s. While early whalers would consume the meat, the oil was always the main prize, and by the time commercial whaling got going in the 1600s, whale meat was often tossed overboard to make room for more oil. The meat that was harvested was typically used as animal feed. I couldn’t find any explanations for why such a potent form of calories, fat, and protein was neglected, but my best guess is that it simply wasn’t as valuable on a per-weight/volume basis as other whale resources.
The exceptions to this rule were and are various indigenous groups throughout the world which hunt whale as a basic food source, the Norwegians who took a liking to it in the mid-20th century, and most infamously, the Japanese. Whale meat is still currently consumed by these indigenous groups, Norway, Japan, Iceland, and South Korea, with average prices of about $9.00 per pound ($20 per kilogram), and top-tier whale meat selling for $27 per pound. The current value of a single whale solely for its meat is estimated to range between $10,800 at the low end for minke whales, to $85,000 for large whales.
I can’t find good official data on how much edible whale meat can be extracted from a single whale. The modern whaling countries don’t publish much on their activity; I tried extrapolating from Japanese aggregated data, but they catch a variety of whales and allegedly don’t report accurately anyway.
So, doing my best to guestimate:
- Whales have a bone mass of between 8% (dolphins) and 20% (blue whales) of their total weight.
- Whales have a blood mass of 7% (dolphins) to 20.1% (sperm whales)
- Let’s assume that if a whale was harvested for meat, all the blood would be drained. I know that’s not realistic, so take this as a low-bounded estimate.
- Let’s assume the rest of the whale is edible meat. This assumes:
- That the whale oil is left in the whale meat (it is edible, so that’s realistic)
- That all whale meat is edible (muscle, blubber, organs, etc.) – this is true, though probably disgusting, and even whalers who consumed whale meat definitely didn’t eat all the organs
- That all parts of the whale which aren’t bone or blood are of negligible weight.
So, guestimating on a right whale:
- Average full-grown right whale weight = 140,000 pounds
- Since right whales are famously fat and slow, I’m estimating them to be on the higher end of the bone and blood levels, so let’s say 18% for both.
- 140,000*0.64 = 89,600 pounds of edible meat from a single right whale
Fun Fact 1 – Right whale testicles make up 1% of their weight, so each testicle weighs around 700 pounds. The average American eats 222 pounds of meat per year (not counting fish), so a single right whale testicle should cover a family of four for almost a year.
Fun Fact 2 – Whales ingest so much mercury that a single serving of whale liver could kill a full-grown man. There is 1,970 micrograms of mercury/gram of whale liver, which is 5,000X the Japanese government’s limit for mercury concentration in commercial food.
Whales either have teeth or baleen, a brush-like structure in the mouth which is chemically similar to hair or fingernails. Baleen whales take water into their open mouths, then push the water out through their baleen; this traps plankton, small fish, and whatever else they want to eat. While the toothy sperm whale was the biggest prize for whalers, baleen whales like rights, bowheads, greys, and humpbacks made up the bulk of hunted whales historically.
(Note – Baleen is often called whalebone, which is also a misnomer.)
After whale oil and spermaceti oil, baleen has typically been the most valued whale resource. Baleen has a hardness and flexibility which made it the closest commercial substance to plastic prior to the 1900s. Though best known for its use in corsets, baleen also found utility in “baskets, backscratchers, collar stiffeners, buggy whips, parasol ribs, switches, crinoline petticoats,” and cabinets.
It was tough to find numbers on how much baleen can be harvested from a single whale, but I can work backwards from other figures in In Pursuit of Leviathan.
- Average amount of baleen harvested from a single 19th century voyage: 8,400.8 pounds
- Number of baleen whales hunted on an average voyage – 15
- 8,400.8/15 = 560 pounds of baleen per whale
Note – This figure represents the average of baleen whales caught on a single voyage, which would include multiple whale species of various proportions. This is a very rough estimate.
Actual whale bones (as opposed to misnomered baleen) had no commercial use historically but were often harvested for scrimshaw, the sculpting and carving of bone. Given how boring whaling was (more on this in Part V), whalers often whittled their days away making surprisingly beautiful artworks which were nearly worthless at the time, but fetch a nice price today.
Modern Scientific Applications
Scientists in Norway, Iceland, and Japan have been hard at work studying whale oil, blubber, bone, baleen, teeth, and organs for cosmetic, nutritional, and medical purposes. For instance, Norway has developed whale-based nutraceuticals (similar to fish oil supplements), Iceland has figured out how to efficiently supplement animal feed with ground-up whale meat, and Japan has developed osteoarthritis treatments based on whale organs.
According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, all of these highly conspicuous scientific breakthroughs are part of a coordinated propaganda effort to rally public support for a global relaunching of the commercial whaling industry. I have no idea if that’s true, but it sounds like a cool supervillain plot.
Part II – Hunting
What’s it like to hunt the largest animals to ever exist on planet earth? The following is an overview of the various methods and practices of whaling throughout history.
The first whales to be hunted by indigenous tribes were small coastal dwellers, like orcas, pilot whales, belugas, etc. These animals might be 70-200 pounds, and 4-8 feet long, so not much bigger than huge dogs.
Given the lack of available technology, the earliest hunting technique was the simplest: row up to a whale near the shore and stab it with spears until it dies. Then tie the carcass to the boat, row ashore, and cut it into pieces. This hunting technique seemed to be effective enough for calves (baby whales) and slower, older whales, and is still used to this day by a few tribes. Some slightly more creative tribes in the South Pacific would use boats and swimmers to corral dolphins and other small whales against the shore until they panicked and beached themselves.
Eventually, numerous civilizations throughout the world discovered drogue hunting, though the technique was ultimately perfected by the Basque people on the western border of Spain and France. A look-out man (or men) was stationed at a high point on the coast, like a cliff or a tower. He would stare out at the water for hours until he saw a whale, then he would ring a bell or set off some other alarm, and a team of hunters would sprint to the water, grab an elongated rowboat (typically around 15-ish feet long), and begin the hunt.
The men were equipped with harpoons and a drogue. A harpoon is an elongated spear with barbed sides designed to both pierce and stay lodged in the animal. A drogue is a flotation device, usually a wooden crate or barrel. The harpoons would be attached to the drogue by a rope.
The whales hunted by the Basque and others who used the drogue technique were far larger than the belugas and dolphins of the tribal hunters. For instance, right whales are typically well over 100,000 pounds and almost 50 feet long. They were far too big to be corralled by rowboats, and while a well-placed harpoon could kill a whale, it rarely did so.
Instead, the idea was to tie a harpoon to a drogue, get close to the whale, and then have a hearty seaman chuck the harpoon into the whale, and then toss the drogue overboard. The whale panics and flees, either swimming away or diving underwater. Either way, the drogue will weigh it down, and the harpoon in its flesh won’t stop hurting, so the whale will continue to swim and thrash. Eventually, it tires itself out and dies. The rights, bowheads, and other commonly hunted whales were so fatty that they nearly always floated to the surface after death, thereby allowing the whalers to latch it to their boat and row it ashore for processing.
Over time, whalers stopped using external objects as their drogues, and started using their own boats. I couldn’t find any explanation for this switch, but presumably the boats were a more effective drogue than boxes and barrels, especially as they began to hunt larger whales. Surely tying a 100,000+ pound beast to your own rowboat was riskier, but I guess the marginal yield was high enough to justify it.
The Basque, English, Dutch, French, Germans, colonial Americans, and other highly-commercial societies all built prosperous whaling industries on the basis of shore hunting. They even established global operations on the model, with whaling outposts set up everywhere from islands in the Arctic Ocean to the Falklands.
But by the early-1700s, coastal whales were scarce enough, and whaling was competitive enough, that ambitious companies began experimenting with ocean hunting. This process was far riskier and more capital intensive, but offered vastly greater rewards.
This is when the whaling industry became what people usually picture in their heads, as they switched from a bunch of rowboats near the coast to giant ships on the deep blue sea. Whaling ships tended to be large and hearty, both because they went to dangerous waters, and because their cargo took up a lot of space. These ships carried whaleboats (note – a “boat” is a different thing than “ship”), which were updated versions of the elongated rowboats used on the shore. During the Golden Age of whaling, a typical American ship had a crew of 29 and 1-2 whaleboats (each carrying 2-3 men), while a British whaler would hold around 40-50 men.
The core hunting principles weren’t dissimilar to that of shore whaling, except now the base was mobile. A whaler would sail to a region known to be flush with whales, a lookout(s) would scan the ocean for the animals, and when one was spotted, he would alert the men, sometimes literally with “THAR SHE BLOWS!”
The boatsteerers (hunters), would then hop on their whaleboats on the deck and be lowered into the sea. They would row their highly maneuverable boats over to the whale, and then the highest-ranking boatsteerer (usually by seniority), would throw the harpoon into the rear or side of the whale, where the flesh was thickest and would hold the harpoon. Only after the harpoon was in the whale would they tie the rope to the boat, though I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t tie it ahead of time.
What happened next was eventually called the Nantucket sleigh ride based on its frequent occurrence in the Nantucket Bay off the coast of Massachusetts. Once the harpoon was in the whale, the beast would go ballistic, and either start thrashing about, dive, or swim away as fast it could. Sperm whales typically swim at a meandering 4 knots/hour (4.6 mph), but can sprint (?) up to 20 k/h (23 mph). Keep in mind that in this early industrial era, the vast majority of whalers would have never gone that fast in their entire lives, unless they learned to ride horses at top speed.
While whaling as a whole was notoriously boring for crewmembers, this process of wearing the whale down was known to be an enthralling test of bravery, skill, and stamina. A few men in a narrow rowboat would hold on for dear life as colossal animals dragged them through the sea for tens of minutes to hours.
Once a successful harpoon was landed and the whale was flipping out, one boatsteerer would go to the front of the boat, and the other to the rear. Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America emphasizes that it’s hard enough to stand up and walk around in a narrow rowboat on the ocean in the best of conditions, and was especially terrifying during a hunt. The guy in the back would steer the boat as it was dragged around by the whale so it wouldn’t capsize, and the one in the front would have a lance at the ready to eventually deal the killing blow. For reasons that baffle me, the harpoon rope was tied to a post on the back of the boat (or aft for all you nautical people) instead of the front. So the steerer would have to desperately keep the boat pointing toward the whale, or the boat would swing sideways and likely flip over. As added challenges, the taut rope would whip back-and-forth over the boat, creating a constant hazard for the crewmembers, and the friction between the rope and the metal cleft on the boat was so great that it would often have to be periodically doused with water to stop the rope from setting aflame.
When the whale finally got tired, the whaleboat would pull alongside the whale, and the guy at the front would finish the beast off with a lance. Or at least that’s what happens if all goes well with the hunt. If all doesn’t go well…
- The harpoon falls out of the whale and it gets away
- A crewmember might panic during the “Nantucket sleigh ride” and cut the rope between the whaleboat and the whale, so the whale escapes
- The whaleship and whaleboats might get caught in a storm during the hunt, and either have to retreat or get wrecked
- The particularly hearty whale might swim for a very long time with the whaleboat dragging behind. Eventually, the whale and the boat go so far that they get out of sight of the main whaling ship, and the whaleboat gets lost at sea.
- A crewmember might fall overboard during the “Nantucket sleigh ride” and drown, or get eaten by sharks attracted by the bleeding whale
- A crewmember might fall overboard from choppy sea conditions
- A crewmember might get tangled in the rope attached to the harpoon, which might squeeze his body so hard that he loses a limb (surprisingly common)
- The particularly strong whale might dive and pull the whole boat underwater
- One whale might attack the whaleboats to defend another whale (relatively common with sperm whales)
- The whale might thrash around and capsize the boat
- The whale might turn around and bite the boat, possibly biting boatsteerers in the process (rare, but it happened occasionally)
- The whale might ram the whaling ship and sink it (extremely rare, but happened a few times)
- The whale might die, but before the whalers can harvest it, sharks might eat most of the flesh and oil
- The whale might die, but the harpoon and struggle tears much of the whale up, and its blubber and oil and blood and organs leak everywhere, and it’s really difficult to harvest
- The whale might die and sink underwater, losing the entire prize (more common with less fatty whales)
Anyway, once dead, the boatsteerers latched the whale to the whaleboat, and rowed in back to the ship. Then the boatsteerers using giant knives and saws to cut strips of whale blubber off the dead animal while it rolled in the waves beside the ship. At first, they could just hack at the whale’s skin and outer layers, but eventually they’d have to climb on top of, and inside of the whale to get at all the good gooey bits. Then they’d put the flesh strips in buckets which would be brought up to the main deck. If they had some tryworks (giant cast iron pots with some contraptions on them), they could boil the blubber to extract the oil. If not, they would dump the flesh directly into barrels.
Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America has a great section where it describes this whole process as the most disgusting job imaginable. A lot of whaling sucked for the whalers, but this was undoubtedly the worst part. Everyone is tired. Everyone is covered in blood and oil. Everyone smells worse than we can imagine. Everyone is slipping on everything. The whalers might be tempted to take a quick dip in the sea to clean off, but the water is nearly always filled with sharks and large fish taking bites out of the whale carcass. The whalers are either freezing their asses off in the Arctic, or they’re enduring the rapid rotting and subsequent smelling of the whale in warmer temperatures. Either way, the whalers had to work fast. Time really was money, because every second it took for them to cut up the whale was another second its oil decomposed from rot, exposure, fish, and water.
(The whalers would also have to cut out the baleen, potentially ambergris, and any whale meat they might want to keep, but those tasks were easy compared to the oil extraction process.)
This process of deconstructing a beast which likely weighed more than 100,000 pounds could take as long as three days. Three days of cutting flesh, holding flesh, boiling flesh, and packing flesh into up to 120 barrels. And then after it was all done, the whalers still had to mop up the blood, oil, guts, and flesh laying around the ship deck and in the whaleboats.
And once they were done with one whale, they had to immediately look for the next one. After all, a profitable voyage had to hunt dozens of whales. Plus, the longer the whale oil sat in barrels, the more it spoiled, and the more its quality degraded. It wasn’t until after the 20th century that whaleships had their own processing facilities, so the best the old whalers could do was strip the whale, squeeze out the oil, throw it in barrels, and hope it rotted slowly.
The one weird exception to this miserable process was the harvesting of spermaceti oil. Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America has an excerpt from a whaler’s journal where he waxes poetically about the joy of climbing into a decapitated sperm whale’s head and scooping out the substance. Apparently, it’s a warm space, it smells good, and the wax is quite good for the skin.
The Golden Age of whaling ended in the 1850s or 60s, and the industrial era slowly built until it peaked a century later. With greater technology came easier and more profitable hunts, though some would say less fair.
Ships got faster. Sails were replaced by steam engines and eventually modern gas-powered vessels. Aside from the obvious logistical advantage of moving faster, these ships also required far less manpower, and more importantly, opened up an entirely new category of whaling targets.
The rorqual family of whales, which includes the massive blue whales and small minke whales, was rarely hunted during earlier eras because they simply out-swam boats. It was not just fast vessels that were needed to take them down, but also fast weaponry. The harpoon gun emerged in the 1840s, but was slowly innovated and perfected, until a modern design with an explosive tip could easily insta-kill a whale in one shot.
Finally, the move to factory shipping transformed the industry. Instead of going through the hassle of extracting and storing the whale oil for later refinement onshore, factory ships could process the entire whale themselves. Whales could be spotted by sonar, quickly killed with explosive harpoons, dragged onboard, and rapidly flensed and processed so the whaler would return to shore with an already saleable final product.
Though animal rights activists tend to despise whaling, one of the legitimate advantages of industrial hunting is that it usually kills whales quickly… an explosive harpoon to the head will do that. But the method isn’t fullproof: among modern whalers, Norway reports that 20% of minke whales survive the first shot, and Japan reports that only 40% of all its whales are killed on the first shot.
It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you want to see what modern whale hunting looks like, here it is:
Part III – Early Whaling History (6,000 BC-1700 AD)
7,700 years might seem like a long time for a single era of whaling, but it’s a good segmentation of the very earliest days of whale harvesting up to the start of whaling as an important industry in the Western world.
Diving and Stranding
Whale harvesting has occurred since the beginning of human civilization near oceans. A few tribes on warmer seas engaged in limited diving hunts for dolphins and other small whales. More commonly, northern tribes like Innuits, Ainu, and Native Americans engaged in drogue hunting. The earliest evidence of whaling dates back to cave paintings in South Korea which are estimated to 6,000 BC, and surprisingly show evidence of drogue hunting. Modified versions of this method would be used throughout most of the whaling world until the late 1800s when harpoon guns and eventually explosive harpoons became prominent.
Despite the global prominence of whales, very few civilizations historically hunted whales at all, let alone systematically, likely due to its difficulty and lack of sufficient seafaring technology. But pretty much every cold-water dwelling people were aware of whales due to strandings. All species of whale periodically wash up onshore for reasons not entirely understood even by modern researchers. Sonar seems to have exacerbated strandings, but there’s plenty of fossil evidence that it has been happening since prehistoric times.
Whale strandings were an enormous, incredible random bounty for pre-commercial/industrial people. Consider:
An average male sperm whale (one of the most commonly stranded species) weighs 90,000 pounds. Using my very rough metrics from the Whale Meat section of Part I, I’ll estimate that 64% of the sperm whale is edible (almost certainly an underestimate), which comes to 57,600 pounds. For comparison, a healthy 1,200 pound cow yields 640 pounds of meat (including pure fat, but not including bone marrow nor organs – I couldn’t find good numbers) so a fully harvested male sperm whale = 90 modern cows in edible meat weight.
I wish I could further break down the comparison in terms of calories and nutritional content (surprisingly the data on whales does exist) but that would require a lot of specific organ measurements, and that’s above my effort-willingness. But for one extremely rough guestimate…
Modern people on the carnivore diet eat 2-4 pounds of meat per day. If we average that to three pounds of meat per day, a fully harvested adult sperm whale could feed 640 people on the carnivore diet for a month. Given that the average adult male medieval European peasant probably needed 2,900 calories per day, we can assume they would get even more value from the stranded whale, especially since peasants would normally only eat meat once or twice per week.
On top of the meat, a juicy male sperm whale would yield well over 1,600 gallons of whale oil. While I can’t find good info on how earlier whale harvesters used whale oil, there is evidence of it being commercially traded in Europe as early as 670 AD. Presumably, people recognized that whale oil could be used like any other animal fat for lighting and soap, and I imagine 1,600 gallons of oil could go a long way.
