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Whaling is an ancient industry. There is evidence that whales were hunted along the coasts of Alaska and Siberia since 2000 b.c. The first mention of it in European sources dates from a.d. 875, but it is uncertain whether this is a reference to harvesting beached whales or to hunting them at sea. Although whaling in some form was conducted throughout the Middle Ages by the English, French, Icelanders and Norwegians, there is no clear proof that live whales were captured in Europe until 1575, when they were hunted in the Bay of Biscay. New England colonists brought the practice from Europe and made whale meat a part of their diet.

By the seventeenth century whale hunting was on the increase. Whale oil, which was produced when the animal's blubber (fat) was boiled down, was in great demand for lubrication and as a fuel for illumination. Realizing its commercial potential, the Massachusetts government encouraged the industry in 1639 by stipulating that whaling ships were exempt from taxation for seven years, and that members of the crew were free from their military obligations during the fishing season. The first organized whale fishery in North America was found on Long Island (an island near New York City) sometime after 1640, but Nantucket (an island off the coast of Massachusetts) had become the center of the industry by the late seventeenth century. These early whalers hunted the right whale, a forty-four foot mammal that migrated south to spend the winter off the American coast. The sailors slept in their own beds at night, since whales were spotted from lookout stations on land and caught near the shore by men in small boats. The animals would be dragged to the beach, where their blubber was removed and boiled down (the contemporary term was "tried out").

In the eighteenth century the growth in population and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution increased the need for whale oil. It lubricated machines and fueled the lamps that illuminated the streets of major cities. It cleaned wool in textile mills and became a base for paint. By the middle of the century, spermaceti, a waxy solid that was extracted from the whale's head, was made into candles that were excellent sources of light and had a pleasant odor. It was also used for ointments and perfumes.

The increased demand for oil coincided with the hunting of the sperm whale, which began around 1812. Its heads contained spermaceti and also a reservoir of oil that was known for its purity and lightness In general the oil from sperm whales burned more brightly than that from right whales, and it was marketed separately. Since sperm whales preferred deep water, whalers built large ships were built that were capable of sailing in the open ocean. These vessels contained tryworks, equipment that allowed the sailors to render the oil at sea. Since sailors no longer had to return to shore after each kill, the new technology completely changed the nature of the industry. Voyages could last four or five years, and American whaling slowly spread to all the oceans of the world. The industry began to have an influence on U.S. diplomatic policy, playing a role in the opening of Japan, the purchase of Alaska, and other important events.

Larger ships and long voyages meant that the crew could be divided according to their social standing. The officers, who were usually white and middle class, ate better food and lived in the rear part of the ship, where they had more space and privacy than the crew. The captain would have would have a parlor and bedroom. Many took their wives and sometimes their children to sea with them.

Ordinary sailors were usually poor whites, African or Native Americans. They were forced to live in cramped quarters in steerage or in the forward part of the ship. They ate food that was at best barely palatable and at times rancid. Fresh fruits or vegetables were rare, and death by scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C, was relatively common. Nathaniel Robinson, a young man who went to sea in 1843, disliked the salt-cured horse and tar-like molasses he had to eat. He was particularly repelled by a pig's snout with bristles attached that he saw floating in a pan of food. Robinson became deathly ill on the voyage and died the day after he returned home.

Life aboard ship could be monotonous, but when a whale was sighted there was a flurry of excitement. The ship sailed near the creature and lowered whale-boats, which were about thirty feet in length and carried six men. The whale was approached carefully, so it would not become frightened, and so the harpooner could stand and steady himself. When he struck the animal, it would often dive to tremendous depths. The boat usually contained about 18,000 feet of line, which could be attached to the harpoon, and which whistled and burned as it spun out, following the diving whale. At times the whale would not dive, but swim along the surface at tremendous speed, taking the whaleboat on what was known as a "Nantucket sleigh ride." Once the sailors survived the stricken beast's initial reaction, the long process of weakening the whale by tightening and slackening the rope began. It could take seven hours to exhaust the whale. When the animal became tired, the whaleboat would pull along side and an officer would kill it by plunging a six-foot razor-sharp lance into its lungs. The entire hunt was fraught with danger. Sailors had to avoid the whale's powerful fins and jaws, and the animals were known to attack the whaleboat, crushing or capsizing it. In 1820, the mother ship itself, the Essex, was rammed twice by sperm whale and sank, losing nearly half the crew.

