Whale hunting and the processing of killed whales for meat and oil have occurred since earliest times. Subsistence whaling has always been practiced by the Eskimos of the Arctic. The harvesting of whales in commercial quantities dates back at least to the 11th century.

Until recent years, the economic value of whales in human commerce was enormous. Virtually all parts of the whale have been utilized; skin for leather, cartilage for glue, teeth (of sperm whales) for SCRIMSHAW carvings. Even the sheath of the penis was highly prized; Herman Melville describes how this tube of skin, over 2 m (6.5 ft) in length, was converted by sailors into a poncholike raincovering.

Commercially desirably whale products were many. Whale oil, rendered from the blubber, was used originally for lamp fuel and later as a principal ingredient of soaps, margarine, paint oils, and lubricants. Spermacetic oil, a waxy material extracted from the head of the sperm whale, was highly prized for making candles, fine lubricants, cosmetic oils, and shoe polish. Whalebone, or baleen, the long bony plates that act as a sieve in the mouths of baleen whales, are extremely strong and flexible, and were used as stays in women's corsets. Ambergris, an odorous substance accumulated in the intestines of the sperm whale (and sometimes found washed up on beaches), acts as a stabilizer in the manufacture of perfumes and other fragrances and is still used (although today it is largely replaced by synthetics). Whale meat has always been vital in the diet of certain groups of Eskimos, and it is widely eaten in Japan.

Growth of Commercial Whaling

The first significant era of commercial whaling occurred during the 12th and 13th centuries, when captures of the Atlantic right whale by Basque whalers operating along the shores of the Bay of Biscay reached industrial proportions. Subsequent declines in the whale populations, coupled with increased demand, resulted in voyages of ever-increasing length; perhaps as early as the 14th century, Basque expeditions reached Iceland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

During the 17th century, Dutch, English, French, and German whalers pursued the Arctic right whale, or bowhead whale, along the ice edge of the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans from Spitzbergen to the Davis Strait. The initial colonization of North America during the early 17th century resulted in modest harvests of Atlantic right whales along the New England coast. The discovery (early 18th century) of the sperm whale farther offshore catapulted the U. S. whaling industry into prominence. When the tryworks, the brick ovens used for rending whale blubber, were moved from land to the decks of the whaling ships, there was no longer any need to return to shore with a load of blubber. Whaling voyages often lasted four years and more--as long as it it took to fill the oil casks in the hold. By the end of the 18th century, Yankee whaling fleets had depleted sperm-whale numbers from the Arctic to the South Atlantic.

It was at this time that Great-Grandfather Hall launched his whaling ventures. By the time of his death, in 1873, whaling had declined enormously. From a high of 700 ships when he started before 1850, in 1877 the entire fleet was reduced to 112 ships.

Right whales in prodigious numbers were discovered off the Pacific coast of South America, and by 1840 had been hunted almost to extinction. Whalers now sought right whales and bowhead whales in the Bering Sea and along the coast of Asia; they hunted gray whale along the southern California coast. By killing juvenile whales and nursing calves, and concentrating their attacks on a single species at a time, whalers eventually depleted the stocks of all hunted whales, with the exception of the gray whale.

The discovery (1859) of petroleum effectively ended the era of the great sailing fleets of whalers, as petroleum products replaced whale oil for lighting. The U. S. fleet, which once had more than 700 vessels, shrank to insignificance, as did the much smaller fleets of the European nations.


Yankee Whaling

From the beginning of large-scale whaling, whalers had used the same techniques for chasing and killing their prey. Embarking from the mother ship in small, open boats, crews of six rowed silently toward the whale. A harpooner stood in the bow of each boat. His harpoon was a heavy wooden shaft with a barbed metal tip. It was attached to a thin, strong manila line that was long enough to stay with the whale as it sounded, diving perhaps to 200 fathoms (365 m/1,200 ft). When the whale resurfaced the crew would try to snub the line around a loggerhead, while the whale dragged the boat and all at a ferocious speed across the ocean. Sometimes the wounded whale would turn and attack the boat. Sperm whales, especially, were notorious for their rages, ramming boats with their head, even crushing men and boats in their giant jaws. If the crew were lucky, however, the whale tired, finally turning belly up as it died. The whale carcass was towed to the mother ship and lashed along the side, where its blubber, a layer of fat just under the skin, was tripped off. The enormous blubber "blanket" was hacked into small pieces and rendered in the tryworks, huge iron pots heated by iron furnaces. Whale bone from baleen whales was cut out, cleaned, and bundled. The sperm whale's head was opened and a bucket used to dip out the spermaceti wax.