Granted, all of this amazing material wealth began to degrade as soon as a whale stranded itself and died shortly afterward (from thirst, illness, or drowning once the high tide came in). Even 19th century commercial whalers had a hard time stripping whale carcasses of oil and meat before it dissolved into the most unimaginably foul-smelling piles of rotten flesh. And the 19th century whalers were pros; they knew how to cut and flense the whale to extract maximum value, so presumably random medieval fisherman and peasants weren’t harvesting optimally. And on top of all that, stranding harvesters had to worry about their whales exploding:
Nevertheless, a stranded whale was a colossal source of wealth for any pre-industrial people lucky enough to stumble upon one. People thought they were sea monsters, gifts from god(s), and generally representative of the awe and splendor of the world beyond the narrow scope of knowledge of prescientific people.
Stranded whales were so valuable that despite their rarity, many places established laws governing the ownership and distribution of harvests. In 1148 AD, English churches began establishing legal claims over any stranded whales found in their dioceses with the exception of the tongues which would be sent straight to the king. By 1315, all parts of all stranded whales were declared property of the monarch, and this is technically still the law today.
(I found the tongue clause in multiple sources but never an explanation. I’m guessing it’s uniquely tasty. Atlas Obscura says whale tongue is a delicacy, and Japanese whaling research data finds tongue to be among the most calorically dense parts of the whale.)
Basquing in Glory
The Basque people, located on and around the western border of modern-day France and Spain, are considered to be the first commercial whalers (as opposed to harvesting whales for consumption). As mentioned, the earliest records of selling whale resources date to 670 AD, just under 200 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, when 250 liters of whale oil and whale blubber were sold from a Basque town to a French town. While it’s possible that this sale was just the product of a fortunate stranded whale harvest, there is ample evidence of the Basque engaging in the most intensive whaling in the world from the early Middle Ages until the 1600s, and not petering out until the early 1700s.
Why did the Basque pioneer whaling? I have no idea, and I can’t find any good explanation. Sure, there were lots of delicious, easily hunted right whales in the Bay of Biscay, and the Basque were maritime people, but there were lots of whales in lots of places near lots of maritime people around the world.
Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America suggests that the Basque started whaling because of a loophole in Catholic law – Catholics were not permitted to eat “warm blooded meat” on religious holidays because it supposedly made them horny. And this being medieval times, by the end of the first millennium there were 166 religious holidays per year, which meant that Catholics couldn’t eat most types of meat for almost half of the year. Fortunately for the Basque, the church believed whales were fish and therefore not warm blooded, and thus were permissible to eat during holidays. Speaking from personal experience, whale meat tastes like an odd combination of beef and fish, so it served as a perfect meat loophole substitute for the Basque. This demand allegedly inspired the growth of the Basque whaling industry.
It’s a fun story, but it sounds a bit just-so to me. I assume this “warm blooded meat” moratorium was in effect throughout most or all of the Catholic world, so again, why did the Basque alone turn to whale meat? I don’t know.
Fortunately for the Basque, the most common whale in the Bay of Biscay was the right whale. The story that the right whale got its name because it is the “right whale to hunt” is apocryphal, but the sentiment is correct. The animal is fat, slow, lives near the coast, stays near the surface a lot, and floats when it dies. A typical right whale produces 100-120 barrels of oil (more than 2X a big sperm whale) and can weigh up to 300,000 pounds. As you might guess, there are no longer any right whales in the Bay of Biscay, and only about 1,000-2,000 left worldwide.
The Basque were the best whalers in the world, but only during preindustrial times when the volume of catches were nothing compared to the industry’s glory days. By the best estimates, the most successful Basque fishing town only caught six whales per year in the 1500s and 1600s.
The seemingly low volume of catches was due to the inherent difficulty of whaling and the enormous profits that a single whale could generate, especially given the low costs of the business. Even a single whale per year seemed to be enough to keep a significant portion of a fishing village in profit. The industry was further supported by a fairly lax tax and regulatory attitude. For some reason, Basque whaling was entirely tax-exempt under French law, though the Basque sailors graciously gave all of their whale tongues to the church anyway. In the 1100s, the English monarchy inherited control of French Basque territory and began levying taxes on whaling. By 1257, whalers also had to pay a tithe (10% of value) on all hunted whales.
The Basque attempted to expand whaling operations abroad with some success. They established coastal whaling operations in Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Iceland, Canada, and Brazil. These operations seem to have inspired other nations to take up whaling and eventually surpass the Basque.
Basque whaling hit its peak in the 1500s and 1600s and then went into steady decline. At the time, whaling was economically important for a few whaling towns on the Bay of Biscay and a handful of other villages on the European Atlantic coast and in Scandinavia, but it had yet to become more than a boutique fuel and food industry.
In the late 1500s, the Dutch burst onto the whaling scene and put the first real economic engine behind the industry. And by the early 1600s, the Dutch had easily eclipsed the Basque and become by far the dominant global whaling power. It’s easy to forget that for about a century, the Netherlands was the most dominant seafaring power in the world, and built a colonial empire which would persevere in some form until World War II. The backbone of this surging nation was its mercantile fleet which in the 17th century was probably larger than the fleets of England, France, Spain, Portugal, and the German states combined.
The Dutch had lots of high-quality ships and a growing urban population, so moving into the whaling space was a no-brainer. They initially peeled off a few ships from their traditional fishing routes and first sent them down to the Bay of Biscay to hunt what was left of the sperm and right whale populations. But in the late 1500s, Danish merchantmen discovered massive whale populations around Spitsbergen, a group of desolate and otherwise economically useless islands in the North Sea which were then under the nominal control of Denmark (via its sovereignty over Norway). The land provided an empty and easily accessible spot to establish shore-based whaling outposts where crews could set up lookouts and have whaleboats on standby. The superabundance of whales kicked off a mini-whaling craze with the English granting monopoly whaling rights to its Muscovy Company and various other nations sending fledgling whaling fleets to get a piece of the action. But the vast quantity of well-built Dutch ships manned by skilled and experienced crews quickly swamped the others and captured a massively dominant market share.
Right whales were the initial target of the Dutch, but they soon found more traction with bowheads, which were similar enough to right whales in behavior and appearance that they were often confused for one another. Best of all, they produced equally high-quality oil, and the Dutch and other merchants found that harvesting whales in the frigid north was actually easier since the carcasses took longer to rot. The Dutch also innovated using the baleen harvested from rights and bowheads for expertly crafted cabinets.
From 1699-1708, the Dutch industry peaked with the dispatch of an astounding 1,652 whaling ventures which caught 8,537 whales. No other country came close to their fleet size, catch rate, or cost efficiency, with even the English only deploying a “handful” of vessels during the same time period.
But then the Dutch whaling industry petered out and by the mid-1700s. I haven’t found a detailed explanation why this occurred. In Pursuit of Leviathan says, “political troubles between England and the Continental countries reduced Dutch access to British markets,” which were the major source of demand for whale oil. Wikipedia says “political turmoil and warfare in Holland” undermined the Dutch fleet. So my best guess is that Dutch naval dominance was on the decline, and the British government pushed to limit their access to whaling sites to spur their own industry.
Part IV – The Anglo Whaling War (1700-1815)
If you just want to know more about whaling – life on the sea, hunting rates, the value of whale products, how the crews were paid, the risk-reward payout of whaling ventures, etc. – then you can skip this Part. If you want to know how a free market industry crushed a government subsidized/regulated/supported industry, then read on.
Albion On The Sea
The British were the dominant whalers from the mid-18th century until the early 19th century when the global whaling industry reached its peak under the United States. But unlike the artisanal Basques, the skilled Dutch, or eventually the ambitious Americans, the Brits didn’t rise to prominence because they were the best whalers… in fact, they seemed like chronically mediocre whalers. Rather, British dominance was achieved by heavy-handed government intervention both domestically and abroad, and pretty much the instant a foreign competitor wasn’t militarily besieged (the Americans), British market share tanked.
Local whaling operations had existed in the north of the British Isles throughout the late medieval and Renaissance eras, largely due to inspiration from the more intrepid Basque expeditions. British commercial whaling sparked to life in 1577 with the discovery of the Spitsbergen whaling grounds. In typical British fashion, the London-based Muscovy Company, which had been a generic shipping company, successfully lobbied the government to be granted a domestic monopoly on whaling. The government even banned whale product imports from the Basques, primarily for political reasons, but also probably as a protectionist policy to support their domestic whaling industry. But for some reason, the Muscovy Company only sent out a handful of whaling ships over the next three decades and didn’t bother going to the hotspot Spitsbergen islands until 1611.
More than half a century rolled by with the British whaling industry making little progress. The Dutch whaling operations were so efficient that they were selling whale oil to British markets at lower prices than domestic whalers could provide despite sizeable tariffs.
In the 1670s, the British government decided to get serious about whaling. Through some not unreasonable logical leaps, they believed that a strong whaling industry could serve as a strategic asset both economically and militarily for the nation. Whale oil demand was steadily growing as Britain underwent urbanization, and the mercantilist government didn’t like the dragging trade deficit it held with the Dutch as they pumped barrels of oil into London in exchange for pounds. This was also the start of real British seafaring ambitions, and forward-thinking admirals wanted to imitate the Dutch model by cultivating fishing and whaling industries so Britain would always have a large stock of sailors to serve in the navy when needed.
Britain had good reason to want a whaling industry, but that didn’t change the facts on the water – they couldn’t compete with the Dutch. They had fewer ships, fewer sailors, less experience, and less expertise.
So the British government’s solution was to jump-start the industry with protectionism. In 1672, a law was passed exempting British whale oil from customs taxes and putting targeted tariffs on foreign whale oil and baleen. To their credit, the bill reduced restrictions to permit British whaling ships to carry a crew of up to 50% foreigners in the hope of dragging in skilled immigrants.
The government support had little effect and the British whaling industry lagged, with single digits of British ships engaging in whaling annually. New hope came in the late 1690s when the Dutch lost some sort of diplomatic access to northern whaling territories and the British government granted a new whaling monopoly to the Greenland Company… which crashed and burned after multiple failed ventures, prompting the British government to forget about whaling for thirty years.
But Britain was starting to come into its own. It was no longer a second-rate European power, but the head of maybe the second or third most powerful empire in the Western hemisphere. With a bit more confidence in the reach and efficacy of the state, the government tried again to spark the whaling industry, but this time with the brute force of pure subsidies: in 1732, a law was passed granting subsidies of £1 per ton of ship weight to whaling ship of over 200 tons.
I’m afraid my seafaring knowledge is a little weak, but as far as I can tell, 200 tons wasn’t too large for a ship at the time. The fluyts which dominated Dutch trade were 200-300 tons. Almost a century later, the average American whaler in 1838 was 283 tons. Large British warships from the early 1500s were up to 1,500 tons. 16th century galleons were 500-2,000 tons.
By messy direct inflation conversion, £1 in 1732 = £252.52 in 2021 = $351.51. For reference, the average British farmer in 1730 made 10.8 pence/day = £0.045 pounds/day = £13.5 pounds per year working 300 days. So by my rough estimates, even the smallest ships to pass the 200 ton threshold were getting subsidies that were enough to employ almost 15 full-time laborers per year, which seems like a pretty sizeable amount.
And yet… the British whaling industry didn’t improve. Annual output of whale oil didn’t budge.
When a government policy fails, the natural course of action is to double down. So in 1740, the government increased the subsidies to £1.5 per ton.
The result… four or five British whalers went out annually. And they mostly just bought whale oil from the Dutch and then resold it in London. Even the early American industry based in Nantucket was sending out 25 ships in 1730 (albeit much smaller ones, 38-50 tons).
In 1750, the British government again increased subsidies, this time to £2 per ton. Finally, the British whaling industry took off, with the number of whalers increasing from two in 1749 to 20 in 1750 and 83 in 1756. By the 1780s, they were fielding 200-400 vessels per year.
Was this boom in the British whaling industry due to the government’s protectionist policies? Maybe. The government was paying whaleships a minimum of £400 just for setting sail, and that seemed to be enough free money to incentivize fisherman to try their hand at whaling. Alternatively, the sharp decline of Dutch shipping in the middle of the century finally opened up more and better whaling spots for British whalers which meant increased odds of profits, so maybe the British whaling industry was in the process of expanding anyway. Or, the soaring demand for whale oil – due not just to lighting in growing cities but lubrication for machines in the early industrial revolution – pushed prices high enough to justify more domestic whaling.
Regardless of whether government or market forces can take credit, the British finally became the dominant global whalers in the second half of the 18th century and would remain so until 1814. Britain had been the largest consumer of whale oil for a while, but now they were also the largest producers. With the evolution of ocean whaling (whaling in the open ocean as opposed to on the shoreline), British whalers went all the way to the Indian and Pacific Oceans by the 1780s.
Britain’s era of whaling glory overlapped heavily with its era of naval ascendency, which meant constantly fighting European and colonial wars. Usually, these wars hindered the whaling industry both because foreign naval ships and privateers would hunt whalers, and because the British navy would pressgang its own whalers.
But wars also proved to be the saving grace of the British whaling industry. Not only did the legendary British navy secure the largest and safest sea access the world had ever known, but two particular wars destroyed Britain’s greatest whaling competitor.
By the 1770s, the American colonists were sending out 300 whaling ships per year. And though these ships were significantly smaller than British whalers, they had access to the rich whaling waters of the Eastern American coast while the British either had to go to the frigid North Sea or distant oceans. But just when the spunky Americans looked to be seriously undercutting British whaling (despite the massive disadvantage that they could only sell to American and British markets due to British protectionist laws), the War for American Independence broke out and the mighty British navy destroyed the vast majority of American ships of all varieties. The American whaling industry basically disappeared for a few decades, and just when it was resurging once more, the War of 1812 smacked it back down.
Eventually, the Brits couldn’t stop the inevitable. American whaling exploded right after the war ended and soon became the most dominant in the world. The British government was tired of paying high subsidies, and the British whaling industry still wasn’t particularly efficient, so they began to allow American whale oil imports to take prominence over domestic production. The final nail in the British whaling industry’s coffin (or at least the definitive end of any pretense of British dominance) was the wave of free trade sentiment which began sweeping Britain in the 1820s. In 1824, whaling subsidies ended, in 1843 tariffs on whale products were greatly reduced, and in 1849 whaling tariffs were eliminated entirely. By then, Britain barely had a whaling industry.
How the Whales Were Won
Whaling is in America’s blood. The pilgrims on the Mayflower saw whales on their voyage to Massachusetts and many passengers wrote about it in their diaries. Pretty much every 17th century coastal New England town was set up at a whaling operation and hoped to one day harvest the beasts. The Native Americans living along the northeast coast hunted whales, and taught the Europeans how to do so in many places. Coastal whales were so abundant that an early Cape Cod resident claimed to have seen enough in the bay at one time to stretch across its entire length. Hyperbole maybe, but you get the point.
Colonial Americans harvested beached whales when they could (though they usually had to give the church a taste) and occasionally joined Native Americans in their hunts, but it wasn’t until the early 1700s that a proper commercial whaling industry developed in Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. As a port town with a well-established fishing industry and lots of experienced whaling Natives, it was an ideal site, though its best attribute was simply being surrounded by lots and lots of whales. The early coastal whaling outposts found them so easy to spot, and the right whales so easy to kill, that the island more-or-less abandoned its cod fisheries for whaling.
The techniques that would come to be standardized in the Golden Age of whaling a century later were developed here. The Nantucket sleigh ride was a terrifying and exhilarating right-of-passage for whalers who zipped around the ocean following their prey. Harpoon designs, crewmember positions, and harvesting methods were developed over the decades as the industry grew.
One of the key developments was the lay system. Unlike British whalers who were largely paid on a salary basis, Americans were paid with profit-sharing. Each crewmember negotiated his own lay, or fraction of the profits, based on his post, experience, and negotiating prowess. I’ll give a full breakdown of how this system worked in Part V, but generally the whaling companies kept about a third of profits for themselves, officers received between 1/15th and 1/30th each, and other crewmembers around 1/100th to 1/300th each.
The whaling company owners and officers in Nantucket were nearly always white Quakers. The idea of one of the most pacifistic religions on earth leading the slaughter of giant, majestic animals is a bit odd, and Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America even says that some of them struggled with the morality of the profession. But apparently the money was worth a bit of bloodshed.
The rank-and-file whalers were mostly native Americans and blacks, though there were occasional poor whites. There was no direct legal reason for this divide, it was just a matter of capital and expertise. The white officers tended to be highly experienced fisherman, merchantman, or naval officers; the Native Americans were experienced whalers, but willing to accept low wages; and the blacks were usually inexperienced migrants who also accepted low wages, though there was at least one whaling company owned and operated by a black man.
(On a less progressive note, American whalers sometimes took jobs as slave transports since the ample cargo holds of whaleships made them well-suited to the task).
The oddball demographic addition to the whaling industry was the Portuguese, who typically have no presence in American history, but had a major role in American whaling. For some reason, the meager number of Portuguese colonial Americans settled in and around Nantucket, and since they tended to have sailing expertise, a ton of them joined the whaling industry. Though they were usually crewmen instead of officers, they were considered the most-skilled, most valuable, and highest paid of the bunch.
American colonial whale hunters were relatively few in number and used much smaller ships than their European counterparts, but they were good… really good. They hunted at a higher rate of efficiency than their British and Dutch counterparts, and the American companies expanded rapidly with their profits. Over the first half of the 18th century, their whaling output climbed precipitously, and by the mid-century, they may have eclipsed the British in oil output, though my two main sources seem to disagree on this point.
By 1750, there were 100 American whaleships. Twenty years later, there were 370 American whaleships which annually produced 45,000 barrels of sperm oil and spermaceti, 8,500 barrels of other whale oil, and 75,000 pounds of baleen. American whaling probably could have entered a Golden Age as early as the 1760s (as opposed to the 1810s) were it not for political conflicts and government meddling messing up the industry for 50 years.
In the 1750s, American colonists and Native allies fought against French colonists and their Native allies in the French and Indian War (AKA Seven Years War) over the fate of North American colonial territory. Whaling operations slowed to avoid French privateers and would have recovered after the war, except the British government infamously began squeezing the American colonies with taxes and protectionist trade measures ostensibly to pay for the war effort.
By that point, American whale oil was so plentiful and cheap that it easily undercut the heavily subsidized British production. Due to sheer domestic demand, the British government was forced to lower its oil tariffs against its colonies, but it maintained high tariffs with all other nations, which in turn raised their tariffs defensively against Britain and its colonies. This forced the Americans to sell the vast majority of their oil to mainland Britain since they were priced out other markets (like France and the German states). American whaling was further hindered by the Restraining Acts and Intolerable Acts which limited whaling grounds and closed New England harbors.