The proceeds from the sale of the oil were divided between the owners of the vessel and the crew. Those who owned the ship or provided the capital investment took at least a quarter and usually much more of the profit. Often ownership was shared among a number of investors to lessen the risk. Captains could receive ten times as much as seamen. The rest of the crew's pay was proportionate to their tasks, and those who performed menial jobs obtained the least. The owners often lent the crew money to purchase their equipment, and often they charged 25 percent interest for their loans. In addition the ship usually had a company store, where the men could buy tobacco, clothes, and other sundries at high prices. After deducting their expenses, seamen might earn little for their hard and dangerous work. In 1844 John Murray returned from a voyage on the Milton for which the captain was paid nearly $6,000.00. Murray's wages after expenses amounted to ten cents, but the owners gave him an extra $10.00 on condition that he press no legal claim against them.

American commercial whaling reached its height in the 1840s and 1850s, when at one point 700 of the 900 vessels engaged in the industry were registered in the United States. By that time New Bedford with its deeper harbor had surpassed Nantucket as the nation's whaling capital. Whaling began to decline after 1859, when oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, and kerosene, an oil derivative that burned more brightly, surpassed whale oil as a fuel for lamps. The Civil War (18611865) also damaged the industry, as Confederate raiders wreaked havoc on the largely defenseless whaling fleet. In addition, over-fishing made whales more difficult to find. By the late 1860s the business had contracted by 70 percent. It was saved by an increased demand for baleen, bony slats from the upper palate of certain whales that were used to strain food. It was excellent for making combs or umbrellas, providing support for corsets, and filling out Victorian skirts. Yet baleen could not prevent the eventual failure of the American whale industry, which declined by 20 percent every five years throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. With the development of spring steel in 1907, even the baleen market collapsed.

Whaling has continued in the twentieth century but not as an American industry. Indigenous peoples, many of whom live around the Arctic Circle, continued to hunt whales, and countries like Japan, Norway, Iceland, the Soviet Union (now Russia) and others engaged aggressively in the practice. The whale still provided many saleable products. Hydrogenated whale oil can be used for margarine, and bowhead whale oil is still the best lubricant for watches or clocks. Whale flesh is a valuable source of meat, and vitamins can be extracted from their inner organs. Whalebone can be ground for livestock feed.

The whaling nations built large factory ships that could drag the entire animal on deck for processing. They were so efficient was that in 1946 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established to save the creatures from extinction. In its first 40 years the commission made little progress, but in 1986, a moratorium went into effect that banned all commercial whaling. Canada left the IWC in 1982 in order to protect the hunting rights of its native people, and Norway resigned in 1992, maintaining that some types of whales could be harvested without endangering the species. Japan takes about 500 minke whales a year for "research" purposes. The fear however, that whales may become extinct have made them a symbol for the Conservation movement. Although the United Nations has banned all commercial whaling, Japan, Norway, and Canada continue to hunt these creatures.

Topic overview

A sailor's life is a hard life. (They) are exposed to many hardships, (of) which those of us who reside on land have no conception. Even when our ships are commanded by a pious man, the influence of the seaman is often very bad; and many are the young men who have left home with good habits, but when they have returned, they have become dissipated.

reverend daniel lord, pastor, mariner's church of boston, july 30, 1841

See also: Massachusetts


Church, Albert Cook. Whale Ships and Whaling. New York: Bonanza Books, 1938.

Creighton, Margaret S. Rites and Passages: The Experience of American Whaling, 18301870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Ellis, Richard. Whales and Men. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Hohman, Elmo P. The American Whaleman. New York: Longmans, Green, 1928.

Sherman, Stuart C. The Voice of the Whaleman. Providence: Providence Public Library, 1965.

i want one more whale bad. we have got but one months salt meet (meat) in the ship but i would not mind (staying) untill that is gon and thin live on faith untill we get in where we can get some more.

master of the roman, his ship "intirly encircled with (arctic) ice", september 1853

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whaling, the hunting of whales for the oil that can be rendered from their flesh, for meat, and for baleen (whalebone). Historically, whale oil was economically the most important.

Early Whaling

Whaling for subsistence dates to prehistoric times. The early people of Korea were hunting whales as far back as 5000 BC, and those of Norway began whaling at least 4,000 years ago. Various peoples of the NW North American coast and the Arctic have a long tradition of whaling. Whaling, done from canoes or skin boats, often when migrating pods of whales passed nearby, was a very dangerous undertaking. Over time, many, such as the Qwidicca-atx (Makah) people of the Olympic peninsula, developed set spiritual and hunting practices that became the core of their culture.

Early Commercial Whaling

The hunting of whales is thought to have been pursued by the Basques from land as early as the 10th cent. and in Newfoundland waters by the 14th cent. It is not until the middle of the 16th cent., however, that the appearance of Basques in those waters is established by record. Whaling on a large scale was first organized at Spitsbergen at the beginning of the 17th cent., largely by the Dutch who, with the Basques, apparently developed methods of flensing and boiling. The Dutch were at first in competition with the English Muscovy Company of London, but before its collapse in 1625 they had gained ascendancy; in 1623 they established the port of Smeerenberg. Large profits continued only until c.1640, when the scarcity of whales forced the Dutch farther out into the northern waters in search of them.