Life on board a whaling ship was rough and dirty, and the interminable voyages were sometimes so arduous that men deserted whenever the ship reached a port. Yet, because crew members were paid a "lay," a percentage of the eventual profits, an experienced man on a good voyage might return home relatively rich.


Modern Whaling

In the 1860s, a Norwegian, Svend Foyn, invented a cannon-fired harpoon with an explosive head. His harpoon gun was improved upon until, by the 1870s, it had reached its present form: a cylindrical steel device shot from a cannon-type gun and trailing a heavy rope. The force of the shot carried the harpoon great distances and penetrated deep into the whale's body. A charge on the tip exploded, and movable barbs opened out to fasten the weapon snugly inside the whale. Most whales sink when they die (the sperm whale is the sole exception), so dead whales were pumped full of air to keep them afloat.

The harpoon gun was the first major technological advance in the art of whaling. With the advent of engine-powered ships, other changes became inevitable. By the mid-1920s the factory ship, with its attendant fleet of "catcher" boats, was in wide use. A huge vessel carrying everything needed for extended whaling voyages, it contained modern tryworks, laboratories, refrigerators, and the machinery for reducing the entire whale to usable products.

The small catcher boats, guided by the reports of a whale spotter in a airplane--later, by helicopters or SONAR--sighted and harpooned the whale, inflated its body, and marked its position with a buoy before continuing the hunt. Factory-ship fleets would accompany a concentration of whales, killing large numbers every day until not a single whale of the group remained. Ships hunted the blue, sei, and fin whales--creatures that swam too fast for the earlier sailing ships to follow. By the 1960s, the smaller minke whale was also taken.

The sale of whale oil had once again become profitable in the early 20th century, because the HYDROGENATION process made the oil usable in soaps, shortenings, and margarines. Factory-ship pressure cookers extracted every ounce of oil from whale meat and bone,; what was left was ground into bone meal or animal feed. An entire whale could be completely disassembled and rendered into its component products in less than one hour. In the 1930s almost every industrialized seagoing nation launched factory fleets. As a result, Antarctic blue whales were decimated. The Pacific-humpback and sperm-whale populations dwindled to insignificance. Over 30,000 whales were killed annually until World War II temporarily ended the slaughter.

In the immediate postwar era the need for fats and oils to supplement meager European diets drove more whaling fleets out to sea. Yet the vastly diminished whale numbers soon made whaling a far less profitable enterprise. The United States and the European nations--with the exception of Norway and Iceland--gradually ended their whaling industries. By the 1960s, only the Soviet Union and Japan maintained factory-ship fleets.


Whaling Conservation

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in 1946 to regulate whaling on a global basis. The commission at first prohibited the killing of right and gray whales, limited the taking of other whale species, and established closed areas and seasons. Unfortunately, whaling nations were not bound by IWC rulings, and for some years whales continued to be taken in large numbers.

U. S. concern for the declining whale populations was manifest in ending the importation of all whale produces in 1970 and in the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which prohibited all commercial exploitation of whales in U. S. waters. Worldwide, a variety of wildlife and conservation organizations spoke out against the practice of commercial whaling, and sentiment grew to end whaling altogether.

In 1982 the IWC voted to impose a moratorium on all commercial whaling at the end of the 1984-85 season. (The principal whaling nations, Japan, the USSR, and Norway, agreed to the moratorium only in 1988.) The results of the cessation of whaling were to be reviewed periodically, to determine whether commercial quotas might be resumed when whale populations had been restored. A majority vote of three-quarters of the IWC membership would be necessary to amend the moratorium. Japan and Norway filed objections to the ban and continued to take small numbers of minke and sei whales for "research purposes." Lawful whale hunting by Eskimos and other aboriginal peoples may also be contributing to the critical depletion of some species.