With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775, the whaling industry came to a virtual standstill. The British owned the waves and were happy to pick off any American merchant vessels as accomplices to the rebellion. This is also when the British began their (IMO severely under-historically-resented) practice of impressing American sailors into service in the British navy. If losing one’s cargo and ship weren’t enough to dissuade American whalers from plying their trade, the risk of indefinite enslavement and being forced to fight against their countrymen was.
(In a cruel display of history rewarding evil, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America says that a significant portion of the successful post-Revolutionary War British whaling industry was driven by impressed American whalers brought back to Britain after the war. Many of them became specialists in British crews and/or taught their whaling expertise to the Brits.)
At the time, almost all American whaling was concentrated in New England, and almost all New England whaling was concentrated in Nantucket, which itself was almost entirely dependent on the whaling industry. Therefore, the war was a disaster for Nantucket – they couldn’t hunt with the British patrolling the seas, and even if they could, they wouldn’t be able to sell their oil to the British who had been their almost exclusive customer for a decade. Loyalist sentiment was high on the island (probably due to economic self-interest) and so the people of Nantucket felt like they were really being screwed by the war. If they had it their way, they would continue to hunt and sell to the Brits like nothing had changed.
This prompted an odd historical footnote – the Nantucket government basically tried to operate as an independent nation during the American War for Independence.
At first, the island seriously considered declaring independence from the United States of America, but given that New England was a stronghold of patriot support, they were understandably concerned about being invaded and forced back into line.
So Nantucket decided on a weird compromise route of sending a delegation to the Massachusetts government to ask if it could operate as a de facto independent state and negotiate with the British government on its own terms while remaining legally within the bounds of the new United States. To which the Massachusetts government responded with a resounding: “No.”
But the Nantucket government wasn’t ready to watch its economy collapse, so it ignored the Massachusetts government and tried to independently negotiate with the British anyway. They sent delegates to the crown and attempted to buy licenses to engage in whaling without being harassed by the British blockade, which the Brits agreed to, because I guess it was free money and sowed division in the colonies.
Unfortunately, the licenses didn’t really work. Nantucket did a little bit of whaling, but a lot of their ships were captured and whalers impressed into service anyway. It’s not clear why this happened, but presumably the British naval high command didn’t care enough about the licensing deal to seriously enforce it. The Nantucket government tried resetting the terms of the deals numerous times, but always to the same result. Worse yet, their attempts to stay loyal to the crown couldn’t prevent a British naval squadron from launching a full-scale raiding expedition of the island and destroying much of its fleet.
In 1783, the Revolutionary War came to an end and the United States of America emerged as a free and independent nation. It was a new day and age for whalers. The seas were open, the British trade regulations were gone, free-ish trade was the new default policy, the Massachusetts state government started a small whale oil subsidy, and so there seemed to be nothing stopping the American whaling industry from resuming its meteoric rise to global dominance…
Except the British again. With a booming industrial economy, Britain was still by far the largest source of whale oil demand, and with near-monopsony power, British trade policy could steer the whole market. Both out of a desire to finally make British whaling work, and due to a petty drive for revenge against America for winning the war, the British government slapped an enormous tariff on American whale oil, which by one contemporary estimate was twice the expected profit per barrel.
This one law pretty much re-crippled the American whaling industry. Yet again, Nantucket seriously considered seceding from the United States, and when this plan was abandoned, its most prominent whalers attempted to move to Halifax, Canada to relaunch the industry within the British Empire. But the crown ordered the governor of Canada to block the move literally out of spite. For the next few decades, the remaining 100 or so American whalers did their best to keep the industry going, but faced low non-British demand, and periodic harassment from British and French privateers who willfully disregarded American neutrality while they fought each other in the Napoleonic Wars.
The saving grace for American whaling was that its whalers were really, really good at whaling. There were so good that eventually the British and French governments tried making deals with the Nantucket whaling community to ship their entire operation to Europe. Land, houses, subsidies, lump sum up-front bonuses, and preferential trade rights were offered, and eventually the American whalers took a deal with the French to relocate near Dunkirk. In the end, only a handful of families agreed to the move and the bulk of American whalers stayed behind, but the small contingent formed a boutique, yet highly profitable French whaling industry to compete with the British.
The final pummeling of American whaling was the War of 1812. Once again, the mighty British navy easily blockaded all of the US. Once again, lots of whaling ships were captured and whalers impressed into British service. Once again, Nantucket tried to operate as a quasi-independent nation, and even had the gall to stop paying American taxes for a while. In 1814, the island’s government even signed an official peace treaty with Britain two years before the war ended.
Why Did the Americans Beat the Brits?
Why were the British so bad at whaling that they could only build their industry through tariffs, heavy subsidies, boxing out one competitor, and literally destroying another competitor? In Pursuit of Leviathan tackles this question:
First, the Brits had a problem with a lack of homegrown whaling talent. Most of the whaling expedition leaders in the mid-late 1700s were actually American immigrants who moved to Britain for the subsidies or were press-ganged by the navy and stuck around for the business opportunities. Meanwhile, the best crewmen on British ships were nearly always Dutch, Portuguese, or Scandinavian, to the point where the British government had to relax labor laws in the middle of the century to allow a greater proportion of foreign workers on each ship.
This seems strange given the historical reputation of British seafaring… maybe the best sailors were absorbed into the navy, leaving only the second rates for commercial activity? One possibility suggested by In Pursuit of Leviathan is that British sailors were paid in a mixture of wages and commissions, while Americans were paid almost entirely in commissions. For high-risk/high-reward work like whaling, commissions offered better leverage and were more attractive to workers. So why didn’t the British pay higher commissions? I don’t know.
Second, British whaling was subject to numerous government regulations and supports which both raised industry costs and fostered inefficiency.
One protectionist law forced British companies to only purchase ships from domestic manufacturers, and while British ships were of high-quality, they were also expensive by international standards due to high resource and labor costs. Incidentally, the United States had this same law, but far lower shipbuilding costs. By best estimates, it cost 1.5-2.2X to build an equally sized ship in Britain than the US, though the British costs were partially offset by lower interest rates.
While British whaling may have only gotten off the ground due to generous government subsidies, this support also pushed British whaling in a less cost-effective direction. The subsidy was paid out on the basis of ship size, which encouraged British whalers to use larger ships. In 1815, the average British whaler was 323 tons while the average American whaler was only 169 tons (though it would later rise considerably). This shifted the British industry to embrace a higher labor-to-capital ratio since larger crews were needed to man the larger ships, and crew costs scaled faster than ship costs. The average American whaling crew during its golden age was 29, compared to 40-50 for Britain.
An unintended consequence of this shift was that British whalers were incentivized to make shorter ventures since venture length had a much greater impact on labor cost than capital cost. British ventures were typically seasonal and might max out at one year, while by the mid-1840s, most American ventures lasted more than two years. Thus, British whalers spent a relatively large amount of time going to-and-from whaling points compared to the Americans, and they spent less time at the whaling points overall, which contributed to a generally lower catch rate and cost-effectiveness.
Another more general side effect of the regulations and subsidies was that British whaling stagnated in technique while Americans were more experimental. US whalers used a larger variety of ship types and sizes, more diverse crewmembers, and went to far more whaling spots. The British mostly stuck to big ships, mostly British crews, and a few well-worn whaling spots.
Finally, British whaling lost a disproportionately high number of ships to northern ice flows. They didn’t hit icebergs (often), but rather got stuck in quickly freezing waters in the late autumn, and then the crews would often freeze or starve to death. This was not as much of a problem for American ships when they eventually got into arctic whaling because they would plan to get stuck during their long ventures, and bring enough supplies to last through the long, cold, boring, desolate winters.
Part V – The Golden Age of Whaling (1815-1861)
Throughout the entire span of human civilization from about 10,000 BC to the present day, there was a period of about fifty years when one of the most important industries on earth was whaling. The Western nations had pulled ahead of the rest of the globe, their populations were growing, their cities were expanding, and their people needed light for their homes and streets. Centuries of commercially-based economic growth were slowly being supercharged by industrialism, and the factories springing up around the Atlantic needed lubricant for their gears and wheels.
In the past, people didn’t need as much light and lubricant, and in the future they would have endlessly abundant petroleum and new resources. But for a brief historical moment, the easiest, cheapest, fastest way to keep civilization growing was to sail to the far corners of the earth, hunt the largest animals to ever live, and drain their bodies for organic fuel. When people picture whaling in their minds, they think of this Golden Age: large ships leaving port, muscle-bound men carrying harpoons, thrashing whales knocking over boats, Winslow Homer, and Moby Dick.
The era was launched when American whaling was finally unleashed. At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain ended its naval blockades and impressment policy, the French navy was dead, and so the sea was finally clear of privateers. Meanwhile, a wave of free trade enthusiasm swept over a British people sick of paying high prices for goods the Brits simply weren’t good at producing. Whale oil tariffs plummeted and were virtually eliminated by the 1840s, finally giving the US unhindered access to the largest source of oil demand in the world. The British whaling industry promptly collapsed along with its subsidies as consumers chose far cheaper foreign oil. Finally, after a long journey to figure out where to settle, the Nantucket whaling industry moved nearly its entire complex to the minor port town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, partially to tap into a growing pool of sailor labor, and partially because Nantucket’s shallow waters were proving troublesome for the newest generation of large ships.
In the forty years following the War of 1812, the global whaling industry would expand by something like 8-10X. From 1816-1820, the American whaling industry consisted of about 50 ships totaling over 18,000 tons, which earned an annual revenue of $750,000 (in 1880 USD). At the peak of its size from 1841-1845, the industry had 672 ships totaling almost 186,000 tons. A decade later at the peak of its revenue, the industry earned almost $10 million annually, making whaling the fifth largest industry in America. Prior to the 19th century, the global whaling industry hunted maybe 2,000-3,000 whales per year; at its peak in the 1800s, the global whaling industry probably peaked at 10,000-12,000 whales per year. American whaling constituted about 70% of the global whaling industry, and New Bedford constituted about 45% of the American whaling industry, which made it the wealthiest city in the United States on a per capita basis.
(It’s tough to put these numbers in perspective, but as points of comparison: in 1850 the federal government spent $45 million.)
We have far more historical data on this whaling era than any other. American whaling companies were good at recordkeeping and the port towns where they made home have done a great job of preserving their ledgers for posterity. American sailors were comparatively literate and used their excruciatingly long voyages to keep journals on daily life. So in Part V, I’ll dive into more of the minutiae of whaling, from the corporate operations to the labor agreements, and from life on the sea to the impact of the Golden Age on the global whale population.
Prior to the Golden Age, whaling had been an organized industry in Europe for at least 300 years. Why did it suddenly multiply 8-10X in supply and demand within a few decades?
My understanding is that there was a confluence of three factors. First, there was a soaring demand for whale products due to rising populations, urbanization, and industrialism. Second, whale products definitively outcompeted their competitors in quality. Third, due to the removal of political barriers, the supply of whale products was finally allowed to expand, thereby reducing prices and pushing the industry to market dominance.
The most important product was still whale oil, which was used primarily for lighting, and secondarily for industrial lubrication. It could be fed into lanterns to produce a relatively bright, yellow glow. It also had a fairly low freezing point which made it suitable for northern climates, and it was famously stable, with little-to-no risk of explosion or creating fires. The main drawback as a light source was its smell, which was said to be “fishy.” Whale oil varied in quality which determined the brightness, hue, freezing point, and smell of the lanterns, but the best whale oil was the spermaceti oil (which was usually used as a candle rather than in lanterns) which burned bright white, had an extremely low freezing point, and gave off no odor.
It was the perfect product for the perfect time. People wanted to stay up at night, and whale oil was providing a higher quality way to light their homes than ever before. Soon the largest customers of whale oil were not retail consumers, but wholesale municipal governments as cities purchased huge quantities of whale oil for streetlights on their ever-expanding (and often crime-ridden) avenues. Finally, lighthouses became a major purchaser of whale oil, particularly spermaceti oil for its brightness. This was the heyday lighthouses, and thousands lined the American shores, all of which had an extremely powerful beacon that needed to shine 24/7.
Whale oil had plenty of lighting competitors both historically and that emerged to challenge its dominance during the Golden Age. I found this part of my research surprisingly interesting… the marketplace was keenly aware that growing cities had yet to find a viable lighting source. There were lots of companies, inventors, and merchants fiddling around with known and obscure fuel sources trying to find the next big lighting breakthrough, with widely varying levels of success. Lots of competitors emerged, but ultimately whale oil outcompeted them all, at least for a while. Alternatives included:
Lard oil, a derivative of pig fat, entered the marketplace in the 1830s. It was cheap (usually about 25% less expensive than whale oil), abundant, and easily made. But it smelled horrible, burned unevenly, its candles had a tendency to collapse, and the light was too faint for most contexts. Despite innovations, lard oil was mostly used in rural areas where port-drawn whale oil was more expensive.
Vegetable oils derived from various plants (mostly canola and soy) were being innovated throughout the first half of the 1800s. Most had the same advantages and disadvantages of lard oil, making them cheap but inferior alternatives to whale oil. But they did slowly improve over time and eat away at whale oil market share.
Camphine was a novel compound of lard oil, vegetable oil, alcohol, and turpentine (a flammable liquid distilled from tree resin). When it first came on the market in the 1840s, it looked like the whale oil-killer had finally arrived. It was far cheaper (about 1/3rd-1/5th the price), burned brightly, and was easily fed into lanterns. Its only problem was its tendency to explode. Various sources I read referred to it as “volatile” and “dangerous,” which makes camphine lanterns not well suited for sitting above beds in wooden houses in the 19th century. Most notably, in 1846 a camphine lantern burned down the St. Louis Theater, killing 45 people. Camphine stuck around throughout the mid-century, and some people say it had a brief moment of market dominance before alcohol taxes jacked its price up, but the substance was never able light much of America for long.
Coal oil was another potential whale oil killer. While making flames from coal was easy enough, it wasn’t until the 1820s that some Brits figured out how to distill and extract an oil from coal which could be fed into lanterns, the universal provider of lighting at the time. While the abundance of coal kept the oil super cheap (similar price to camphine), it proved to be another low-quality fuel that produced a bad-smelling and dim light, with the unique anti-bonus of a sooty discharge. So coal oil never really got off the ground.
Natural gas (known then as hydrogen gas) was surprisingly also a factor in the lighting market. In the late 1700s, British engineers finally figured out how to capture this explosive gas that chronically troubled coal mines. What and how to use the gas was a separate problem that would take decades to solve, but by the 1820s and 30s, five major American cities (Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans, and Boston) had gas companies that provided lighting to portions of the cities. Municipal governments steadily found natural gas to be a cheaper and equally high-quality alternative to whale oil. The problem was that implementing natural gas lighting required a massive investment in infrastructure to run pipelines from gas plants to homes and buildings throughout the city. Few major cities could afford or justify the cost.
As I’ll describe at the end of Part V, many of these competitors (and one key latecomer) would evolve throughout the 19th century and eventually outcompete whale oil. But for about fifty years, the lighting products derived from animals, plants, and fossil fuels were all either too dim, too smelly, too volatile, or required too much investment to compete with a substance squeezed out of the blubber of massive sea animals.
Note that whale oil was the most expensive of all of these products during the Golden Age, particularly spermaceti oil which usually cost 3X more than ordinary whale oil. The fact that whale oil remained dominant despite significantly higher pricing than its competitors is a testament to its quality at the time.
Whaling companies operated on a venture-by-venture basis. Each venture consisted of selecting a ship owned by the company and attaching an agent to run the given venture. The agent would then hire the captain, officers, and crew through negotiations with each employee on their lay (share of the profits) and up-front payment. When the ship returned from its voyage overseas, the agent would sell the proceeds of the voyage, payout the lays, take his own cut, and give the remaining earnings back to the whaling company.
From 1821-1897, the average venture that successfully returned to port yielded:
- 32,104.8 gallons of sperm oil
- 41,088.6 gallons of whale oil
- 8,400.8 pounds of baleen
The average number of whales hunted – 19 sperm whales and 15 baleen whales
The average revenue – $47,800.90
The typical profit margin for the company – 6.5-14%
Whaling was an extremely capital-intensive industry. In the 1850s, at the tail-end of the Golden Age, the average venture cost between $20,000-30,000 depending on the size and quality of the ship and crew, and where in the world the ship was headed. For the sake of comparison, at the time, the average farmholding in America was worth under $2,258, and the average manufacturing company was worth a little over $4,000. (Note – the above 6.5-14% profit margin refers to 1821-1897, while the $20,000-$30,000 average venture cost refers to 1850.)
Whaling was a highly volatile, high-risk/high-reward industry. There was no guarantee of success either within a good year, or over multiple years, even with a top-tier ship and crew. Whales were simply too elusive and random. In 1837, an example of a good year, out of 81 ventures:
- 53 were profitable
- 8 broke even
- 11 sustained moderate loses
- 9 resulted in “severe loses”
In 1868, an example of a bad year, out of 68 ventures, 44 resulted in losses, totaling over $1 million in total industry losses.
But still, many fortunes were made in whaling. The highest reported revenue on a single venture was $132,000 in 1853, which likely produced profits of near $100K. Prior to the rise of the railroad barons, many of the wealthiest families in America were based in whaling, particularly the Rotch, Jones, and Duff families, as well as Hetty Green, who was likely the wealthiest woman in America at the time.
On the other hand, whaling could and did destroy many fortunes. More than 6% of all whaling ventures were never completed. Meaning, more than 6% of the time a whaling ship left its home port, it never returned. Records show that whaleships could be destroyed in storms, sunk by reefs, captured by privateers, captured by pirates, seized by Natives, seized by corrupt foreign governments, seized by crew mutinies, sabotaged by crews, abandoned, or in extremely rare cases, sunk by whales. In most instances when a ship didn’t return from a voyage, the ship was lost in a storm and all the crew died.
Of the 728 vessels based in New Bedford during the Golden Age, 272 were eventually lost, for an attrition rate of 31%. Putting aside the loss of life, the costs to the whaling companies were mitigated by insurance, though rates climbed considerably over the years, especially as whalers went to farther-flung destinations for prime whaling.
Arguably the biggest winners from whaling were the agents. Whaling companies put up the money, and then they typically selected one of their own to run the operation. This agent was both an investor and an administrator; he put up his own money, and then hired the officers and crew and set the parameters for each voyage. In return, he received a premium on his investment – while successful whaling voyages typically had a profit rate of 6.5-14%, agent returns on successful ventures were 28-44%. According to 1855 tax records, the average agent had a net-worth of $70,000, while at the time, the wealthiest 0.1% of Americans had net-worths starting at $111,000.
As mentioned, whaling ran on the “lay system,” where each individual negotiated his cut of the net earnings at the start of the voyage. The net was determined from the gross revenue by the specific contract of the venture, though standard cost deductions were basic ship maintenance and docking fees. These costs were small; typically adding up to 0.6% of revenue prior to 1850, and 3% in the second half of the century.