By the middle of the 17th cent. whaling from the land was established in America. The earliest type, called drift whaling, consisted of harvesting whales that had washed up on the shore, mainly after storms. Drift whaling became economically important in Colonial America, and the first laws regarding it were written at Southampton, Long Island, in the 1640s. This practice was followed by shore whaling, in which whales swimming close to shore were hunted. Whaling centers, at first on Long Island and Cape Cod, shifted to Nantucket and then New Bedford, Mass., the greatest whaling port in the world until the decline (c.1860) of the industry. With the capture (1712) of a sperm whale by a Nantucket whaler, the superior qualities of sperm oil were discovered, and American whalers began fishing farther south in search of the sperm whale, which superseded the right whale in value.

American fisheries were set back by the American Revolution, but in 1791 the first Americans rounded Cape Horn to hunt in the S Pacific. Another, but temporary, setback occurred in the War of 1812, but the outcome spelled the complete defeat of British whaling. From c.1815 until shortly before the Civil War, the period widely known as the golden age of U.S. whaling, Americans sailed the Pacific from south to north, on voyages often lasting as long as three or four years, in search of whales. Melville's Moby-Dick gives an account of a voyage in this period. The advent of the Civil War, a decrease in the demand for sperm oil and in the number of whales, and the discovery (1859) of oil in Pennsylvania brought on the decline of the industry.

Modern Whaling

The invention (c.1856), by the Norwegian Sven Foyn, of a harpoon containing an explosive head may be said to have inaugurated modern whaling. Besides insuring the whale's immediate death this type of harpoon was subsequently modified to shoot compressed air into the whale so that it will not sink before it can be secured. The development of the factory ship, equipped to take on board and completely process whales caught by smaller chaser boats, increased safety and enhanced the ability to catch the larger blue whale. It also allowed for the use of all parts of the whale; formerly only the blubber and head could be procured, and the job of flensing from the side of the ship was a hazardous one.

In 1904 operations commenced from a whaling station on South Georgia, an island in the S Atlantic, and the modern industry found in Antarctic waters the last rich whaling fields on the globe. The number of expeditions from the Antarctic islands, however, was restricted by Great Britain, which had secured sovereignty over these areas. In 1925 the first floating factory was sent to the Antarctic regions; that innovation led to the greatest expansion in the history of whaling. In 1930 the modern whaling industry reached its zenith, with 6 shore stations, 41 floating factories, and 232 whale catchers in the Antarctic regions, of which 3 stations, 27 factory ships, and 147 catchers were Norwegian and 2 stations, 27 floating factories, and 68 catchers were British. During World War II most of the world's whaling fleet was lost, but afterward Norway, Britain, and Japan (which had started Antarctic expeditions in 1935) soon reestablished their prewar positions, and in addition the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, and South Africa appeared in the Antarctic regions for the first time.

Attempts at Regulation and Protection

In 1932–33, partly in response to the collapse of the whale-oil market, the first attempts were made to regulate and restrict the catch by international agreement. After World War II the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in Washington, D.C., by 17 nations, including all those operating in the Antarctic regions. The commission, which regulates most of the world's whaling activity, began in the 1960s to limit the number and species of whales that could be hunted.

In the subsequent years, environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace, became extremely involved in the attempt to stop whaling, shadowing whaling vessels and attempting to interfere with whalers. In 1982 the IWC voted a moratorium on commercial whaling, to take effect after the 1984–85 season. Exceptions to the moratorium generally have been made for native peoples, such as the Makah, who traditionally had hunted whales and used their meat as a major part of their diet. These regulations are not adhered to by all nations, including some members of the commission (which now has 76 member nations), and whales continued to be hunted by Norway and Iceland and, for research purposes, by Japan. The majority of whales taken in recent years have been by the Norwegian and Japanese fleets. The killing of whales for research, while permitted under IWC regulations, is opposed by many as unnecessary. Opponents of whaling believe it has been abused and should be abolished, and activist antiwhaling organizations also have attempted to interfere with such whaling. In 2010 Australia brought a case to the International Court of Justice in which it asserted that Japan's Antarctic whaling program was not for scientific research, and in 2014 the ICJ ruled against Japan and ordered the program ended. The ruling did not affect Japanese whaling off the country's coast, and Japan later said it intended to resume Antarctic whaling under a new research plan in 2015.

In 2003 the IWC voted to expand its main functions to include whale conservation. The Indian Ocean and the ocean waters off Mexico, a number of South Pacific island nations and territories, and Antarctica have been designated whale sanctuaries. The protective efforts have allowed some species to return to numbers that will probably assure their survival, but others, especially the right whales, remain severely depleted in numbers and endangered. In 2006, however, after more nations favoring commercial whaling joined the IWC, it narrowly voted to support the eventual return of commercial whaling.


