Whale vs. whaler: Not exactly a fair fight

Before starting graduate school I didn’t know much about whaling. I, like I think most people, imagined the epic Moby Dick (which I haven’t read) and words like Nantucket, oil, and harpoon. These themes are central in the book The Essex  (which I have read) – the true story of a sperm whale sinking a whaling ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that inspired Moby Dick. In this world the hunt for whales was a heroic battle between brave, industrious men and a mysterious creature from the deep. And the outcome wasn’t certain: would the hunters and their ingenuity outmatch the mythical leviathan? This world certainly existed, but that isn’t the correct world to imagine when thinking of whaling.

When you think of whaling, don’t think of the 1860s, think of the 1960s. On one hand the environmental movement was picking up steam, and marine mammals were entering the zeitgeist: the hit show Flipper, a successful album of humpback whales singing, and the “save the whales” campaign. One the other hand, we should also think about what the whales needed saving from. In the 1960s almost 700,000 large whales were harvested commercially – in fact the 1960s were the height of whaling.

That fact was staggering to me the first time I heard it. Can that be right? When flower power was in full swing we killed 700,000 whales? It is hard to imagine that a hunt on such a large scale was happening during Woodstock. The truth is, almost 3 million large whales (blue, fin, humpback, gray, Minke, sei, right – not including dolphins and porpoises) were officially reported caught from the 1860s to present. This is the equivalent of about 180 million cattle, or 5-6 times the annual US total – in other words, slaughter on an industrial scale. So we shouldn’t think of a brave harpooner risking his life, rather a state-of-the art factory ship that could process a whale in 30 minutes. Yes, two full-sized whales an hour! The whales didn’t stand a chance. If you want to see the geographic progression of whaling, take a look at this cool animation I made showing the progression of whaling from 1900-2011.

By the 1960s we had devastated populations of whales around the world, moving on to the next after depletion one population in a blatantly unsustainable process (we call it “serial depletion”, see figure below). It’s no wonder then why popular opinion turned on the industry and by the 1990s whaling, especially for the large, valuable whales, was ramping down. (Not to say that popular opinion is why it ended, but that’s for a later topic).

Serial depletion of whale species

Serial depletion. Catches of different whale species from 1905 to present. Minke and sei whales were caught after humpack, blue, and fin were depleted and harder to find.

The 1960s were a dire time for whales, a critical moment where continued whaling seriously threatened their survival. And yet decades have passed since the world took the path of conservation, and a new generation of researchers is left to continue sorting out the aftermath of a century of over-exploitation. The previous generation that lived through the appalling slaughter will pass the torch to a generation that has a hard time comprehending the political and social climate of the 1960s. While much has been learned, our task will be to continue assessing current and future risks to whales, and in the meantime learn more about these mysterious and enigmatic creatures.

 

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