The advantages of this system are obvious. Whaling companies saved up-front costs and mitigated risks by deferring the vast majority of their labor payments to the end of the voyage. Even more importantly, crews were incentivized to be as productive as possible since their payouts were based on their success. This was especially important since whaling was generally a miserable, boring, existentially horrifying experience, and had a sky-high labor attrition rate, particularly among the lower-level crewmembers.
The disadvantages of the lay system for the whaling companies were… almost nonexistent. It was great for them. The only potential drawback is that lay payments could be huge on successful voyages, or at least far greater than payouts in a set wage system, but that’s a small price to pay for aligning the incentives of the employees so closely with the employers.
The disadvantages of the lay system for the crewmembers were that they were exposed to all the risks of their bosses. If the venture made a lot of money, then everyone won. But if the venture lost money, then whalers could return from multi-year voyages and get nothing, or even end up in debt to the whaling company.
As far as I can tell, the primary reason the lay system was implemented was to combat the ever-present factor of desertion. According to Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, the average Golden Age voyage was expected to lose 50% of its crew to desertion by the time it returned to home port. The lay system didn’t stop all desertions, but at least it was an incentive not to desert. Aside from an up-front payment and potential bonus, whalers wouldn’t get any money until they returned to home port, the whale goods were sold off, and the companies were flushed with cash.
Why did whaling have such a high attrition rate? Because life aboard a whaleship was awful, and it was easy to leave. If crewmen slipped away during a port stop, there was nothing the captains could do about it. There certainly wasn’t the civil infrastructure to punish contract violations in rough-and-tumble supply ports in the middle of the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. In more extreme circumstances, whalemen would steal the whaleboats (the smaller boats on the ship) and flee, or even sabotage the main ship.
Plus, crewmen were generally paid about 25-33% of their projected lays upfront (at 6% interest) and so they were usually indebted to the whaling companies during voyages, and possibly from previous unsuccessful voyages. So it didn’t take a Bernie Madoff-tier financial fraud genius to figure out that sometimes it was best for crewmembers to jump ship early rather than stick around for a multi-year voyage.
On the other hand, an odd side-effect of the lay system was that it actually encouraged companies to want crewmen to desert at the end of the voyage. After all, the fewer crewmen who returned, the smaller the lay payouts, and the more profits for the company. In Pursuit of Leviathan has anecdotes of captains of returning voyages inventing supply problems so their crewmen would starve and jump ship, or even purposefully leaving crewmen behind at distant ports.
In Pursuit of Leviathan has amazing figures on average lays and wages based on aggregating thousands of American whaling company venture records from 1840-1858. A typical ship had the following breakdown:
|Average Number Aboard||
Average Lay (1/X)
Lay Converted to Net Earnings %
Average Annual Income (1840-1858)
|Captain||1||Run the ship, maintain order, direct course, decide when to return to home port||15||6.6%||$1,178.40|
|Mate||3||Secondary officers, execute captain’s order||23-72||4.4%-1.4%||$786.72-$335.76|
|Cooper||1||Build barrels for whale oil storage||57||1.8%||$329.76|
|Blacksmith||0-1||Maintain equipment, fix things||173||0.58%||???|
|Carpenter||1||Maintain ship, fix things||165||0.61%||$113.64|
|Miscellaneous Craftsmen||0-1||Fix things||170||0.59%||???|
|Skilled Sailor||2||Veteran of numerous mercantile expeditions (not necessarily whaling), smart enough to be good at his job but not smart enough to be an officer||151||0.66%||$122.88|
|Semi-Skilled Sailor||2-3||Has been on at least one mercantile venture, either angling for officer position or will end up a skilled sailor||167||0.60%||$106.56|
|Unskilled Sailor||11||First mercantile venture, has no idea what he’s doing, assigned grunt work||186||0.54%||$98.64|
|“Boy”||0-1||Street urchin or runaway kid who signs up with a crew, given miscellaneous tasks||309||0.32%||???|
NOTE 1 – The “Mates” have a wide range of lays because there was typically a “First Mate,” “Second Mate,” and “Third Mate,” ranked in descending order under the captain.
NOTE 2 – For some reason, In Pursuit of Leviathan doesn’t list the average wage of shipkeepers, blacksmiths, miscellaneous craftsmen, nor “boys.”
NOTE 3 – The listed average annual incomes technically don’t include “room and board” which all crewmembers received. The projected monthly cost of food was $3.90-$6.70, so another $60-ish could be added to the average annual income.
NOTE 4 – The typical whaling venture lasted multiple years, so these sums were not paid out annually.
NOTE 5 – The book doesn’t address compensation for replacement crewmembers who joined mid-voyage to fill in for deserters. Presumably they were paid pro-rated lays based on the amount of time left in the voyage.
NOTE 6 – For the sake of comparison, here’s a few examples I found of annual earnings by profession in 1850:
- Farm laborer – $94.56-$162.60 + “room and board”
- President of the United States – $25,000
- US Senator – $2,880
- Federal judge – $2,000-$3,000
- Lowest level white Union Army soldier (1861-1865) – $156
It’s important to state that the annual incomes on the table above are the averages derived from an 18 year time span. The figures leave out two important considerations: trends over time and volatility.
The main trend highlighted in In Pursuit of Leviathan is that over the course of the Golden Age, lays for officers (captains and mates) increased while lays for all other crewmembers decreased. By the late 1850s, average captain lays were near 13, and the average first mate lays were near 19. Annual whaleship captain earnings reached 3X the average annual earnings for an ordinary American merchant captain. Meanwhile, average skilled sailor lays had risen over 160, and unskilled sailors over 190. The trend seemed driven by companies realizing the relative value of officers compared to ordinary crewmen, especially given the low attrition rates of the former and extremely high attrition rates of the latter.
But volatility was a bigger factor. As you can see, the average earnings for whalemen were not very good, especially for the lower-skilled crewmembers. In Pursuit of Leviathan even shows that whalers were usually paid less than their counterparts doing the same job on land (ie. a cooper working in Boston made more than a cooper working on a whaleship).
However, single fortunate ventures could bring enormous windfalls for crewmembers. Recall, the average revenue on a returned whaling venture was about $48,000, but the most successful ventures topped well over $100,000. Likewise, the table figures represent average lays, but smart negotiators could significantly boost their revenue cuts over the norm; the best captains could get lays as low as 8 (or 12.5% of revenue), and the most successful recorded captain was making $4,252.08 annually. In about 30% of ventures, captains had ownership stakes in the ventures ranging between 10-30%, which could greatly amplify their earnings (it’s not clear to me if the listed annual average incomes took these capital gains into account).
On the other hand, 6% of ventures never returned to port, and the vast majority of the crewmen of that 6% died at sea, and those who didn’t die were usually stranded on some distant port hundreds or thousands of miles from home. Plus, even on a good year, about 25% of ventures weren’t profitable and produced little in earnings for the crewmembers.
So… purely from an average economic cost-benefit standpoint, whaling was not a lucrative venture for anyone except the officers. According to the company records, aside from the officers, the vast majority of whalemen never went on more than one venture. So it’s safe to say that most whaler crewmen treated the job as something akin to a lottery ticket rather than a career. It was certainly a hell of an expensive lottery ticket when single ventures could last up to four years, but I guess there weren’t many ways for poor, uneducated mid-19th century Americans to make a lot of money.
An alternative explanation for why so many whalers signed up despite it being a bad economic bet, was that they were literally tricked into doing so. Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America claims that lots of whaling agents were sleazy salesman who promised young men a life of adventure and high profits in the whaling trade, only for them to find out the hard truth when they returned to port three years later with little show for it. Sometimes whaling agents outright lured drunken youths onto their vessels and forced them to sign contracts, and then they’d wake up the next morning with a hangover to find themselves at sea under a legal obligation to hunt whales.
To make matters better or worse, the lay could be augmented by supplemental income or fees. Crewman could earn extra money by taking on additional duties at sea, or at ports (loading/unloading cargo, watching the ship), or sometimes received bonuses at the discretion of the captain for exemplary work. Good whalemen could rack up bonuses amounting to around 10% of their lays.
But more commonly, the fees mounted up. Crewmen were typically offered 25-33% of their projected total lays up-front before setting sail. This money would be used to purchase basic seafaring equipment (clothes, etc.) and hedonistic indulgences (alcohol, prostitutes, etc.) before the years at sea ahead. Just as importantly, once onboard the crewmen heavily indulged in tobacco and occasional other luxuries which were sold by the captain and steward above-cost. These lay advances usually came at 6% interest, which further cut into the meager payouts for low-level crewmen.
But before we can get resentful toward the whaling companies for exploiting their workers, we have to remember that 50% of whalers deserted or died mid-voyage and never repaid their debts. And if a whaleman stuck with the voyage, and returned home to receive a meager lay that left him in debt to the company, he could always just join another company and go to sea for years where no creditor would ever find him. And of course, there were the occasional crewmen who took their advance and skipped town before the ship even departed.
In other words, there were plenty of ways for the whaling companies to screw over their crewmen, and plenty of ways for the whalemen to screw over their whaling companies.
Other miscellaneous labor points I couldn’t elegantly fit into paragraphs:
- Sometimes crewmen were paid in whale oil by cash-strapped companies. There have been records of payouts between 74-393 gallons of whale oil… which I find kind of hilarious. What did they do with it? I assume they sold it, but if that was so easy to do, then presumably the companies would have sold it themselves and paid in cash. Did whalers ever come home to their wives after three years at sea and fill their houses up with 300 gallons of whale oil?
- If a whaler died at sea or sustained a grievous injury, his family was typically paid a pro-rated lay based on how much time he spent on the venture.
- Lays were occasionally renegotiated in the middle of the voyages despite the captain’s ambiguous authority over them. It was considered a last resort if the crew was near mutiny or upset over a voyage being extended beyond the original estimate.
- Longer voyages and voyages to cold seas (particularly the Arctic) typically garnered higher lays.
I’ve covered the payments, positions, and nuts-and-bolts of whaling labor. But who were the whalers? What sort of men signed up to hunt ocean beasts?
“There were three types of whalers: those who hoped to own their own whaleship someday, those who were seeking adventure, and those who were running from something onshore. Generally only those who hoped to make a career of whaling went out more than once.”
Most whalers were in their early-mid 20s, and the oldest crewmember on any given voyage was usually in his early-mid 30s, including the captain. Some whalers continued sailing into their 60s, but in roughly 10% of American whaling voyages, no crewmember was over the age of 29. In about 5% of voyages, no one was over 27.
As with the early colonial days, the officers were nearly always white Americans. They were always literate, nearly always educated, and typically came from reasonably well-off merchant families. They were usually careerists who started as sailors or boatsteerers (hunters) at a young age, and went through enough successful voyages (around 3) to be promoted to third mate, the lowest officer rank. They would then usually increase one rank per voyage – third mate to second mate to first mate to captain – assuming all went well. Officers could jump this queue system either by showing exceptional skill or through family connections via the whaling companies.
Officers represented the upstanding, dignified element of whaling. They were trusted by whaling companies and investors to watch after an expensive ship and pile of workers for years while not only keeping order but driving the entire operation to success through a combination of knowledge, skill, and experience. With their high incomes and respectable positions, they were eagerly sought after by port city socialites for marriage. They were religious (Protestant), and a few were hardcore enough to ban alcohol on their voyages. A successful career officer could assuredly reach captain and retire to a comfy upper-middle class lifestyle provided he continually brought in good catches and didn’t perish at sea.
The rank-and-file whalemen were a different story… very different. An apt observer referred to them as “hard-drinking and sex-crazed reprobates.” They were considered rowdy, rough, brutish, uncivilized, and unabashedly immoral. They were a hodgepodge of immigrants, blacks, and Native Americans. The foreign elements (who made up 2/3rds of whalers by the 1840s) hailed from anywhere with water: England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, etc. They had to speak English, but they didn’t have to speak it well. As at Nantucket, the Portuguese were a notable exception both for being very overrepresented and highly skilled.
The stereotypical whaler crewman was uneducated, illiterate or barely literate, and had no hope for work beyond manual labor. He joined a whaling venture either because he was highly risk-tolerant, ignorant of the payout matrix, in debt to the whaling company, or was literally tricked into signing up. He may have purposefully been targeted by a whaling agent because he was too dumb to understand the lay system and how bad of a deal he was getting. He was very likely malnourished, missing teeth, an alcoholic by modern standards, and there was a good chance he had a venereal disease. He was a nominal Christian, but never prayed unless he was in a storm at sea. He had close to a 50% chance of deserting the voyage before it finished.
While there was plenty of truth to these stereotypes, of course there was variance. Lots of first-time whalers just wanted adventure. Whaling was a way for a young man to escape a crowded port town or boring farm to travel to far-flung lands he had only read about in dime-store novels: tropical islands in the South Pacific, the glacier-covered wastes of the Arctic, the jungles of coastal Brazil, etc. It was also a shot at relatively big money paid out all at once in a lump sum, which might be just what a young man needs to get married or buy his own plot of land or start a new life for himself elsewhere.
Between the drunkards and adventurers, there were also some genuinely gifted artists and upstanding gentlemen. Some of the best sources on whaling come from journals and crew logs kept by literate whalemen. Many of them wrote poetry, novels, and recorded great descriptions of their adventures. Herman Melville was an unskilled sailor on a whaling vessel for almost five years (until he deserted) and wrote his masterpiece, Moby Dick, based on the experience. Other whalemen used worthless whale teeth and bones to craft beautiful scrimshaw carvings. Some crewmen were conspicuously devout, and abstained from alcohol and women during their voyages, instead finding their pleasure and peace through reading the Bible. And the most ambitious crewmembers would keep their heads down, do good work, and rise through the ranks to become officers, potentially even without education or refined backgrounds.
(There was also a very small chance that whalemen were whalewomen. Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America describes a few high-profile instances of women disguising themselves as men to sneak aboard, only to be discovered at sea. In one case, the woman was given her own private space and dropped off at the next port. In another case, she was a good sailor so they kept her on as a regular crewman. In another case, she was an awful sailor, but they admired her effort, so they kept her on anyway.)
So as a whole, whalemen were sort of the ocean version of frontiersmen. Some (especially in the leadership) were highly competent adventures who acted as intermediaries between old world wealth and far-flung resources. Another contingent consisted of naive but eager adventurers who might find fame and fortune but were just as likely to get discouraged. And most were the sort of rough-and-tumble, hedonistic, hardy sort of men who were not fit for modern society and could only find purpose amongst the dangers and fortunes at the edge of the world.
The Life on the Sea
The venture is funded, the crew is signed up, everyone is aboard, the ship launches from port… now what does a whaling voyage entail?
Of the 4,731 voyage records found by In Pursuit of Leviathan from between 1789-1927:
- 2,135 (45%) went to the Pacific Ocean
- 1,514 (32%) stayed in the Atlantic Ocean
- 495 (10%) went to the Indian Ocean
- 322 (7%) went to the Western Arctic (between Alaska and Russia)
- 194 (4%) went to multiple oceans
- 71 (2%) went to unknown destinations
During the Golden Age, 60% of voyages from New Bedford lasted more than two years, and the longest voyages lasted more than four years. Voyage lengths were preset, but could be extended at the captain’s discretion if the whaling yield was low. According to logs, a typical whaleship moved at a blistering 3-4 knots per hour (1 knot = 1.15 miles), so much of the voyage length was devoted to simply going to-and-from home port and whaling waters.
For instance, consider a voyage that leaves New Bedford, Massachusetts, and targets whales near Honolulu, Hawaii. In the days before the Panama Canal (completed in 1914), that’s a 13,361 knot voyage, which at an optimistic 4 knots per hour, is a 139 day journey without stops. Roundtrip, that’s about ¾ of a year of sailing.
That’s probably why the most common description of whaling life was boredom. Hunting whales was dangerous and thrilling, but getting to the whales and finding them was tedious. Day-after-day, week-after-week, month after month was spent cruising on open sea or along repetitive coastline.
While this was by no means rare for premodern mercantile work, life onboard a whaling ship was actually more boring than most long-range merchant ventures because there were more people standing around with nothing to do. A typical merchant ship would just have enough crew onboard to sail the ship where it needed to go, and at least they had daily duties. But whaling ships had a bunch of boatsteerers and craftsmen who didn’t have anything to do when they weren’t hunting or looking after whale extracts. Coopers were crucial for maintaining the barrels to store all the whale oil, but before whales were caught, they just sort of sat around and maybe built the occasional barrel while waiting for something to happen. Some free time could be filled with basic ship maintenance (mostly cleaning), but since whale vessels had more crewmen than ordinary merchant vessels, there was relatively less work to go around. So what did whalemen do with their time?
They spent a lot of time getting drunk, gambling, and fighting. Leviathan: The History of American Whaling explicitly mentions masturbation as a common pastime. Gay sex was officially prohibited, but fairly common. The more educated and artistic among the lot would write in their journals or do scrimshaw. Everyone smoked tobacco. The whaling companies made good supplemental income selling it to the men, and from 1840-1900, American whalemen allegedly consumed half a million pounds of tobacco. I have no frame of reference for that quantity, but it sounds like a lot.
Aside from boredom, another good reason to drink and smoke was the horrific living conditions of whalemen. Whaleships were large, but most of the space was devoted to barrels which would eventually be filled with whale oil, which is basically liquified animal fat, which smells awful and leaves a sticky residue everywhere. Meanwhile, the living quarters were squeezed into spare corners of cargo holds and small rooms where men slept in narrow bunk beds (except the captain, who had his own room).
Thus these living spaces were said to be eternally, inevitably, impossibly filled with rats and cockroaches. It did not matter how much they were cleaned, and it did not matter how many pests were killed. Lots of people + small living space + liquid fat residue everywhere = rats and cockroaches. Leviathan: The History of American Whaling has a great journal entry from a rookie whaler describing both animals crawling over him while he slept every night.
Somehow, the food was just as bad. There were two main options: biscuits and meat. The biscuits were hardtack, which has among its affectionate nicknames, “molar breakers, sheet iron, tooth dullers, armor plates (Germany) and worm castles.” They were not so much eaten as sucked on and gnawed for calories.
Then there was the meat, usually beef, which was expected to sustain the crew for months at a time in the pre-refrigeration era. The only method by which this feat could be attempted was to dump mountains of salt in barrels of fresh meat and hope for the best. This meant that the first few days of meals were alright, and then every day thereafter the crew ate ever-slightly more rotting meat. Maggots were accepted as part of the meal, but the smell of rotting meat in barrels in tropical heat was less well-tolerated. This awfulness undoubtedly contributed to the high smoking rates as sailors tried to suppress their appetites.