See J. T. Travis, A History of the Whale Fisheries (1921); C. Ashley, The Yankee Whaler (1926, 2d ed. 1942); A. Church, Whale Ships and Whaling (1938); F. R. Dulles, Lowered Boats: A Chronicle of American Whaling (1933); E. Stackpole, The Sea-Hunters: The New England Whaleman … 1635–1835 (1953); F. Crisp, The Adventure of Whaling (1954); A. Whipple, Yankee Whalers in the South Seas (1954); E. Ash, Whaler's Eye (1962); L. H. Matthews et al., The Whale (1968); G. L. Small, The Blue Whale (1971); J. N. Tennessen and A. Johnsen, The History of Modern Whaling (tr. 1982); D. Day, The Whale War (1987); E. J. Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (2007). See also IWC, The Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (1999–).

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The American whaling industry started on Long Island in the mid-1600s and by the end of the century had expanded to Cape Cod and Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. Colonists off the coasts of North Carolina, Delaware, and New Jersey also developed fledgling whaling operations, but it was New England that came to dominate the industry. In the period from 1754 to 1829, the New England whale fishery far outpaced the rest of the world in expertise and in the size, geographic reach, and economic productivity of whaling enterprises.

A ready supply of Atlantic right whales in New England waters, combined with knowledge of an existing demand for whale products in Europe, gave colonists the initial idea that whaling might be profitable. Whale oil fueled lamps and lubricated machinery. A fat, it served as an ingredient in the manufacture of soap. Right whales, humpbacks, and several other whale species also had baleen plates in their mouths. Like modern-day plastic, baleen was firm yet flexible, making it a valuable component in women's corsets, umbrellas, and luggage. Sperm whales lacked baleen but had a waxy oil in their heads that proved to be ideal for candle making.

At first, New Englanders targeted right whales and set up shore stations from which men kept lookout, with whaleboats and try-pots for boiling blubber into oil standing ready on the beach. American Indian men, sometimes by their own choice but often by the more coercive means of debt indenture, made up the majority of the whaling industry's first labor force. By the mid-eighteenth century, New England's right whale population had become scarce from overhunting, which led to two transformations of the industry. In Nantucket folklore, one turning point occurred in 1712, when Captain Christopher Hussey caught Nantucket's first sperm whale. Sperm whales increasingly became the most desired of whales, a trend that would continue into the first half of the nineteenth century, when the American whaling industry reached its peak. The second innovation developed around 1750 and involved putting try-pots permanently on board oceangoing vessels, thereby freeing the manufacturing process from its prior dependence on shore stations.

Although American shorewhaling continued into the early twentieth century, deep-sea whaling for sperm whales emerged as the major type of whaling activity in the 1750s. Oceangoing vessels increased in size and spent longer periods away from home ports; by the 1820s a whaling ship typically had twenty to twenty-five men aboard and went on voyages of about three years. Otherwise, in the decades preceding and following the American Revolution, the economic and technological aspects of whale hunting showed continuity over time. Upon sighting a whale, whether from shore or from a ship, crews of six or eight men rushed to whaleboats to give chase. They attached a line to the whale by throwing a harpoon at it and then lanced it to death, after which they towed it back to the ship. They boiled the blubber into oil and stowed it away in barrels below deck. As the whaling industry grew in size and wealth, American Indians still labored as whalemen but as part of crews composed largely of white and African American men drawn from New England and the mid-Atlantic states. The dangers and enormous risks entailed in a whaling venture probably explain the unusual pay structure: instead of earning wages, whalemen received a "lay" or share of the whaling profits after the owners and other investors had taken their share—that is, if there were any profits.

impact of the american revolution

From the Seven Years' War (1756–63) to the War of 1812, war wreaked havoc on the whaling industry as privateers attacked and appropriated whaling vessels and American whalemen faced impressment. The American Revolution had a particularly devastating impact on the American whaling industry, for Britain had bought most of the whale oil that American colonists produced. Whaling communities tended to be Loyalist, especially Nantucket, which had little other industry besides whaling. When the Revolutionary War started, Nantucket's merchants and shipowners made protestations of neutrality and schemed to keep alive their trade with Britain. Immediately after the Revolution, the British adopted a punitive duty on American imports of whale products, and many Nantucketers were seduced away to Nova Scotia, France, and Wales in hopes of rebuilding their whaling enterprises out of a European port. American whaling all but disappeared during the war and did not embark on a full recovery until the War of 1812 ended, in 1815. Most American whaling families eventually returned to the United States, to Nantucket itself or to the more recently founded whaling cities of Hudson, New York, and New Bedford, Massachusetts.

