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12 Brutal Facts That Prove Whaling Was One of the Worst Industries Ever

Updated June 14, 2019 25.7k views12 items

In the United States, the whaling industry hit its peak in the middle of the 19th century. Whaling during the 1800s was a dangerous and brutal profession, with occupational hazards including death by drowning, injury, disease, and even whale attacks on the longboats sent to capture them. Hunting whales involved months of tedium combined with moments of extreme danger and chaos. One of the most famous American novels ever written, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, incorporates the brutality, danger, and adventure that was part of 19th-century whaling.

In modern times, international agreements and protests from conservationist groups have significantly decreased the whaling industry in most parts of the world - the International Whaling Commission effectively banning whaling in 1986. It's been effective: Japan, in particular, has decreased its whale meat consumption from 233,000 tons in 1962 to just 3,000 tons in 2016, according to government data reported by the New York Times. However, in December 2018, Japan announced its withdrawl from the Commission and its intent to promote commercial whale trade, citing a lack of sustainability in the fishing and whaling industries by the groups attempting to eradicate it. “In its long history, Japan has used whales not only as a source of protein but also for a variety of other purposes,” Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said. “Engagement in whaling has been supporting local communities, and thereby developed the life and culture of using whales.”

The international community is not happy about this news, and it's unsurprising, considering the true whaling stories that inspired Melville's Moby Dick range from gruesome to graphic to astounding. Updates to whaling technology doesn't mean the practice has evolved - but time will tell whether Japan can create a sustainable industry that looks far different than the whaling industry of the past. 

  • Retrieving A Dead Whale Was Exhausting And Messy

    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    Once a whale was dead, it was tied to the longboat that captured it and then the other longboats tied up to this boat in a long line. The crew members would then have to row back to the ship, a difficult and tiring process. Harpoons and attached lines would have to be removed, which was also difficult because the whale would typically roll over on to its back once it was dead, leaving the attached lines well under the water.

    Once a whale was alongside of the ship, it would be raised and stretched by two block and tackle devices that pulled both the head and the tail, raising the carcass out of the water. Typically, the crew would have a meal before starting the process of chopping the blubber off of the whale, a procedure that could remove 20 tons of whale fat in a little over three hours.  

  • Processing A Dead Whale Was Disgusting And Dangerous Work

    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    Once a dead whale was secured beside a whaling ship, the entire crew would methodically begin the process of converting the whale into workable components. First, the whale's blubber (or outer fat layer) would be carved into long strips and tossed on to the deck of the ship. Here other crew members would chop the blubber into smaller pieces and toss them into the kettles used to boil the blubber for oil. Bones would be scraped and then set out to dry so that they could processed into usable products.

    Whaling crews typically used "monkey belts" tied around their waists to hang over the side of the ship. If they fell, the sailors either drowned or were eaten by sharks already attracted by the blood from the whale's carcass

  • You Could Smell A Whaleboat At Sea Even Before You Could See It

    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    Much of the whaling industry centered around the acquisition of whale oil, which was used as fuel in the 19th century.  When a whale was caught, most of the crew would strip the blubber off of the carcass and boil it in large copper kettles that were lit 24 hours a day. The smell emanating from these kettles was constant and dreadful. One crew member described how nauseating this odor became:

    Every few minutes it becomes necessary to work at something on the lee side of the vessel, and while there you are compelled to breath in the fetid smoke of the scrap fires, until you feel as though filth had struck into your blood, and suffused every vein in your body. From this smell and taste of blubber, raw, boiling and burning, there is no relief or place of refuge. 

    It was said that a whaling ship could be smelled long before it was visible on the horizon.

  • Every Part Of The Whale Was Used

    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    Every part of the whale was utilized during the slaughtering and processing of a dead whale caught at sea. Whale oil was extracted by boiling whale blubber and was used as an illuminant and soap; spermaceti was a liquid wax from sperm whales that could be used to make candles; whale baleen, a strip in the mouths of whales used to strain krill from seawater, was like keratin and used in flexible products like whips, springs, fishing poles and umbrella ribs. Ambergris, used in perfume, was the most valuable product extracted from some whales and sold for about $40 an ounce.