(As an added bonus, the “cooks” on whaleships typically had no cooking experience. They were usually just sailors who agreed to do the cooking because it paid more money.)
Mercifully, whalemen would sometimes fill their free time with fishing and supplement their diets with fresh meat. I didn’t see a mention of crewmen eating whale meat, but I imagine they must have. However, they would only get whale meat in the middle of their voyage, so they had long stretches at the beginning and between whaling spots where they had to rely on the biscuits and rotting beef.
Cramped conditions, living in filth, bad diets, crewmen from god-knows-where, and tropical climates all contributed to diseases. Outbreaks were common and rapidly spread throughout the ships. Mostly whalers caught the usual poverty diseases: tuberculosis, cholera, dysentery, etc., but scurvy was also common. I thought the British had solved scurvy by the mid-19th century (it’s caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, prevented and treated by eating citrus fruit), but I guess not.
How well whalemen were able to tolerate the whaling lifestyle was partially dependent upon the skill and benevolence of the captain. One of his main duties was to maintain discipline and to keep the desertion rate to a tolerable low. A good captain could do this with charisma, promises of rewards, judicious punishment for infractions (usually drunkenness or fighting), and by keeping everyone reasonably busy at sea. A bad captain resorted to cruelty and punishment, like whippings and docked meals or pay. At sea, the captain was the de facto dictator, and unless a crew was ready to mutiny against him and risk death-by-hanging by the authorities, they had to do whatever he commanded.
Believe it or not, rates of depression and suicide aboard whaleships were high. This was perfectly understandable, and even expected, for new whalers who had no idea what they were getting into. But surprisingly, malaise was common among the officers as well, and there were even a few high-profile cases of captains committing suicide during voyages. This occurred despite captains having their own fairly comfortable rooms, and sometimes even bringing their wives on the journeys.
Much of the negative reputation garnered by whalers seem to have derived from their behavior at port. When whaleships would stop for supplies after months at sea, whalemen would descend upon the local community with pent-up energy, anger, and lust. With only a few free days before getting back on their ship, the men would spend every possible second in the tavern or the brothel, usually burning through their lay advances with expert profligacy.
While cynical port businesses would welcome the whalers with open arms, more peaceful and pious locals resented the public drunkenness, fights, and lewdness. Mini riots were not unheard of, though not for any political or social cause, but just because lots of people were really drunk. God-fearing Europeans of the Pacific were especially wary of whalers corrupting the local Polynesian people who were in the process of conversion and easily led astray by hard-partying reprobates. Criminal acts were common and would provoke struggles between captains trying to keep their crew intact and local law enforcement. And whalers were said to provoke sexually transmitted epidemics which followed them back to their ships.
All of this contributed to the near-50% desertion rates. Conditions aboard were miserable, port towns seemed really fun, so every supply stop prompted serious consideration of going on a walk to the local tavern and disappearing into the night. Granted, fleeing duty in this way left whalers with another problem: how to get home. Most would try to barter their way aboard another ship heading in the general direction of where they came from, while some simply settled in whatever far-flung port in which they found themselves. Whalemen sometimes deserted for better economic prospects, such as the 1850s goldrush in California. It also wasn’t uncommon for crewmen to desert from one ship to another to get better lays or work under less harsh captains.
Those were the least damaging form of desertion. Both of my major sources mention instances of crewmen stealing whaleboats and fleeing the main ship, usually to reach whatever shore they were near and take their chances with the Natives. Sometimes they would even try to navigate long distances back to port by rowing the whaleboats, though presumably those were extraordinarily desperate circumstances of suffering on the main ship. In the most extreme cases, crewmembers would outright sabotage ships by punching holes or setting fires, thereby forcing the entire voyage to an end.
Mutinies were relatively common compared to standard mercantile ventures, and became more so over the decades as crew quality declined with lower lays. It seemed to be prompted by only the most sadistic of captains, because even if the mutineers succeeded (and avoided imprisonment for the rest of the venture), there wasn’t much else to do afterward. Mutiny was a capital offense, and the stolen ship would be hunted by American naval vessels and privateers. The new captain and crew could either become pirates or sell the ship off as a port and try to disappear. Usually the ships were eventually captured, though in a few rare cases, the mutineers successfully waged a PR war to provoke popular sympathy and got off with light sentences.
I realize that all of this sounds almost unrealistically horrible. Sure, some voyages may have had bad luck or been mismanaged, but if every voyage consisted of two years of sleeping among rats and cockroaches, eating rotten meat and iron biscuits, and being depressed, then why would anyone join and stay on a whaling vessel, let alone multiple times?
I don’t know. I’m basing my explanation mostly off Leviathan: The History of American Whaling and a little bit from In Pursuit of Leviathan and Wikipedia. Maybe they’re exaggerating? Or maybe as with many review systems, their sources are biased toward being negative?
Surely some men must have loved it. Some signed up for repeated voyages and gave the best years of their lives to the sea. It really was an opportunity to see far-flung, exotic, exciting locations around the world. It could be extremely profitable. It was a prestigious career for officers and especially captains. The actual whale hunting was universally regarded as exhilarating and cool. Herman Melville deserted his own whaling venture, but his account of the profession in Moby Dick offered an exciting and romantic take on the work.
Moving on from the economics and culture, let’s talk about the whales themselves… and the most surprising and controversial part of In Pursuit of Leviathan.
My understanding of the conventional narrative of whaling is:
The Golden Age of whaling led by the United States in the 19th century dramatically increased the rate of whale hunting from something like 2,000-3,000 whales annually globally, to something like 10,000-12,000 whales annually globally at the peak in the early 1850s. This put a tremendous strain on the stock of whales, which declined to the point where whalers were having trouble hunting by the 1860s, and it only got more difficult throughout the rest of the century. This reduced whaling production, which raised the prices of whale products, which was at least partially a factor in the decline of whale oil and the near-death of the industry by the end of the 19th century.
In Pursuit of Leviathan says this narrative is mistaken. It claims that the rate of hunting was never enough to damage the whale stock, except maybe a little bit for right whales. Modern estimates of pre-19th century whale population figures and a better understanding of whale population growth indicate that the whale population didn’t decline much during the 19th century and could easily recover. While whaling did become more difficult in the second half of the century, this was likely due to changes in whale behavior rather than an increasing global scarcity of whales.
First, how many whales were killed during the Golden Age?
This is difficult to calculate because whaling voyages usually didn’t record the number of whales they killed, only the amount of product they harvested. So the number of whales killed can be extrapolated by aggregating all the oil harvested across as many voyages as possible, and then dividing that number by an estimate of the average number of barrels that can be extracted per whale (which is also difficult to guess because no one hunts sperm or right whales anymore). The researchers also added 10% to the total whale harvest estimate to account for the estimated number of whales which were killed by whalers without being harvested (ie. typically whales which were stabbed by the harpoons and escaped, but probably died later).
Using this method, In Pursuit of Leviathan estimates that 19th century whalers killed 236,000 sperm whales and 180,000 baleen whales, for a total of 416,000 whales. Both constituent figures have a major caveat. The sperm whale number has a large margin of error, with an estimated range of 184,000-331,000. The baleen whale number is probably too high because it’s based on “whale oil” figures that include a small but not insignificant amount of walrus and blackfish oil.
Regardless, 416,000 whales sounds like a lot of dead whales. But In Pursuit of Leviathan argues that the standard narrative underestimates the pre-Golden Age whale population and the resilience of its population structures.
The way whale populations (and animal populations in general) respond to significant loses was not well-understood until the mid-20th century. Basically, animals multiply until they reach a steady-state population where the availability of space and food doesn’t allow for a population increase. When animals die and the population has more room and food, their population begins growing again. Typically, the rate of growth increases as the population falls (because there is more available food per individual) until a certain point when the availability of fertile females is so low that the population growth rate declines.
According to modern research, this inflection point for grey whales is 60% of peak population. Meaning, grey whale population growth rates increase as the population declines until the population hits 60% of the peak, at which point the growth rate will begin to decline if the population continues to fall. The authors of In Pursuit of Leviathan admit that the 60% figure can’t be perfectly abstracted to all whale types, but it’s a good estimate. Thus they conclude that given the known baseline whale reproduction rates, as long as the population of a species of whale doesn’t fall below 60%, its population will recover from hunting losses relatively quickly, likely within a few decades of reduced hunting.
The sperm whale population was especially robust. There were an estimated 1.8-2.4 million sperm whales in the world (mostly in the Pacific Ocean) prior to the 19th century. Between the most liberal and conservative hunting estimates, whalers only killed 8-18% of the global sperm whale stock over a century. At the peak sperm whale hunting year of 1837, between 3,760 and 6,770 sperm whales were killed (depending on the average barrels of oil deflator used), which is less than 0.5% of the total sperm whale population. Even if all 331,000 sperm whales (the most liberal estimate) were killed at once, the sperm whale population would recover within a decade. Spread out over a century, the population likely never declined at all.
Additionally, the social structures of sperm whales made their populations more robust. Bulls (male sperm whales) are 3-4X larger than female sperm whales, and thus were usually targeted by hunters. Sperm whales live in pods (groups) in which a single alpha bull keeps a harem of cows (female sperm whales). Beta bulls will either hang around the rear of a pod waiting for the alpha to die, or they travel alone. Fortunately, this structure enabled sperm whale populations to take loses without impacting reproduction rates. If hunters killed an alpha bull, one of the betas would take its place and reproduce with the females. If they killed a beta bull, that would have almost no impact on reproduction capacity.
Baleen whales are a bit more complicated. In Pursuit of Leviathan estimates that prior to the 19th century, there were only about 367,000 baleen whales globally among the species hunted (rights, greys, bowheads, humpbacks, fins, and small quantities of a few other species). Each species was far less numerous than sperm whales and had its own dynamic population structures, so evaluating the impact is more difficult.
180,000 baleen whales were hunted through the Golden Age. That’s 49% of peak stock, compared to 8-18% for sperm whales, so there is no doubt that the impact of hunting on baleen whales was larger than on sperm whales. But baleen whales also have higher population growth rates: in an average year, 19% of female sperm whales are pregnant compared to 50% of female baleen whales. This enables baleen whale populations to grow at a surprisingly fast rate of 5-7% per year. If the 60% inflection point for grey whales can be abstracted to all baleen whales, even if baleen whales were hunted down from 367,000 to 220,000 individuals, whalers could still hunt over 11,000 baleen whales per year without reducing the population. Yet, it’s doubtful that more than 12,000 whales were ever hunted annually globally, including sperm whales.
Note that this doesn’t mean that the Golden Age of hunting had no negative impact on the baleen whale population, only that the decline in the population could be recovered relatively easily within a few decades. Additionally, the data needs to be disaggregated to detect more localized depletion. It’s possible that baleen whales as a whole were not significantly depleted, but particular species were, or localized whale populations were.
In Pursuit of Leviathan tries to crunch the numbers on a per baleen whale species basis using a wide range of rough estimates, and… finds it difficult to do so. For some species, like humpbacks and grey whales, the hunting impact seems unequivocally minimal, with the populations being close to the same at the beginning and end of the 19th century. For the rights and bowheads, the impact was more substantial (maybe 30-50% decline if I’m understanding correctly), but still recoverable.
As a case study, the authors looked at rights and bowheads in the Atlantic, which totaled 177,000 at the start of the 19th century and were almost exclusively hunted by Americans thereafter. The growth rate of these populations would ramp up as they declined to just under 107,000. At that point, the Atlantic right and bowhead populations could sustain 5,000 catches per year. While the populations probably did fall to somewhere around that level, there were only a handful of hyper-productive years throughout the entire 19th century when American whalers may have breached the 5,000 catch level for these particular populations. So it is unlikely that American whalers ever pushed the Atlantic rights and bowheads below peak population growth rates.
To sum up, according to In Pursuit of Leviathan – Golden Age whaling had no impact on the sperm whale population, had no impact on some baleen whale populations, and probably reduced other baleen whale populations, but not past a high population growth level which stabilized the decline and could have easily recovered the population.
Why does the traditional narrative differ? Why do most people think that the Golden Age of whaling had a major negative impact on the global whale population?
First, most people don’t discern between the 19th century era of whaling and the 20th century. The former probably didn’t have much of an impact on whaling populations, while the latter certainly did.
Second, most people underestimate the size of the pre-19th century whale population, particularly regarding sperm whales.
Third, the conventional narrative relies on whaling company and captain reports that whaling became harder in the second half of the 19th century. Whaleships were having trouble both finding whales and catching them, and so they naturally concluded that the whale population had declined, and the whales left were more suited for survival (possibly evolutionarily).
In Pursuit of Leviathan suggests that these reports are explained by whale behavior. Whales are fairly smart animals and seemed to have behaviorally adapted to whaling. The simplest adaptation was just moving pods away from areas frequented by whalers. This shouldn’t be too surprising; far dumber mammals than whales can figure out to avoid locations where they tend to get killed. But oceans are vaster and opaquer than forests or plains, and so it was quite difficult for whalers to figure out where pods had fled to. By the end of the Golden Age (late 1850s), enough pods had moved out of proven hunting grounds that the entire whale population appeared to be in decline.
But adaptation was more sophisticated than that. While I was writing this essay, The Guardian published an article entitled, “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information:”
The paper, published by the Royal Society on Wednesday, is authored by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, pre-eminent scientists working with cetaceans, and Tim D Smith, a data scientist, and their research addresses an age-old question: if whales are so smart, why did they hang around to be killed? The answer? They didn’t.
Using newly digitised logbooks detailing the hunting of sperm whales in the north Pacific, the authors discovered that within just a few years, the strike rate of the whalers’ harpoons fell by 58%. This simple fact leads to an astonishing conclusion: that information about what was happening to them was being collectively shared among the whales, who made vital changes to their behaviour. As their culture made fatal first contact with ours, they learned quickly from their mistakes…
Sperm whales are highly socialised animals, able to communicate over great distances. They associate in clans defined by the dialect pattern of their sonar clicks. Their culture is matrilinear, and information about the new dangers may have been passed on in the same way whale matriarchs share knowledge about feeding grounds. Sperm whales also possess the largest brain on the planet. It is not hard to imagine that they understood what was happening to them.
The hunters themselves realised the whales’ efforts to escape. They saw that the animals appeared to communicate the threat within their attacked groups. Abandoning their usual defensive formations, the whales swam upwind to escape the hunters’ ships, themselves wind-powered. ‘This was cultural evolution, much too fast for genetic evolution,’ says Whitehead.
Published in 1997, In Pursuit of Leviathan predicted these findings to some degree. The book points to reports of British whalers in the 1700s near the Spitsbergen Islands where whaleboats could easily approach whales with no pursuit required. Whales reportedly became more timid over time, especially by the end of the Golden Age.
American whaling boomed in the 1820s, reached its peak in the early 1850s at almost $10 million in revenue when it was one of the most important industries in the Western world, and then collapsed in the 1860s to under $5 million annually. The industry limped on in decline until by the start of the 20th century, whaling industry revenues were no higher than during the aftermath of the War of 1812 (less than $1 million annually). The rest of the world followed suit, and whale oil prices declined globally.
Why did the Golden Age end? If In Pursuit of Leviathan is right, and the global whaling population didn’t decline, then why did whaling fall out of favor?
First, American whaling suffered an acute supply shock during the Civil War, with industry revenues falling from an average of $8.7 million annually in the late 1850s to $4.6 million in the early 1860s. Whalers were almost all based in the north, and the Union navy controlled the seas with a blockade of the South, yet a small but effective squadron of Southern privateers patrolled the Eastern seaboard. At least 12 ships from New Bedford alone were picked off by Confederate raiders, which made whalers more cautious in launching expeditions.
Plus, in an odd historical footnote, in 1861 the US government purchased more than 40 whaling vessels, filled them with stones, and sunk them in the Charleston Harbor in an ambitious attempt to foundationally blockade the harbor. It didn’t work, and a whole bunch of Northern newspapers got pissed off at the government for the boondoggle.
However, whaling output was already on the decline prior to the Civil War, with revenues peaking in the early 1850s. The industry ebb was mostly driven by a fall in whale oil prices due to declining demand as a result of lighting alternatives becoming more competitive. Whale oil was always more expensive than its competitors, but managed to retain dominance due to its quality in brightness, stability, resistance to freezing, and relatively tolerable smell. But lard oil and vegetable oil were slowly improving, with the former beginning to replace spermaceti oil in lighthouses. More cities were installing natural gas lines, thereby cutting off the need for whale oil streetlamps. Even camphine (the stuff that tended to explode) had a boom in demand until alcohol taxes instituted during the Civil War spiked its price. But none of these alternatives on their own could overthrow whale oil.
In 1859, Edwin Drake drilled the first American petroleum well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. At the time, the most prosperous whaling voyages would take 3-4 years and bring back 4,000 barrels of whale oil. Soon, Drake’s well was pumping 3,000 barrels of petroleum per day. In 1860, the American petroleum industry produced more oil than the American whaling industry in its most productive year ever.
Petroleum could be processed into kerosene, an oil derivative used for lighting. It burned as bright as spermaceti oil, had almost no smell, was stable, and soon became dramatically cheaper than whale oil. When mixed with vegetable oils, petroleum could also serve as a lubricant for most industrial purposes. Spermaceti oil still had a lower freezing temperature and was better suited for particular industrial lubrication applications, but for all intents and purposes, the whaling industry was basically dead the instant the Pennsylvania well opened.
With lower demand and supply, whale oil prices plateaued around $0.85 per gallon for the rest of the century, and rose well above $1 in the 1890s. The superior spermaceti lard oil was $1.74 in the 1850s, rose above $2 in the 1860s, and steadily fell due to a lack of demand to just over $1 by the end of the century. Meanwhile, petroleum production spread from Pennsylvania to the western US, ushering in one of the greatest energy booms in the history of mankind. A gallon of American petroleum in the 1860s averaged around $0.56; in the 1870s around $0.19; in the 1880s around $0.08, and in the 1890s around $0.07.
There’s a snarky gotcha in libertarian circles that “oil saved the whales,” thereby demonstrating the unpredictable, yet benevolent progress of markets. If In Pursuit of Leviathan is to be believed, the whales were never in much danger at the time, but still… oil undoubtedly crashed the whaling industry and did indeed save a ton of whales.
If petroleum prices plummeted to the point of being less than 1/10th the price of whale oil by the end of the 19th century, why would anyone bother hunting whales at all? American whaling industry revenues continued to fall, but remained above $2 million until the late 1890s.