expansion to the pacific

The American whaling industry was in flux in the 1790s for another reason: the opening up of the Pacific Ocean as a rich new territory ripe for sperm whaling. The first generation of American whaling vessels to return from the Pacific arrived back at New Bedford and Nantucket in 1793, kicking off several decades of rapid expansion of the industry. From the 1810s to the 1820s, whaling voyages out of American ports more than doubled, from about four hundred voyages to over a thousand. Also in the 1820s, New Bedford, Massachusetts, overtook Nantucket to become the whaling capital of the world. The other most active whaling ports at that time were Fairhaven and Westport located near New Bedford; New London, Connecticut; Provincetown on Cape Cod; and Sag Harbor on Long Island, New York. Besides bringing wealth to elite whaling families such as the Coffins, Rotches, and Howlands, whaling led Americans to venture into distant seas, where they played an influential role in the expansion of American influence abroad and in disseminating knowledge about Africa, South America, the Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan to those Americans who remained at home.


Davis, Lance E., Robert E. Gallman, and Karin Gleiter. In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity, and Profits in American Whaling, 1816–1906. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Ellis, Richard. Men and Whales. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Norling, Lisa. Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720–1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Starbuck, Alexander. The History of Nantucket: County, Island, and Town, Including Genealogies of First Settlers. 2 vols. 1924. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1998.

Vickers, Daniel. "Nantucket Whalemen in the Deep-Sea Fishery: The Changing Anatomy of an Early American Labor Force." Journal of American History 72, no. 2 (1985): 277–296.

Nancy Shoemaker

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Although subsistence whaling by aboriginal peoples has been carried on for thousands of years, it is mainly within about
the last thousand years that humans have pursued whales for commercial gain. The history of whaling may be divided into three periods: the historical whaling era, from 1000 a.d. to 1864-1871; the modern whaling era, from 1864-1871 to the 1970s; and the decline of whaling, from the 1970s to the present.

The Basques of northern Spain were the earliest commercial whalers. Concentrating on the capture of right whales (Baleana glacialis ), Basque whaling spread over most of the northern Pacific Ocean as local populations dwindled from overhunting . Like many whales that were later hunted to near extinction , the right whale was a slow-moving and coastal species .

Commercial whaling is considered to have begun when the Basques took their whaling across the Atlantic to Newfoundland and Labrador in about 1530, where between 25,000 and 40,000 whales were taken over the next 80 years. The search for the bowhead whale (Baleana mysticetus ) in the Arctic Ocean and the sperm whale (Physeter catadon ) in the Atlantic and Pacific provided useful whale oil, waxes, and whalebone (actually the baleen from the whale's upper jaw). The oil proved to be an excellent lubricant and was used as fuel for lighting. Waxes from body tissues made household candles. A digestive chemical was employed as a fixative in perfumes. Baleen served the same purposes as many plastics and light metals would today, and was used in umbrella ribs, corset stays, and buggy whips.

The first species targeted were slow swimmers that stayed close to the coasts, making them easy prey. Whalers used sail and oar-powered vessels and threw harpoons to capture their prey, then dragged it back to the mainland. As technology improved and the slow-swimming whales began to disappear, whalers sought the larger and fasterswimming whales.

The historical whaling period ended for several reasons. At the end of the nineteenth century, petroleum was discovered to be a good substitute for whale oil in lamps. Also, the whales that were so easily caught were becoming scarce. The technology required to take advantage of larger and faster whales was first used by a Norwegian sealing captain, Svend Foyn. Between 1864 and 1871, he combined the steam-powered boat, cannon-fired harpoon, grenadetipped harpoon head, and a rubber compensator to absorb the shock on harpoon lines to catch the whales. A steam-powered winch brought the catch in. Although the American whaler, Thomas Welcome Roys, was responsible for much of the development of the rocket harpoon, it was Foyn and the Norwegians who packaged the technology that would dominate whaling for the next century.

Modern whaling expanded in two sequences. In the earlier period, whaling was dominated by the spread of whaling stations in the European Arctic and around Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. At the same time, it spread on the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States, around South Africa, Australia , and most significantly, Antarctica . Before 1925, whaling was tied to shore processing stations and could still be regulated from the shore. After 1925, that system broke down as the stern-slipway floating factory was developed, making it unnecessary for whalers to come ashore.

During the modern whaling period, many populations were brought near extinction as no international quotas or regulations existed. Sperm whales once numbered in the millions, and between 1804 and 1876, United States whalers alone killed an estimated 225,000. The gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus ) has disappeared in the North Atlantic due to early whaling, although Pacific populations have rebounded significantly. The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus ), the largest mammal on earth, was preferred by whalers for its size after improved technology enabled them to be captured. Though protected since 1966, the blue whale has been slow to regain its numbers, and there may be less than 1,000 of these creatures left in the world. Also slow to recover has been the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus ), which was hunted intensively after blue whales became less numerous.

