Whaling began in the 10th century and continued for centuries in the style of its crude beginnings, simply constructed row boats and hand-held harpoons. Whales were first killed, in part, because of an irrational fear. Some tribal art shows giant, whale-like creatures attacking boats and killing men. The drawings are believed to have been drawn based on an oral tradition in which whales are both violent and predatory. These stories may have originated simply because of the intimidating size and mass of the creatures. Later, hunters wanted the whale for its oil and ambergris, a wax-like substance used to make perfume.  The oil from the whale was used for soap, candles, lubricant and lamp oil.  Whale bone was also a valuable commodity, and was widely used in women’s corsets.  Baleen was used for women’s hoop skirts and umbrella ribs.  Americans began hunting whale in the early 18th century and soon the Yankee whaling industry gained great economic importance.  The methods became more advanced and more efficient, while whalers were now willing to travel further in order to bring in a solid catch.  The development of the try-works system allowed whalers to begin to boil out their oil while still at sea.  The try-works consisted of two massive iron pots in a brick oven, and this relatively simple installation guaranteed the success of the Yankee fleet. By 1843 over 700 ships and 200,000 men ran the industry. 


The Norwegians began whale hunting in the late 19th century and made the extraction process of whale oil more efficient and marketable.  The technology used in the hunt continued to increase, and the whale populations began to drop radically.  Steamboats, harpoon guns and grenades were used in the advancement of modern whaling.  In 1946 the International Whaling Commission was established in order to stabilize the populations of whale species.  A quota was set on the annual catch between the seventeen nations.  Today, hunting of young whales and females is forbidden, and Norway is one of the only countries to continue hunting at all, although other nations permit a limited catch for research purposes.    In the 21st century it is the pollution of the whales' habitats, and the hidden danger in loose netting that endangers whale populations. 


In Literature


In the year 1840, Herman Melville began what would be an 18 month stay on a whaling ship.  This experience would inspire one of the greatest American novels ever written, Moby Dick.  During his expedition a crew mate told Melville of the Ship Essex, sunk by a whale. The young writer could not forget the story he had heard: "The reading of this wondrous story on the landless sea, and so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck, had a surprising effect upon me."  The novel is also partly based on stories of the Mocha Whale.  Sailors claimed that the whale was white as wool, and had twenty harpoons in its body when finally captured, evidence of previous attempts to kill it. 

The story is told through the eyes of Ishmael, a sailor set out to relieve the ‘damp, drizzly November in his soul.’  Throughout the book he alternates between a certain awe of the whale, and a fear of it.

“Out of the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven.  So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell.  But in gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels.  Standing at the mast-head of my ship during a sunrise that crimsoned sky and sea, I once saw a large herd of whales in the east, all heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert with peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld, even in Persia, the home of the fire worshippers.”  (Moby Dick, page 413)

“Dissect him (the whale) how I may, then, I but go skin deep: I know him not, and never will… and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.” (Moby Dick, page 414)

Moby Dick is a study of chance, free will, and fate, and it is the mystery of the whale that illustrates the power of all three. 

Even today, the whale is a widely used and commanding image in literature:


The Humpbacks
Mary Oliver

   Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,

its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones

toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire

where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.