Whale oil and especially spermaceti oil retained niche industrial uses, but the saving grace of the whaling industry was baleen. It had been used throughout the Golden Age as a proto-plastic, but it was always a secondary product to the oil. Unexpectedly, corsets really took off in the United States and Europe in the second half of the century, and baleen was the crucial manufacturing component in keeping the outfits perfectly formed and tight. Prices rose from $0.43 per pound in the 1850s, to over $5 per pound by the end of the century.
But baleen alone wasn’t enough to revive whaling, just finance a boutique industry. From the 1870s onward, the American whaling industry only produced around 200,000-400,000 pounds of baleen annually, compared to 3.4 million pounds at its peak in the 1850s. The high baleen prices made some ventures worthwhile, but too many would risk lowering the price. Meanwhile, the formerly prized whale oil became a byproduct of the real prize.
Part VI – The Industrial Age (1865-1986)
I don’t have whaling production figures for all of the last 150 years, but I gathered that the industry’s output formed a “hockey stick.” The whaling Golden Age led by the Americans ended with the Civil War in the 1860s, and a much reduced and still declining industry continued in the United States for the rest of the century. The low point of the graph hits at the turn of the century when American whaling was practically dead, while small, but profitable whalers operated in Europe.
But it was right then that a confluence of diverse factors seeded the new global whaling industry. Technology made whaling ships faster, more deadly, and dramatically more efficient. New uses for whales arose in the crowded industrial European markets. Just as the American Revolution and War of 1812 stifled the potential Golden Age, the two World Wars slowed the birth of this eventual Industrial Age. But after the 1940s, the intensity of whaling skyrocketed well beyond the greatest heights of 19th century American output.
In 1925, the global whaling industry hunted 10,488 whales, which is about the same level reached by global whaling at the height of the Golden Age in the early 1850s.
In 1931, the global whaling industry hunted over 40,000 whales, which is probably in the ballpark of the global catch from 1861-1900, or 10% of the catch of the entire Golden Age.
Hard data is more difficult to get in the 20th century due to the greater diversity of countries involved, but in the 1960s, annual whale kills probably passed 80,000, easily 10X the peak hunting years of the 1840s or 50s.
Throughout the entire 19th century, American whalers hunted about 350,000 whales. From 1904-1978, the global whaling industry hunted over 1 million whales.
To make matters worse, whalers were no longer targeting sperm whales, whose abundance and family structure made them quite resilient to population declines. Three-quarters of hunted whales in 1931 were blues and many of the rest were fins. Neither had ever been as abundant as sperms, and even by the early 1930s, environmentalists and whaling companies became concerned about species survival. Golden Age whaling probably didn’t have a significant impact on global whale populations, but Industrial Age whaling undoubtedly did.
The Norwegian Revival
Norway is a country of 5 million people sitting on the 22nd largest oil reserve in the world. Their annoyingly efficient oil-backed sovereign wealth fund currently holds over $1 trillion in assets, or $195,000 per Norwegian citizen. Norwegians love oil.
That appreciation for black goopy stuff started in the late 1880s when its whaling industry kicked off. They had whaled before then, but on a small scale. The problem wasn’t a lack of willingness or experienced crewmen, but a matter of speed. The Norwegian coastline was teeming with rorquals, a group of baleen whales which includes blues, minkes, and fins. While sperm whales lumber along at an average of 4 knots/hour (4.6 mph), minkes swim about 3X faster, which makes tracking their surfacing “sporadic” and “hard to follow.” The old 19th century whaleships were barely faster than sperm whales, and had no hope of pursuing rorquals, let alone successfully harpooning one. Blues and fins were occasionally caught, but only if they were sick or by sheer monumental luck.
By the turn of the 20th century, technology had leveled the playing field. As explained in Part II, ships were significantly faster, and hand-thrown harpoons were replaced by harpoon cannons tipped with explosives. Experimental forms of these weapons were developed in the mid-1800s, but largely ignored by a stalwart and declining American whaling industry. For reasons not clear to me, they became more popular in Europe despite the apparent downside of rendering unsalvageable a far higher number of whales.
Norway had all the factors for a whaling revival. It had a large (relative to its population) and experienced fishing industry with highly skilled laborers used to working in the frigid and harsh seas that whales frequented. Being poor at the time, Norway could harvest home-grown whale oil more cheaply than it could import petroleum from the crowded European market, plus whale oil derivatives were becoming an increasingly viable crop fertilizer. And though Norway has famously beautiful terrain, it is also infamously unsuited to farming and raising livestock, hence its large fishing industry, and hence whales emerging as a new and highly-valued source of meat.
But most importantly of all, there were simply a ton of whales near Norway. Even if In Pursuit of Leviathan is correct that Golden Age whaling didn’t significantly impact the global whale population, the industry undoubtedly made whales scarcer and less dense in traditional whaling areas. That is, except for rorquals which had almost entirely evaded the global whaling boom. Thus late 19th century Norway found itself in the same position as 18th century America… sitting in front of tons and tons and tons of easily hunted whales right off its coast.
This newly flourishing Norwegian whaling industry looked very different than the Golden Age of American whaling. It was streamlined, simpler, more efficient. Ships went out for a day or two to hunt and immediately brought their prey to shore for processing. Rorquals were so abundant in local waters that whalers didn’t have to go to the Arctic Sea, let alone the Indian Ocean. The Norwegian ships were smaller, faster, and coal or oil-powered. American crews averaged 29; Norwegian whaleships were staffed by a handful of men, despite cheap wages. They didn’t need ten sailors to raise the sails, they didn’t need a bunch of people to clean the ship, they didn’t need craftsmen building barrels and stitching sails and repairing harpoons… they just needed a person to drive the boat, and another person to shoot the whale (sometimes it was the same person), and a few other guys for secondary work.
Thus the romantic, adventurous, long-distance, multi-year, investor speculation-driven whaling voyages were replaced by an essentially retooled fishing industry. Norway’s many fishing villages converted meat processing and canning plants into refineries for flensing and oil refinement. The towns smelled worse and had more pollution than ever, but profits boomed with the easy hunts.
This was not a smooth transition. Many Norwegian fisherman resented the transformation of quaint fishing villages to satanic mill-style industrial towns. Some localities enacted restrictions on the whaling industry, typically led by fishing company loyalists. There were even violent protests, and at least one oil flensing plant was burned down by a mob.
In 1904, there was enough anti-whaling sentiment for the national government to ban coastal whaling. By that point, the Norwegian whaling industry had hunted an estimated 18,000 whales from 1868-1904, probably making it the second-largest whaling country in the world after the US. The ban struck a blow to the industry’s easy pickings, but there were plenty of rorquals to be found abroad. Soon enough, there were Norwegian whaling companies operating out of ports in Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Labrador, Newfoundland, British Columbia, South Korea, and Japan. Rorqual hunting went global.
Around this time, the factory ship became the last major technological innovation in whaling. Traditionally, after whales were hunted, they were either drained of oil or their blubber was cut into strips. Regardless, the material was stored in barrels until it could be brought to a flensing operation for processing. Larger ships would have their own flensing equipment which they would set up on a nearby shore, while smaller ships would have to return to a port. Either way, whalers had to race against the clock as spoilage immediately set in and eroded the quantity and quality of their prize.
Factory ships integrated the refinement process into the ship itself. Hunted whales were dragged by cranes up the sloped aft (rear) of the ship and deposited into a permanent onboard flensing operation. While these factory ships were expensive and required slightly more manpower, they otherwise dramatically increased whaling efficiency. Whalers could hunt longer, stay away from shore for longer, reduce spoilage, and cut down on capital investments. Especially as Antarctica opened up as a new prime hunting grown, factory ships became a whaling powerhouse that sparked greater production.
Like Norway, many European countries maintained small whaling industries during the American Golden Age: Britain, France, Denmark, Russia, etc., all had whaling operations. But with the collapse in whale oil prices and the rise of petroleum, their whaling industries declined alongside America’s. Norway had the ingredients for an early reanimation, but by the 1920s and 30s, other European states began following their lead.
The key was new sources of demand. Almost no one used whale oil for lighting or industrial lubrication anymore, but new whale product derivatives were being explored to compensate for the steadily rising prices in European markets.
Hydrogenation is the process of adding molecular hydrogen (H2) to compounds. If you check the label on any mixed commercial food product, you’ll probably find hydrogenated something, like soy or corn oil. The process turns unsaturated fats into saturated fats, which by my limited biochemistry knowledge, basically makes fats fattier, and may or may not cause a whole bunch of modern debilitating health problems.
Hydrogenation solved a long-standing whale product problem. Technically, you can eat whale oil, but… it’s disgusting. It smells awful and it tastes extremely fishy; I guess the closest normal dietary equivalent would be a piece of pure beef fat which tasted like fish oil. But the miracle of hydrogenation turned whale fat into an odorless, tasteless, solid white lump. This also doesn’t sound particularly appealing on its own, but made it suitable as an ingredient in margarine, a butter substitute which consists of a bunch of non-cow animal and vegetable fats mixed together and emulsified in a pale, disgusting imitation of real butter… which I personally find quite disgusting.
But other people don’t. What started as a scientific challenge issued by Emperor Napoleon III became a cheap alternative to natural butter in early 20th century Europe. Somehow, whale oil was cheaper than vegetable oil and animal fats at the time, and so emulsified whale oil became the primary fat basis of margarine. Though the French rightfully considered margarine disgusting, Norwegians, Brits, Danes, and Swedes gobbled it up, and by the start of World War I, more margarine was consumed in those countries than butter. Germany and the Low Countries also became major consumers.
(Despite In Pursuit of Leviathan claiming the emulsification process removed the “fishy odor or flavor” from whale oil, another source says the whale-based margarine had a “fishy taste.” As if margarine needed to be worse.)
Demand for whale oil began to rise for the first time in decades, and prices rose with it. Demand was further spurred by butter shortages during WWI, and by the newly-founded application of whale oil to treat trench foot, which plagued both sides of the war. In 1929, a new production process permitted the creation of 100% whale oil margarine, further spurring demand. By 1935, 84% of global whale oil was used for margarine. Also in 1929, a British merchant company and a Dutch merchant company merged to nearly monopolize the European whale oil market. Today, that company is Unilever, the European conglomerate worth $150 billion.
For the first time in almost a century, whale oil was important. Britain, Germany, France, and the Soviet Union competed for market share and whaling spots under the heat of increasing nationalism and military tension in the inter-war years. Smaller nations also competed for their slice of the oil pie, including Denmark, Panama, Argentina, South Africa, and of course Norway, which always retained a massively outsized role in the industry and contracted out its whalers to the competing powers to great profit. In 1938, Britain declared whale oil a “national defense commodity.” Nazi Germany purchased an entire whaling fleet in the 1930s through some sort of political pressure on Unilever. During World War II, Germany sent whalers to brave blockades in search of whales, even going as far as Antarctica to harvest precious whale oil.
With all this demand for whale oil, where were the Americans?
East coast whaling was basically dead by the end of the 19th century. All the old companies had folded or transitioned to fishing, and little of the expertise or mercantile tradition remained. A few American whaling companies sprung up in California and Alaska on the Pacific Ocean where they had easier access to prime sperm whale hunting grounds, but they were far from the rorqual hot spots and had no experience hunting rorquals anyway.
More importantly, there was no American domestic demand for whale oil because there was no American domestic demand for margarine. America always had plenty of cows and plenty of butter, and no need for an inferior substitute. Not even the World Wars could reduce us to that state.
Or at least that’s what my patriotic sensibilities tell me. Demand for margarine also may have been artificially suppressed by regulations lobbied by the dairy industry. In 1877, New York led the state-level charge to require margarine manufacturers to identify margarine as an “imitation” of butter, which sounds gross and repelled customers. A decade later, the federal government began specially taxing margerine and putting a bunch of onerous regulations on its manufacturers. Some states banned margarine from using yellow die to look like butter, and many states even required margarine to be pink. From Wikipedia:
“By the start of the 20th century, eight out of ten Americans could not buy yellow margarine, and those who could had to pay a hefty tax on it. Bootleg colored margarine became common, and manufacturers began to supply food-coloring capsules so the consumer could knead the yellow color into margarine before serving it. Nevertheless, the regulations and taxes had a significant effect: the 1902 restrictions on margarine color, for example, cut annual consumption in the United States from 120,000,000 to 48,000,000 pounds (54,000 to 22,000 t).”
Did Americans save a bunch of whales due to their refined palettes or corrupt lobbyists? You decide.
Nazis, Commies, and Environmentalists
In the late 1920s, for the first time ever, serious attempts to restrict international whaling rates were proposed.
Everyone seemed to realize that this was not an easy thing to establish or enforce. As some libertarian once said, the world existed in a state of “whale communism” where the vast majority of whales lived in international waters under no nation’s jurisdiction. Private companies and countries had negotiated deals with each other for whaling access to particular spots, but there was no incentive for any particular actor to limit its whale hunting in this tragedy of the commons. Especially given the ominous diplomatic climate of the inter-war years, many states would see any internationally-coordinated attempt to restrict whaling as a treacherous attempt to reduce a nation’s economic production.
Ironically, leading the charge for international whaling regulations was the Norwegian government and its whaling industry. Maybe they were closest to the problem and knew it best? After all, Norway has always had an appreciation for natural beauty and conservationism.
Or maybe the comparatively small and economically marginalized Scandinavian state wanted a way to keep its far wealthier neighbors from slowly reducing its strong whaling market position? Throughout the 1930s and 40s, tiny Norway controlled more factory ships than any other country (15), and about 40% of the total factory ships globally, and probably had much to lose with continued unrestricted whaling.
Either way, in 1931 Norway helped push a proposal through the League of Nations for the first internationally agreed upon and enforced whaling industry regulations, which included a moratorium on the hunting of right whales, lactating females (I have no idea how a whaler could know this), and calves. As with all things done by the League of Nations, the proposal was summarily ignored by virtually everyone.
By this point, the British government had joined Norway in its calls for international whaling regulations. They even managed to attain nominal agreements on whaling quotas between a few nations, and both Britain and Norway dutifully followed them. But they soon found a much larger problem… liberal democratic states probably could be corralled into signing some sort of international agreement for the common good, but the literal Nazis, fascists, and communists of the whaling world could not.
Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union were all significant whalers by the mid-1930s, and none had much respect for international law. Adolph Hitler crushed any hopes for international cooperation by backing his Italian ally in the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia in defiance of the League of Nations. Japan was technically a member of the League but never listened to it, and the USSR was a chronic international pariah for being the leader of global communism. All three states feared that whaling restrictions were diplomatic attempts to economically hinder their own rising industrial bases, and therefore not only ignored attempts at international cooperation, but actively subsidized their industries to hunt as intensively as possible while there were still whales left in the seas.
With no real restrictions, high-volume whaling raged on. The only brief respite for the whales came in 1936-1937, when extreme diplomatic tensions triggered a lot of naval patrols and internal limitations on whaling expeditions. But after that brief break, in the winter of 1937-1938, the global whaling industry achieved a new record, with over 46,000 whales hunted in less than half a year, and over 60,000 for the full year. Over the following years, industry output fell off a cliff. The prized blue and fin whales were much harder to find, and even the slowing of the industry during WW2 couldn’t reverse the obvious contraction of the global whale population.
With the fall of Nazi Germany and Japan, and the establishment of an ever-so-brief cooperative window with the USSR, the world came together in 1946 to form the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which as of 2019, had 88 members, including pretty much every country which had engaged in whaling, and then some.
The goal of the IWC, at least at its founding, was not to abolish whaling. Its goal was to establish a coordinated quota system and set of regulations to slow the global whaling industry to the point of steady-state sustainability. Its founding rules established hunting seasons, minimum hunted whale sizes, banned the hunting of the nearly extinct grey whales, and set a nation-by-nation quota system. Indigenous tribes throughout the world were given special rules and pretty much allowed to hunt freely as long as they reported their catches.
This seemed to be a noble effort, but may have actually made things worse. According to In Pursuit of Leviathan, the primary shortcoming of the new regulations was that the quota system didn’t assign quotas by species, only raw quantity of whales. (Another source says that the IWC used quotas based on oil production.) Thus each nation was incentivized to go after the largest species possible, which of course were the rapidly shrinking populations of blue whales and fins. In the 1950s, almost half a million whales were hunted in the Southern Hemisphere alone.
So whaling continued, and actually increased in pace with the recovering global economy. Despite people usually thinking of whaling as an 1800s thing, the historical decade with the highest rate of whaling of all time was the 1960s, when annual catches were occasionally surpassed 80,000, about 8X the most prolific hunting rates of the American Golden Age.
The IWC soldiered on with attempts to close loopholes and tighten restrictions. In 1965, a blue whale hunting moratorium was announced. In 1970, nation-by-nation hunting quotas were applied to individual species. Popular Western sentiment rose against the industry and began demanding more protections. One-by-one, smaller nations abandoned their boutique whaling industries until only indigenous tribes and the big players were left.
In 1982, the IWC voted to end global commercial whaling indefinitely, but not forever. The moratorium went into effect in 1987. Since then, the only whaling permitted by international law is for subsistence or scientific purposes. Every country on earth has abided by these rules with the arguable exceptions of Japan, South Korea, Norway, and Iceland.
Part VII – Modern Whaling (1987-Present)
And so we come to the present day. How much damage was done by the Industrial Age? What is the present state of the global whaling industry?
How much damage was done by 20th century industrial whaling?
Apparently, 20th century whaling numbers have historically been tough to estimate because the Soviet Union almost certainly lied, lied, lied about its hunting levels to the international community, probably by about 180,000 whales, but modern estimates try to account for that.
An by the best current estimates, 2.7-3 million whales were hunted during the 20th century, compared to In Pursuit of Leviathan’s estimate of over 400,000 whales hunted during the 19th century (I’ve also seen estimates as low as 300,000). Of the 3 million, 874,000 were fin whales and 761,000 were sperm whales. Norway alone killed 350,000 whales from 1946-1986.
After the 1987 moratorium, whale hunting almost ground to a halt, and even the dissenting whaler nations went at a slow pace. In the 1990s, only about 7,000 whales were killed.
This is my best attempt to summarize the full impact of Industrial Era whaling on a per-species basis:
|Species||Pre/Early 20th Century Population||Modern Population|
|Fin||400,000-607,000 in the Southern Hemisphere (maybe 2X worldwide?)||103,900|
|Grey||12,000 (down from 24,000 at beginning of 19th century||27,000 (2016)|
(probably similar to current levels)
|720,000 or “about a million”|
|Right||Tens of thousands (???)||1,000-2,000|
|Bowhead||120,000-ish in the Atlantic alone||10,000|
|Sperm||1.8-2.4 million||200,000, 300,000 or “hundreds of thousands” or up to 1.5 million”|
Note 1 – The minke whale population number includes common and Arctic minkes. Neither were hunted in significant numbers prior to the industrial era (too small and fast), so there isn’t much data on pre-hunting numbers.