As more whales were hunted and populations diminished, the need for an international regulatory agency became apparent. The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling of 1946 formed the International Whaling Commission (IWC), consisting of 38 member nations for this purpose, but the group was largely ineffectual for about 20 years. Growing environmental and political pressure during the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the establishment of the New Management Procedure (NMP) that scientifically assessed whale populations to determine safe catch limits. In 1982 IWC decided to suspend all commercial whaling as of 1986, to reopen in 1996, or when populations had rebounded enough to maintain a sustained yield.

However, as of 1993, some whaling nations, Japan and Norway in particular, threatened to leave the commission and resume commercial whaling. Iceland has already left the association. Meanwhile, the IWC is looking forward to new projects, including the protection of dolphins and porpoises.

Today, whaling is permitted by aboriginal groups in Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, and Siberia. Unregulated "pirate whalers" continue to kill and market whale meat, and scientific whaling continues to supply meat products primarily to the Japanese market. At the same time, various scientific specialty groups are working on comprehensive population assessments.

Because of migratory habits and the difficulty in sighting deep ocean whales, it is difficult to accurately estimate their population levels. In many cases, it is impossible to ascertain whether or not a species is in danger. It is clear, though, that the world's whales cannot sustain hunting at anywhere near the rates they had been harvested in the past.

See also American Cetacean Society; Environmental law; Migration

[David A. Duffus ]



Credlund, A. G. Whales and Whaling. New York: Seven Hills Books, 1983.

Tonnessen, J. N., and A. O. Johnsen. The History of Modern Whaling. London: Hurst and Co., 1982.


Holy, S. J. "Whale Mining, Whale Saving." Marine Policy (July 1985): 192213.

M'Gonigle, R. M. "The 'Economizing' of Ecology: Why Big, Rare Whales Still Die." Ecology Law Quarterly 9 (1980): 119237.

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WHALING. Whaling, or the commercial hunting of whales, results in oil, ambergris, whalebone, meat, and other various by-products. Whale oil is used as a lubricant and as an additive in soapmaking, while ambergris is valued as a fixative in perfumes.

Native Americans had long hunted the great beasts by the time European settlers began to colonize the New World in the early seventeenth century. For the most part, indigenous people processed whale carcasses that washed up on beaches; however, some used canoes to pursue whales that swam into coastal waters.

By 1640, white settlers, who had brought with them knowledge of European whaling techniques, had established their own organized whaling efforts in Long Island and in parts of New England. The colonial whalemen towed harpooned whales to shore from small boats. They then removed blubber and bone, extracting the oil by boiling the blubber in large cast iron kettles called trypots.

Eventually, whale numbers near shore declined, and the colonists began hunting whales in single-masted sloops. As demand increased, whalemen undertook longer voyages of up to several years to find their quarry. The year 1774 saw the peak of colonial whaling when at least 350 vessels sailed from ports in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York. Nantucket Island and New Bedford in Massachusetts eventually became important whaling centers. Other significant whaling ports included Provincetown, Massachusetts; New London, Connecticut; San Francisco; and Sag Harbor, New York.

Just two years later, the industry was collapsing because of the British blockade of colonial ports during the Revolutionary War; in addition, the Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 forced whaleships to lie idle. Several resourceful shipowners, the Rotches of New Bedford for example, went to France and conducted whaling from foreign shores.

Whaling burgeoned during the peaceful years that followed, and by the mid-1800s, the industry counted 736 vessels and seventy thousand people. Sperm whale oil peaked in 1843 with a production of 5.26 million gallons. Whale oil production reached 11.59 million gallons in 1845, and more than 5.65 million pounds of whalebone was retrieved in 1853.

The discovery of petroleum, a product superior to whale oil for lighting, in 1859 signaled the beginning of the end for the lucrative whaling industry. Other factors contributing to the decline of whaling included the loss of thirty-seven New Bedford vessels that were sunk during the Civil War followed by the Arctic disasters of 1871 and 1876, in which forty-five more New Bedford ships were lost to ice. The development of spring steel, which replaced the market for whalebone, coupled with diminishing whale populations, also contributed to the industry's downfall. The last American whaling vessel made final port in San Francisco on 28 October 1928, although several whaling voyages under the American flag were made from foreign ports until around 1938.

International Whaling Commission

After World War II, a convention held in Washington, D.C., resulted in the creation of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), an organization of twenty-four countries that participated in whaling. Regulating most of the world's whaling activities, the commission set specific limits on the numbers and species of whales that could be hunted. Today, the IWC lists forty-eight members worldwide, from Antigua to the United States. Besides setting catch limits and creating sanctuaries, the commission funds whale research.