Note 2 – The sperm whale early estimate assumes no drop in the population from 19th century hunting, which is what In Pursuit of Leviathan claims.
Note 3 – I can’t find good data on early/pre-1900 right whale population, but tens of thousands is my sense from what I’ve read. In Pursuit of the Leviathan says their pre-whaling numbers were “never very large.”
Note 4 – Some of these numbers have also been rendered ambiguous by Soviet reporting. From 1948-1973, the USSR reported hunting 2,710 humpback whales when they really hunted 48,477. And the USSR kept hunting blue whales for a decade after the IWC ban.
Note 5 – Whale populations can fluctuate for other reasons besides hunting. Some articles I read suggested that global warming or fish depletion may have suppressed whale populations in the last few decades.
Who Is Still Whaling?
As you can see by the numbers, evaluating the impact of Industrial Era whaling on the global whale population is a species-by-species matter. Blues, rights, and bowheads were driven to near extinction, and even after decades of minimal hunting, remain at extremely low levels. Fins and sperms took big hits too, but were more resilient. Humpbacks and greys are the big success stories; both were hunted to near extinction but bounced back to maximum population capacities. Minkes were never heavily targeted, but have also proven resilient.
After such an environmentally disastrous century of whaling, who still hunts whales?
At least as of the period from 2010-2014, Native communities engage in whaling in Canada, Greenland, the Faroe Islands (Denmark), Alaska (United States), Russia, Indonesia, and St. Vincent + the Grenadines. Canada and Greenland are the most prolific hunters at around 1,000 whales per year, though mostly small narwhals and belugas, followed by the Faroe Islands which target pilot whales. Few of the old commercially targeted whales are hunted anymore, though Alaska still takes bowheads and Indonesia takes some sperm whales.
Four oddball de facto commercial whaling countries persist to the modern day: Norway, Japan, Iceland, and South Korea. How and why these countries continue whaling is fascinating – I’ll explore the two most prolific hunters, Norway and Japan.
Norway catches 400-ish to 700-ish whales per year, all minkes. The whales are primarily used for their meat, though both the Norwegian government and pharmaceutical companies have continued to invest in the industry to discover medical applications for whale parts, including whale oil hand lotion to treat psoriasis.
From what I’ve read, environmentalists seem particularly disdainful of Norway for being the wealthiest and ostensibly most progressive of the remaining whaling states. Not only does the government want Norwegians to keep whaling, but they seem intent on reviving the industry globally, maybe to bring back the glory days of the early 20th century when Norway was on top of the whaling world. In the mid-2010s, Norway slowly increased its whaling rate and eclipsed Japan as the biggest year-to-year whaler.
As mentioned, I found one source which claims Norway is literally leading a stealth propaganda campaign to convince the world of whaling’s awesomeness by researching every possible medical application of whale parts in existence. This seems to be done primarily through Innovation Norway, a quasi-government agency (which received $4.6 million from the government in 2011 alone). Another source paints Norway as somehow cleverly angling itself to allow Japan and Iceland to take more of the international anti-whaling sentiment while it cooly ramps up its own whaling industry.
Is Norwegian whaling legal? That’s debatable and takes some explaining.
When the IWC declared the moratorium on global whaling in 1982, Norway filed a petition against it and continued with its 2,000 annual minke whale hunting quota. Since the 1980s were the height of Save the Whales! sentiment, Norway pissed everyone off so much that President Reagan nearly levied economic sanctions against the country. Norway caved and agreed to abide by the moratorium in 1986.
But that’s when Norway discovered the loophole upon which the entire modern whaling industry is based.
The IWC allows countries to use “special permit catches” to hunt a small number of whales each year for “scientific purposes.” Both the number of permits allowed and the parameters of these “scientific purposes” are extremely vague.
So the Norwegian government quickly set up an official-sounding science agency/bureau thing for whale research, and began printing its own special catch permits for hunting whales. Commercial fishermen could then hunt whales on these permits and give them to the science agency thing. The scientists would then do whatever science thing they were supposed to do… which didn’t need to be much. They could even just count each dead whale on a whale population survey and claim that was a “scientific purpose” for catching each whale.
But then – once all the science had been done – the science agency had an entire dead whale. What could be done with it?
Well, they couldn’t let it go to waste. So the agency would give the whale back to the fisherman who could then sell it in the commercial meat markets as they would any other wild-caught marine animal. This would seem to go completely against the IWC ban, but it didn’t. As long as a whale was caught with a special permit and ostensibly used for scientific purposes, the carcass could be disposed of any way the country preferred. And Norway preferred to use the science corpses for whale steaks, pharmaceuticals, fertilizer, and hand lotion.
Japan, South Korea, and Iceland all use the same loophole. The IWC figured out what these countries were doing approximately immediately. A whole bunch of legal challenges have been thrown around, and the IWC has tried rewriting the rules for the special permits, but none of it sticks. Norway and the rest either lawyer their way around the rules or ignores the issue. Some people say that the IWC has given up on these four countries and is fine with letting it go.
Regardless of this questionable legality, Norwegian, Japanese, Icelandic, and South Korean whaling continues.
It gets weirder. The demand for whale meat in Norway is only 0.6 pounds per citizen per year (for comparison, the US consumes 8.3 pounds of beef per citizen per year). In 2011, only 5% of Norwegians ate whale meat. Domestic demand is so low that Norway exports a significant portion of its catch. But not only is whaling illegal almost everywhere in the world, but trading whale meat is extra illegal due to the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora” (CITES) agreement.
Fortunately, Norway has a partner in crime – Japan. Norway and Japan both exploited a loophole in CITES wherein (as I understand it) they lodged a complaint against the agreement within 90 days of the whale product moratorium being added, and they’ve kept that complaint active since the early 1980s, and by the CITES’s own rules, a member country does not have to abide by a statute in the agreement while a complaint is ongoing, so… Norway and Japan can trade all the whale meat they want.
(Iceland and the Faroe Islands also import a bit of whale meat from time-to-time.)
Despite the anemic demand and trading difficulties, the Norwegian government supports the whaling industry in a surprisingly varied and comprehensive manner. Whaling companies are exempt from petroleum taxes and receive $2.5 million per year in direct subsidies. Between 1994 and 2006, the companies also received over $2 million in grants and $66 million in loans from the government. From 1993-2006, the government exempted whaling vessels from paying for government inspections at the cost of $10.5 million to taxpayers. By one estimate, government subsidies make up 50% of the whaling industry’s revenue. To get people to buy all this whale meat their taxes are paying for, the government spent $400,000 per year for five years in the 2000s on a whale meat advertising campaign. And just so everyone else in the world knows how awesome whaling is, the Norwegian government spent $6.9 million from 1992-2010 on international lobbying efforts.
Granted, these aren’t huge numbers, but still… Norwegian taxpayers are basically financing whale steaks for Japanese people.
Why is Norway doing this? Why is the Norwegian government spending so much money, effort, political capital, and diplomatic reputation to continue whaling? Why do they care so much about catching 500 whales per year when Norwegians don’t even want to eat 500 whales per year? Why does Norway care so much about a minuscule part of its economy which is a blatant drain on taxpayers?
I couldn’t find good answers to these questions, and I don’t know any Norwegians to ask. But by my best guess… it’s a matter of tradition. Norway has been whaling for a millennium in some form. Whaling was a major industry in Norway even 50 years ago. Some Norwegians must consider it a part of their heritage, and the country is so respected that it can afford to burn a few weirdness points for its own peculiar institution. If anyone has any insights on the deep Norwegian passion for killing and eating whales, let me know in the comments.
Since 1987, Japan has hunted 200-1,200 whales per year, though the average is around 500. Most of the catches are minkes and seis (another abundant species), with occasional brydes, and a sperm or fin every once in a rare while. Norway has surpassed Japan in average annual hunting, but Japan has hunted the most whales of any nation on earth in the modern era, with 12,000 kills from 1986-2010. As with Norway, the whales are primarily used for meat, but pharmaceutical companies are doing what they can to make medicine out of them. Japanese scientists have made particular advancements in using whale oil to treat osteoarthritis.
Japan is probably the most controversial modern whaling nation. They get the most attention from environmentalists, and they seem to be the most explicitly intent on reviving the global whaling industry.
For most of history, Japan was one of many countries which harvested whales that washed up onshore, and there is evidence of this practice occurring thousands of years ago. The earliest commercial whaling began in the 1500s with familiar shore whaling tactics. Aside from using whale bones to make fans, one unique aspect of Japanese whaling was a far greater consumption of whale meat. While European commercial whalers considered the meat an afterthought and often threw it overboard to make room for oil, Japanese whalers used the meat and oil in equal measure.
From 1600-1850, the Japanese whaling industry was fairly large (the biggest of the non-European countries most likely), but never reached the heights of the Basques, Dutch, British, or Americans at their peaks. But in the 1860s, Japan started on its Meiji restoration and rapidly embraced Western technology. From there, the Japanese whaling trends decoupled with the rest of the world. Even though whaling was on its way out in the US and Europe, Japan finally began using American hunting methods and their industry exploded. Whale oil lamps, fans made of whale bone, and delicious whale meat flooded the country and helped fuel the massive industrial expansion of a rising empire.
Japan was one of the top whalers in the world even when the industry came back in Europe in the 1920s. The generally belligerent government ignored the League of Nation’s attempts at whaling restrictions in the early 1930s, ignored the Norwegian government’s attempts at whaling restrictions in the mid-1930s, and contributed to the devastating Arctic/Antarctic whaling years of the late 1930s. World War II put a halt to Japanese whaling. Whatever whaling ships weren’t sunk by hostile forces were converted to military usage and then likely sunk.
But then the post-WWII age saw not only a revival of Japanese whaling but a climb to its greatest heights. According to multiple sources, this was partially due to US General Douglas MacArthur, who after leading Allied forces in the Pacific theater of the war, became the provisional military overseer of the subdued Japanese state. In 1946, while the IWC was forming and putting the first real restrictions on international whaling, MacArthur ordered the remnants of the Japanese fleet to restart whaling in the Arctic with $800,000 of US military aid. The year’s catch netted $4 million worth of oil which the US military requisitioned (I guess for lubrication?) and Japan kept the meat which the annihilated Japanese economy desperately needed.
From there, the Japanese whaling story is fairly similar to Norway’s. Japan joined the IWC, agreed to some rules, but never liked it. Its whaling industry joined the unprecedented whaling frenzy of the 1950s and 60s, watched its whale stock plummet, and became more willing to agree to restrictions, but thought the IWC was overly deferential to environmental interests. When the full whaling moratorium hit in 1987, Japan quickly adopted the scientific loophole and continued whaling under the auspices of the much maligned Institute of Cetacean Research, which was not only formed by combining a bunch of whaling companies, but despite receiving hundreds of dead whales per year, may or may not do any real whale research before sending the bodies to the processing plants for meat extraction.
The difference between Japan and Norway is that the former is far more gung-ho about trying to buck the regulations. Wikipedia details Japan’s many, many attempts to rally pro-whaling coalitions in the IWC and play the tradition and culture cards against the arrogant rich Westerners trying to stop Asian people from their sacred right to kill whales. But eventually Japan found an even better strategy…
One of the quirks of the IWC is that any nation can join, regardless of whether it currently does, or has ever had a whaling industry. And on most matters, all member-countries have equal voting power. So even though the Industrial Age whaling industry was dominated by a handful of European states and Japan, the IWC ranks are full of random Asian, African, and South American countries, like Nicaragua, Togo, Gabon, Cameroon, and Côte d’Ivoire. Many of these countries couldn’t afford to launch a whaling fleet even if they wanted to, and ten countries – including Mali, San Marino, and Mongolia – are landlocked.
Eventually, Japan realized that these marginal IWC members were their path to victory. They didn’t need to convince the big players like the US, France, and Germany to permit whaling, they just needed to rally enough minor countries to vote with Japan on resolutions to reopen commercial whaling.
But these countries had no default incentive to vote for or against Japan. The Mongolian economy is not improved or hurt by whale hunting. If anything, these countries had a slight disincentive to support whaling since they received financial aid from the big whaling countries, primarily the US.
In 2010, an undercover operation found that Japan was not only providing official international aid (with an ambiguous quid-pro-quo) to numerous IWC states, but outright bribes to IWC delegates from the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, and possibly St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Guinea, Tanzania, and the Ivory Coast. Tanzania’s IWC representative said that Japan offered to pay for numerous flights, hotel rooms, and to take him on vacations to Japan where “good girls” would be available.
You might recognize that nearly all of these countries are dirt poor and have never had a whaling industry, and… I guess I have to admire Japan’s chutzpah.
Is Japanese whaling legal? For most of the last thirty years, it was as legal as Norwegian whaling. Now I’m pretty sure Japan is operating in violation of international law.
Despite Japan’s efforts, it could never inspire/cajole/bribe enough support from the marginal IWC members to bring back commercial whaling. Its last attempt was the 2018 IWC conference in Florinopolis, Brazil, where Japan laid out its nicest, most conservative plan for reopening global commercial whaling. The IWC discussed the matter, voted it down and declared that they would not reopen commercial whaling until the whale population reached pre-commercial whaling levels… which may never happen.
At the end of the year, Japan officially withdrew from the IWC. In 2019, Japan threw away the scientific loophole façade, and became the first country in thirty years to openly engage in commercial whale hunting. I’m not sure about the technicalities, but I assume this activity is illegal under international law.
The Japanese government is smart enough to take it slow. Rather than launch into a hunting bonanza and slaughter 40,000 whales, they only issued permits for 227 whales in 2019, and all for minkes, seis, and brydes, three abundant species. Time will tell where Japan goes from there.
Why is Japan doing this?
Japan certainly doesn’t hunt whales because it needs meat, like back in the 1940s. In 2010, whale made up less than 1% of Japanese protein intake. A few years earlier, a survey found that 95% of Japanese people had never or almost never eaten whale meat. In 2019, the per capita consumption of whale meat was less than 0.01 pounds.
Japan also doesn’t hunt whales for their economic value, because there isn’t any, or at least there isn’t anymore. The whaling industry generated about $100 million in revenue annually before the moratorium, but by 2010 it generated half as much, and only employed 2,000 people. As with Norway, this long-over-the-hill industry persists on the taxpayers’ dime; from 1988-2009, Japanese whalers supposedly received $164 million from the Japanese government (the source is the World Wildlife Fund, so take that figure with a heap of salt). During the 2008-2009 season, the industry needed $12 million in subsidies just to break even. Subsidies in 2019 reached $50 million.
So, again, like with Norway, Japan pisses off the entire world to perpetuate an industry which barely produces anything of value and which survives on taxpayer funds. Why does the Japanese government spend so much capital keeping whaling alive?
A 2010 article from The Diplomat suggests regulatory capture and stubborn diplomacy are to blame, but I’m skeptical. It points to the Institute of Cetacean Research (the Japanese shell-research organization) as a source of cushy retirement jobs for Japanese bureaucrats who are incentivized to keep the whaling industry running. But the ICR only has 70+ employees. The article also points to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as a more powerful bastion of bureaucratic mitosis with its almost 19,000 employees. But I don’t know… is whaling really that big deal compared to all of fishing, forestry, and agriculture? Seems like a stretch.
The article also posits that the Japan’s support of whaling is part of a grander defense of its anomalously aggressive fishing habits. Japan takes a disproportionately vast number of fish out of the oceans, particularly tuna, and the country has always faced pressure to reduce its quotas. Supposedly, the Japanese government hopes to keep attention focused on the relatively unimportant whaling industry so the real cash cow (cash fish?) marine industries can keep running. If Japan folds on whaling, tuna could be next.
I know nothing about international fishing politics, so I have no way to judge this. But if I had to offer my 100% speculative opinion, I’d guess that relinquishing whaling would buy Japan a lot of diplomatic goodwill which would help them defend their aggressive commercial fishing. If anything, whaling probably just attracts more negative attention and pressure.
A 2019 Reuters article offers another minor hypothesis: former Japanese President Shinzo Abe (2012-2020) and some leading Liberal Democratic Party members are from whaling districts. But Abe’s predecessors from the Democratic Party (different party despite the name) were not from whaling districts and were equally in favor of whaling. Whaling is a bipartisan issue in Japan.
So what’s really going on? Why does Japan care so much about whaling?
My take is that it’s primarily a cultural and nationalistic issue. Trade rights and lobbying might play a role, but I think the best explanation is that some Japanese people have a deep cultural attachment to whaling and resent international attempts to unilaterally crush this tradition within Japanese borders. Any Japanese politicians who go against this tide probably risk the electoral wrath of conservative and especially older voters who see opposition to whaling as opposition to Japanese sovereignty.
Granted, Japan’s cultural attachment to whaling is its own can of worms. Some people think “whaling is to Japan” as “the fez is to Turkey” – an overhyped cultural artifact that didn’t become important until modern times for political reasons. Japan had always engaged in some form of whale harvesting, but the industry wasn’t a significant part of the economy until the late 1800s at the earliest, which is not very long ago for a civilization which has been ruled by the same dynasty for 1,500 years. By that standard, whaling shouldn’t be any more important to Japan than the United States, Britain, or the Basque, all of whom have moved on from the practice.
Japan’s (or rather Japanese intellectuals’) counter is that even before Japan did a lot of whaling, it did it differently than everyone else. For one, Japan always harvested whale meat for human consumption, while Western whalers either threw it overboard or used it for animal feed. Supposedly, whales even played some sort of role in Shintoism, Japan’s traditional Pagan religion, and there were all sorts of rituals involved in hunting. From Wikipedia:
Supporters of the Japanese whaling tradition claim that the experience is both humble and emotional, and all parts of a whale are used, unlike westerners of the past who hunted only for whale oil. In addition, Japan has strictly controlled catch quotas, and whalers have never hunted juveniles or cow/calf pairs due to their respect for whales. When they kill whales, hunters invoke the Buddha and pray for the repose of whales’ souls; they held funerals for whales, built cenotaphs for them, gave posthumous Buddhist names to them, and when a dead fetus is removed from a butchered cow, an effort is made to release it into the sea. These practices are intended to encourage emotionally healthy or spiritual relationships with whales, and are connected with Japanese religious beliefs.
Is any of this true? Did that level of reverence translate to the 1960s when the Japanese were hunting tens of thousands of whales per year? I have no idea.
But it also might not matter if it’s true. This might be one of those situations like how ISIS recruits were caught reading “Islam for Dummies” books. Complexity and depth of belief don’t have to corelate. People can deeply believe in something even if they don’t understand it super well. The average Japanese whale hunting enthusiast might know nothing about 14th century whaling rituals, but still strongly believe that whaling is an integral part of Japanese culture and must be protected.