The attempt to place limits on whaling has become a volatile issue. Many nations do not recognize IWC authority and have continued to hunt whales. In response, environmental and wildlife groups, among them Greenpeace, an environmental activist group, have made attempts to stop all whaling. The Japan Whaling Association contends that whaling is an integral part of Japan's history and culture and defends the country's continued whaling. Norway, the only country that objected to the IWC's 1982 moratorium on whaling, continues its whale hunts; in 2000, Norway took 487 small whales that yielded 713 tons of meat (valued at roughly $2.5 million) and ninety-six tons of blubber.


Busch, Briton Cooper. Whaling Will Never Do for Me: The American Whaleman in the Nineteenth Century. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

Ellis, Richard. Men and Whales. New York: Knopf, 1991.

International Whaling Commission. Home page at http://www.iwcoffice.org.

Ronnberg, Eric A. R. To Build a Whaleboat: Historical Notes and a Model Makers Guide. Bogota, N.J.: Model Shipways Co., 1985.

Webb, Robert Lloyd. On the Northwest: Commercial Whaling in the Pacific Northwest, 1790–1967. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988.

Works Progress Administration. Whaling Masters. New Bedford, Mass.: Old Dartmouth Historical Society, 1938.


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Whaling, which is the hunting and killing of whales, is an activity that dates back centuries. Native people like the Macah, Nootka, and Coastal Salish of the Pacific Northwest are known to have hunted whales nearly 2,000 years ago. Whaling became popular with Europeans when they colonized North America in the late 1600s. By 1672, whaling parties were organized off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts and off of Long Island in New York. However, by the early 1700s, the number of whales that close to shore had already begun to decline, so larger ships called sloops were developed that could capture whales farther off shore.

In the late 1800s, whaling had become a thriving commercial industry. Two of the most commonly hunted whales were the right whale and the sperm whale. The right whale was so named because it was the "right" whale to catch. It floated after it was killed and so it was easy to recover from the ocean. Sperm whales were highly prized for their spermaceti, an oil found in their heads and used for making candles.

Whales had a variety of commercial uses. Whale oil was used for lubrication, lighting, cosmetics, and food. Whale bones were ground and sold as fertilizer and animal feed supplements. The baleen (horn-like substance that hang from the upper jaws of some whales) from whales was once commonly used in women's corsets (an undergarment). A type of fat called ambergris was occasionally found in the intestines of whales and sold for great sums of money. It was used to make perfume. Today, there are substitutes for all of the products that whales supplied.

The decline of whales

The whaling industry quickly overwhelmed the stocks of whales in the ocean. It is estimated that 4.4 million large whales swam in the oceans in 1900. By 2004, the estimates are that only 1 million are left. Of the 11 species of whales that are commonly hunted, in 1999, 8 were commercially extinct, which means that they are too rare to justify the expense of hunting. The blue whale is in danger of becoming totally extinct (no longer in existence). When commercial blue whale hunting ended in 1964, only about 1,000 animals were left and that may be too small a number for the population to recover.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 in order to develop guidelines to maintain whale stocks and allow for a healthy whaling industry. In response to the declining numbers of whales in the oceans, the IWC banned all commercial whaling in 1986. Because their countries depend on a whaling industry, Norway withdrew from the IWC in 1993 and Iceland withdrew in 1996. Japan never stopped hunting whales, even when the ban was in place. These three countries currently hunt the minke whale in Arctic waters.

Several whale sanctuaries (areas where whales may not be hunted) have been imposed by the IWC. The Indian Ocean Sanctuary, established in 1979, prevents whaling in the southern Indian Ocean, in the feeding grounds of many large whales. In 1994, the IWC voted to make the oceans around Antarctica—where many species of large whales feed—a conservation area from whalers. This sanctuary neighbors the Indian Ocean Sanctuary. Unfortunately, this sanctuary is often ignored. Both Norway and Japan have killed whales in these waters since the sanctuaries were established.

The conservation efforts of the IWC have resulted in increases in numbers of whales. Since the commercial whaling ban was put in place, estimates of blue whales off the coast of California increased from 500 in 1979 to more than 2000 in 1991. Similarly, approximately 88 humpback whales were observed off the coast of California in 1979, while more than 600 were observed in 1991. The California gray whale was nearly extinct in 1986. Since then, its numbers have rebounded dramatically to approximately 26,000 animals in 2000. In 1993, it was removed from the endangered species list.

Juli Berwald, Ph.D.

For More Information


Garrison, Tom. Oceanography. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999.

Gross, Grant. Oceanography: A View of the Earth. 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Murphy, Jim. The Journal of Brian Doyle: A Greenhorn on an Alaskan Whaling Ship (My Name Is America). New York: Scholastic, 2004.


Bryant, Peter J. "Whaling and Fishing." Biodiversity and Conservation: A Hypertext Book.http://darwin.bio.uci.edu/~sustain/bio65/lec04/b65lec04.htm#top (accessed on August 24, 2004).