The Diplomat article gives insights into the nationalistic angle. It suggests that Japanese whaling may have become even more popular since the mortarium on commercial whaling because the rest of the world is trying to ban it. I don’t want to play on stereotypes, but Japan has quite the reputation for… insularity? National pride? Whatever you want to call it, I wouldn’t be surprised if some conservative Japanese people hate the idea of Americans and Europeans telling them what they can and can’t eat.
So my guess is that the primary reason the Japanese government supports the whaling industry despite it being a drain on the economy, taxpayers, and diplomatic relations, is that it’s a culture war issue politicians can rally behind to pander to some of the electorate. No Japanese politician is going to try to destroy an allegedly ancient Japanese custom to save a few tens of millions of tax dollars per year, let alone to appease a bunch of tree-hugging Europeans. Instead, Japanese politicians eat whale curry in government cafeterias and tell the media how awesome it is.
Can the World Resume Commercial Whaling?
Can the World Resume Commercial Whaling in A Significant Capacity?
Can the World Resume Commercial Whaling in a Significant Capacity without Making Whales Extinct?
Can the World Resume Commercial Whaling in a Significant Capacity in An Ecologically Healthy Manner Wherein the Global Whale Population Can Return to Pre-Industrial Levels?
Yes, probably. The global whaling industry would have to be centrally coordinated (since we still have whale communism), tightly regulated, and quota-bound… but it can be done, and fairly easily at that.
It’s hard to find mainstream considerations of what a revived global whaling industry would look like, but I did find one paper from 2006: Lifting the International Whaling Commission’s Moratorium On Commercial Whaling As The Most Effective Global Regulation of Whaling, by Lisa Kobayashi, who was then a graduate of Keio University in Japan, and a JD candidate at UC Davis.
Kobayashi’s arguments more-or-less agree with my intuitions. The global whaling population was devastated by the Industrial Era of whaling, but recovered faster than expected starting in the 1980s. Some species are close to maximum population thresholds; even the IWC admits that minke whales could be hunted at a rate of 4,800 per year without denting the population. Other species, like sperm whales, aren’t back to pre-whaling population levels, but are growing more than fast enough to sustain moderate hunting levels while continuing to recover. More generally, Kobayashi states that most whale species seem to recover from depleted populations at a rate between 2-4% annually, and thus she recommends a flat hunting rate of 1% by default, with additional factors taken into account as modifiers. She concludes with the recommendation that commercial hunting should be resumed with at least minkes, sperms, and grey whales, while other species should be observed for future hunting potential.
(I can’t access it, but a 2000 paper by a bunch of Americans seems to come to the same conclusion.)
But I think Kobayashi’s claims about the lack of effectiveness of the IWC’s moratorium are weaker. Essentially, she argues that if the IWC wants to preserve whale populations, it should lift the moratorium and resume limited commercial whaling because if the IWC doesn’t permit some level of whaling, rogue states will break away from the IWC and hunt at unsustainable levels. She wrote the paper in 2006, and this prediction hadn’t really panned out then, and it still hasn’t today. Iceland left the IWC in 1992 and Japan left in 2019, but neither country has engaged in unsustainable whaling. The same goes for IWC whaling holdouts, Norway and South Korea. All four states are hunting at levels far below the capacity Kobayashi recommends. Though that could change in the future, especially now that uber-whaling enthusiast Japan is off the leash.
My 100% outsider speculative sense is that almost no one outside of Japan, Norway, and maybe a handful of heterodox thinkers are even willing to consider the practicalities of reviving commercial whaling. Google finds almost no news articles on the issue, and Google Scholar doesn’t find much either. Dare I say, anti-whaling advocates probably know the raw numbers are against them.
But what the anti-whaling proponents do have on their side are moral arguments against whaling. Animal rights advocates point to increasing evidence of the sophistication of whale intelligence, which includes complex communication, individual names, hierarchical societies, and mourning for the dead. Watchdogs of whaling in Japan and Norway keep track of the surprisingly low rates at which explosive harpoons to the head tend not to kill their targets, and thus leave whales to suffer as they are towed aboard and stabbed to death.
I don’t have a strong opinion on the morality of killing higher-order animals. I think it’s important to decouple these factors from the ecological potential of whaling, but they certainly need their own consideration, which I guess I’ll say is outside the bounds of this essay. Until I look into it myself, I’m personally agnostic on whether I’d support a revived global whaling industry.
But all that stuff might be irrelevant because the ultimate death knell of widespread whaling may very well be its lack of commercial viability. As stated, even in Norway and Japan the whaling industries seem to be heavily dependent on subsidies. There simply doesn’t seem to be many people who want to eat whale meat, and there aren’t many applications left for whale oil. And even if there is some sort of faddish revival of whale meat consumption or newly discovered uses for whale oil, the moral/cultural sentiment against killing whales is so entrenched that I doubt many companies would want to go down that road.
To sum up, I think commercial whaling is viable from a conservationist perspective. Species which have fully recovered or are on their way to full recovery can be hunted at fairly high rates without serious repercussions to the general population. But there are serious moral considerations to untangle and there doesn’t seem to be any ground-level economic push for whaling, so outside of the odd boutique government-backed industries in a handful of countries, commercial whaling will probably stay dead.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 30.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 134-135.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 133+.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 140.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 146.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 29.
 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=miun.ajb5449.0001.001&view=1up&seq=164. Page 164
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 29.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 308.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 308. Dividing average number of whale oil barrels by per-whale estimates.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, Various.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 Extrapolated from In Pursuit of Leviathan numbers, which puts average sperm whale at 33.6-45 barrels of whale oil.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan. 146.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 33.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 33.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 33.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 33.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 7.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 Pretty much this entire section comes from Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America really says this.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 459+.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 463.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 463.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 7.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 463.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 463-464.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 6.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 513.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 6.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 7.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 4.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 135+142, adding 5,000 (the rough average of the estimate most sperm whales captured in a year) to 7,000 baleen whales for the maximum, and extrapolating downward from the expectation that there likely wasn’t a year when both types of whales were caught at their peak numbers. Also, In Pursuit of Leviathan offhandedly mentions that more than 10,000 whales were never caught in a year. Of note, the 10,000-12,000 estimate includes baleen whales and sperm whales, but not other non-baleen whales, like pilot whales. However, besides sperm whales, non-baleen whales were rarely caught during the Golden Age, so it shouldn’t impact the figures much.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, Various.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 351.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 351.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 351.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 352-355.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 308.
 I believe this figure includes spermaceti oil. On page 29, the book identifies spermaceti as a type of sperm oil, so presumably the author combines the two here. Otherwise, he very confusingly left out spermaceti value.
 Calculated by dividing average amount of sperm oil by 40 barrels, and average amount of whale oil by 66 barrels.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 411.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 438.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 438.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 427.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 15.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 239-241.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 15.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 411-412.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 155-156.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 169-170.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 173-174.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, Various.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 169-172.
 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=miun.ajb5449.0001.001&view=1up&seq=164. Page 164
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 412.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 15+.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 160-166.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 15+.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 390.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 172.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 173.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 157.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 96.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 179.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 190+.
 Nearly all of the crew life details in this section come from Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 72.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 307.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 Almost all of the data from this section comes from In Pursuit of Leviathan, 131-149.
 I believe this figure only refers to whale species hunted by Americans during the Golden Age. So it doesn’t include blue whales, fins, minkes, and others.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 7.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 7.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 238.
 Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 7.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 355.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 358.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 357.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 7.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 367.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 360.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 508.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 508.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 508.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 503.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 503.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 504.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 509.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 503.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 509.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 510.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, Various.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 509.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 510-511.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 510.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 147.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, Various. Author estimates a 177,000 maximum, and likely a max of 1/3rd hunted in Golden Age.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan. Assumes no drop in sperm whale population from 19th century hunting.
 In Pursuit of Leviathan, 147.
 I’m not sure which country discovered the loophole first, but Norway was one of the first.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling_in_Japan. Most information in this section is from this link unless otherwise specified.
 He says: “It was excellent; I’ve never eaten such delicious curry. We must spread the idea throughout Japan that whale meat is something we can’t do without.”
15 thoughts on “Everything You Might Want to Know about Whaling”
This is great stuff—thanks for the work that went into this! I just wanted to points out that orcas, while relatively small, don’t really fit in the 70-200 lbs range. They’re typically 400 lbs at birth and several tons at adulthood, reaching as high as 22,000 lbs and 32 ft long.
Thanks, I cut that description.
What a wonderful post, I thought I was going to skip around but it was so well written that I read it straight through. Two remarks. First, ‘sail’ in a couple places got autocorrected to ‘sale’. Second, it’s worth mentioning a fascinating story in its own right how much of Soviet (over)whaling was driven not by demand, but by quirks in the socialist fishing production quota system which incentivized total mass brought onshore and not metrics such as if that catch was actually used for anything: https://psmag.com/social-justice/the-senseless-environment-crime-of-the-20th-century-russia-whaling-67774
Thanks, typos fixed and I used that link as a source, it def plays to my libertarian outlook.
On scurvy and it being solved earlier by the British, Maciej Cegłowski has a good essay about it here. The short answer is that the cure was known earlier by the British, but later circumstances appeared to discredit it, and so it was effectively lost. For the long answer… well, you should just read the post!
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Haven’t finished reading it yet, but from what I’ve read up to now it’s very good, congratulations!
Just a few comments: a knot is actually a nautical mile per hour, a unit of speed. So you cannot measure distances in knots, and when measuring speed you just say a number of knots, not of knots per hour.
Also, “the taught rope” should be “the taut rope”.
Thanks Marc, fixed typo. How do ships measure distance if they don’t use knots?
I don’t know, I’m not really familiar with the marine industry. I just had never heard knots used as a measure of distance, only speed, and the Wikipedia article agrees. If I had to guess I’d say nautical miles, maybe, especially since knots are nautical miles per hour.
Great read, the 30,000 words flew by so quickly. Interesting perspective on many parts of history. I found one minor typo. I think the word, “attempt” is missing here “sunk them in the Charleston Harbor in an ambitious [attempt] to foundationally blockade the harbor.”
Thank you! And fixed the typo.
Great deep dive into a weird and fascinating topic! I didn’t know about the new research on changing sperm whale behaviour, that’s incredible. I’d just like to add a few things I found from my own deep dive into this about a year ago:
1: Note that several sauropod dinosaur genera grew larger (in mass) than many whales. Only a few whales (blue, right, bowhead) definitively grow larger than the largest sauropods (e.g. Argentinasaurus), and then only by mass. This has changed a lot in the last 5 years, in very interesting ways!
2: You point out in passing that a boat is not a ship. That’s an understatement. Here’s an easy definition: you can fit a boat on a ship but you can’t fit a ship on a boat.
3: You had a hard time finding how much meat there is on a whale, but you have price per whale and price per kilo of meat. You could divide one by the other and arrive at usable meat mass.
4: You weren’t sure why harpooners tied on after throwing. It’s probably because if you miss (and it was very easy to miss) you’d have to untie and retie before throwing again. This way you might lose a harpoon or two, but you save time tying.
5: Explosive-tipped harpoons are not guaranteed to kill instantly, especially on larger whales – very precise aim was still required! Not as precise as older toggle harpoons, which sometimes required 3-10 throws from point-blank range to strike the heart and finally kill the beast – there’s some footage on YouTube of shore whalers doing this I believe off the Basque coast.
And most importantly, the Australian perspective!
1: Whaling was (colonial) Australia’s first export industry. It began in Tasmania and South Australia, where rival whaling managers came up with ingenious ways of sabotaging each other while trying to attract and retain each other’s employees. Whaling went quiescent here as elsewhere after the Golden Age until around WW2. At that time, Western Australia literally flew in Norwegian experts to set up new shore-based factories with modern vessels. Most of these ventures, especially in the northwest (Indian Ocean), were failures as the humpback population had already been too decimated, but Cheynes Beach Whaling Company in Albany (the oldest colonial settlement in Western Australia, on the south coast) had access to sperm whales in the Southern Ocean and operated right up until 1978. There’s a misconception that whaling stopped there only because of Greenpeace’s involvement – some gloryhounds got in a zodiac between the whalers and the whales, which made headlines around the world (the whalers fired anyway). The whaling actually only stopped because of new developments in non-whale oil synthesis that made the alternative products cheaper. The industry collapsed and the whalers were kind of screwed because the business shut literally overnight and none of them had any transferrable skills. Check out Whaling Around Australia by Max Colwell and The Last Whale by Chris Pash, and if you’re ever in this neck of the woods, a visit to Albany’s whaling museum as a must (it’s housed in the same buildings as the old whaling factory; some say on a hot summer’s day you can just make out the smell).
2: Let’s talk about the photo you use at the start of your shore hunting section. What’s going on in the photo? Whalers in a shore-based boat, check; a whale calf beside the boat, check; and an adult male orca beside the calf. Wait, what? An orca? This photo is from Twofold Bay near Eden, New South Wales. Attempts to start a whaling industry there were unsuccessful – until a local pod of orcas came around. These orcas specialised in hunting large baleen whales – humpbacks, blues, etc. It’s what they already did for food during certain times of the year. When they noticed that humans were trying to do it to, they joined in.
Pod members each had different roles. For example, once the pod found a large whale near the coast, one member would race towards a nearby lookout and start belly-flopping loudly to alert the whalers (who posted a sentry for this purpose). The whalers would scramble a boat and follow the orca out. Meanwhile, the rest of the pod was harassing and herding the whale into the shallow bay. One pod member would sit face-to-face with the whale, blocking it; another would jump up and crash down on top of the whale, preventing it from breathing; others would nip at the fins, exhausting the whale. The whalers rowed up and began hurling their harpoons, and the orcas kept the whale boxed in. If the whale fled the whalers would tie on and the orcas would keep pace. Sometimes a man fell overboard in the chaos. If that happened, an orca would circle back and stay by the man, keeping him company until someone could send a boat for him. This generally terrified the men at the time, but they all reported afterwards that the guardian orca was like a curious and protective dog.
The whalers would kill the whale, and bring its carcass back into the bay. The orcas let the men have almost every part of the whale, but there was inviolable rule: the whalemen must leave the carcass in the bay overnight so the orcas could eat the tongue. That’s the only thing they wanted – just like the Crown in England in the twelfth century. The next morning the whalers would haul the carcass up onto shore and start processing it for oil. This arrangement was known as the Law of the Tongue.
This practice persisted for over a century, with many of the same individual orcas identifiable across decades (the whalers all knew every orca’s temperament, personality, and pod role, and assigned names to them all). A popular understanding, probably apocryphal, is that the arrangement ended because the whalers stopped letting the orcas have the tongue. In another conspicuous event, an orca was beached one day (not an uncommon occurrence). The whalemen were in a boat and, seeing the orca, rushed over to help it. But before they could get there, a man who’d recently arrived in town spotted the orca and grabbed his gun. He went to the stranded orca and peremptorily shot it in the head, killing it instantly in full view of the whalemen. The local constabulary, drawn by the shot, confronted the stranger. They basically told him “Mate, there’s nothing we can do to prevent the hell that’s about to fall on your head. Leave town now and never come back.” Some locals insist this event soured relations between the men and the orcas. In reality, whaling up and down the coast was probably depleting the orcas’ preferred food source, prompting them to leave; there’s also a suggestion that Norwegian whalers killed most of the pod on a trip to the region. The most likely explanation is that the pod’s matriarch died, prompting her daughters to found new pods, effectively splitting the pod. In any event, the pod gradually stopped coming to Twofold Bay, all except Old Tom, the most enthusiastic orca. He kept coming to the bay year after year, long after the others stopped. Eventually he died; his skeleton is mounted in a local museum. You’ll notice that his front teeth are worn down and missing. Some say this is because of how, when a boat was fixed to a whale, he’d get into a frenzy and start pulling on the rope to help handle the whale.
Anyway, back to that photo – a caption from a book I have handy reads: “Fast to a whale in Twofold Bay, the oars are peaked and the rowers are taken for a ride. George Davidson is steering with the big steering oar at the stern, but at the right time he will go for’ard and lance the whale to kill it. The line attached to the harpoon can be seen faintly near the bow of the boat. The killer Tom is swimming alongside, close to a whale calf, which has surfaced. – Photo by C.E. Wellings.”
One final tidbit that blew my mind – the largest blue whale on record was caught at Twofold Bay, with the help of the orcas. Danielle Cload’s nonfiction treatment of this phenomenon (Killers in Eden) is definitive, and there are fictional retellings from Tom Mead (Killers of Eden) and a more modern one (Rush-Oh!) by Shirley Bennett. This is the only known association between whalers and orcas in history, and I feel it is one of if not the single most interesting story about whaling from around the world.
Anyway thanks again for this interesting read!
– A kindred spirit on the other side of the world
This is great stuff, thanks!
On the points:
1. I first heard that whales were the biggest animals ever at the Museum of Natural History in NYC, and I’ve seen other sources say it since, but I’m not too surprised that’s outdated. Good find.
2. While whaling fascinates me, the nautical technicalities kinda flew over my head at times and I couldn’t be bothered to remember them.
3. True, though probably only applicable to Japan. I’m not sure how much other countries extract from whales these days besides meat (do they need much oil for pharma?).
4. Good point, sounds right.
5. I mentioned this in the Norway section, but it could have used more emphasis earlier. It’s kinda counter-intuitive that a small explosion won’t kill an animal, but I guess whales are large.
1. Had no idea about Australian whaling but it makes sense. Westerners in the Pacific, why not whale? I’m surprised they didn’t get into it sooner.
2. I had no idea whalers worked with orcas… that’s amazing! Def gonna dig into it a little. So many fun little details, way too much for me to ever cover, you’re def filling in a lot of blanks.
Thanks again, glad you enjoyed it.
No worries mate! Sorry to nitpick, your account is very detailed and accessible, great job.
Interesting history! This always fascinates me.
firstly i would like to say that i really liked your article
So you asked why the Portuguese immigrants were very skilled whalers
As someone born and raised in Portugal i have the answer
90% of Portuguese immigrants to America were from the Azores islands a small archipelago in the atlantic ocean
the azores has a long history of whaling in fact whaling was a thing in the archipelago untill it was banned in 1984
whaling in the azores started as subsistence whaling, the azores is located in the middle of the atlantic ocean meaning it took time to bring resources to the islands specially in the early days when the islands were settled in the 15th century so the people there had to hunt whales, specially sperm whales, to not starve
When America started dominating the whaling industry thousands of azoreans migrated to America in search of a better life and to work in the whaling industry
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