International Whaling Commission.http://www.iwcoffice.org/index.htm (accessed on August 24, 2004).

"Overview of American Whaling." The New Bedford Whaling Museum.http://www.whalingmuseum.org/kendall/index_KI.html (accessed on August 24, 2004).

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The hunting of whales for food, oil, or both.

The hunting of whales by Eskimos and Native Americans began around 100 a.d. in North America. In Europe the systematic hunting of whales began during the Middle Ages and greatly expanded in the seventeenth century. Whaling was driven by the desire to procure whale oil and sperm oil. Whale oil comes from baleen whales and is an edible product that was used in the making of margarine and cooking oil. Sperm oil, which comes from sperm whales, was used for illuminating lamps, as an industrial lubricant, and as a component of soaps, cosmetics, and perfumes.

During the nineteenth century, the U.S. whaling fleet dominated the world industry. Most of the seven hundred U.S. ships sailed out of New Bedford and Nantucket, Massachusetts. However, the industry went into a steep decline with the discovery and exploitation of petroleum during the late nineteenth century. Though new uses for sperm oil were developed, the U.S. fleet gradually disappeared.

In the early twentieth century, concerns were raised about the dwindling whale population. An international movement to regulate the hunting of whales met resistance from Scandinavian countries and Japan, but in 1931 the league of nations convened a Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. It proved unsuccessful because several important whaling states refused to participate.

Annual international whaling conferences led to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1946, which established the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The IWC was charged with the conservation of whale stocks. It limited the annual Antarctic kill and created closed areas and hunting seasons throughout the world. Despite these initiatives and others over the years, the whale population edged closer to extinction, and the IWC agreed in 1982 to prohibit commercial whaling beginning in 1986. Commercial whaling has continued, however, often under the fiction of capturing specimens for scientific research.

In 1990 a scientific study was begun to determine if the whaling moratorium should be lifted. Though the study indicated that whale populations were growing, in 1993 the United States refused to agree to a resumption of commercial whaling, and the IWC agreed. The United States warned that if a country (primarily Japan, Norway, or Iceland) ignored the IWC conservation program and resumed commercial whaling without IWC approval, that country's actions would be reviewed, and sanctions would be considered where appropriate.

further readings

Freeman, Milton M. R., et al. 1998. Inuit, Whaling, and Sustainability. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press.


Environmental Law; Fish and Fishing.

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Sixteenth-century accounts of Brazil contain numerous references to whales, although whaling was apparently never undertaken during the century. Several species, including gray, blue, humpback, and sperm whales, migrated to protected points along the Brazilian coast from June to August for breeding purposes, and their presence soon attracted mercantile interest. Around 1602 Biscayan fishermen introduced whaling to the Bay of All Saints at Salvador, Bahia. Simultaneously, the Portuguese crown declared the capture of whales and the preparation of derivatives a royal monopoly. During the rest of the seventeenth century, whaling stations spread from Bahia north to Pernambuco and Paraíba and south to Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Santa Catarina on the basis of regionalized royal grants. In 1743, however, the grants pertaining to operations from Rio de Janeiro to Santa Catarina were incorporated into a single privilege, and by 1765 Pombaline policy dictated the consolidation of all Brazilian whaling activity into one exclusive grant. This consolidated privilege prevailed until 1801, when the royal monopoly was terminated.

Contrary to the designs of liberal crown policy, rather than attracting fresh entrepreneurial energy to whaling, the suspension of exclusive privilege marked the beginning of a process of stagnation and decline of a once prosperous industry. Few investors were willing to risk their capital in whaling, given that two centuries of particularly predatory practices had greatly depleted the whale populations (females, for example, were lured to whalers by way of the capture of suckling offspring). Likewise, routine refining and preparatory processes had rendered Brazilian whale oil, meat, baleen, and spermaceti inferior in quality and high in price when compared with foreign products. By the mid-nineteenth century, Brazilian whaling had succumbed to European and U.S. competition, although sporadic activity continued into the twentieth century. However, the Brazilian government officially ended whaling in 1985, and in 2000, then President Fernando Henrique Cardoso approved the nation's first whale sanctuary.

See alsoFishing Industry .


An authoritative history of Brazilian whaling is Myriam Ellis, A baleia no Brasil colonial (1969). See also Caio Prado Júnior, The Colonial Background of Modern Brazil, translated by Suzette Macedo (1967), pp. 217-218; Andrée Mansuy-Diniz Silva, "Imperial Reorganization, 1750–1808," in Colonial Brazil, edited by Leslie Bethell (1987), pp. 261-269.

Additional Bibliography

Souza, Miguel Augusto Gonçalves de. O descobrimento e a colonização portuguesa no Brasil. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Editora Itatiaia, 2000.

                                      Douglas Cole Libby

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