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Reading 1: Whaling in Southeastern Massachusetts
Imagine sailors of long ago seeing a strange creature the size of a school bus splashing near their ship, only its huge back, strange head, or massive tail flashing into view. It is no wonder that early sailors thought whales to be frightful sea serpents. This fear probably lessened when whales washed ashore and people learned they could eat the meat for food and boil the fat skin called blubber to make oil for lamps.
Paintings and written records made by early people from around the world provide us with evidence that humans first began using beached whales to help them survive several thousand years ago. From whales came meat for food, oil for fuel, bones for tools, and skins for shelter. Archeological evidence, such as whale bones and tools made from whale bone found in ancient refuse pits (middens), suggests that the demand for whales grew so high that people from coastal communities and cultures from around the world began actively hunting whales.
In the Arctic communities of Northwest Alaska, whaling was central to the way of life as early as 1000 A.D. By the 1400s, Europeans from France, Holland, Great Britain, and other countries hunted whales for oil and whalebone. Some European ships went whaling off Greenland as early as the 1500s. However, the first known commercial whalers were the Basques from Spain who voyaged to North America during the 16th century. The Basques held a long heritage of whaling in their home waters, the Bay of Biscay. In the early 17th century, whaling became an organized industry in Japan. Similar to the native Alaskan whaling industry, Japanese whaling was founded on great tradition and ceremony.
The Pilgrims were familiar with the utility of whale oil when they arrived on Cape Cod in 1620, but learned how to hunt whales from American Indians. The Wampanoag, a local Southern New England tribe, taught the Pilgrims their techniques for drift and inshore whaling. Drift whaling was harvesting a whale that washed up on onshore, while inshore whaling was hunting whales close to shore in small boats with harpoons made with sticks, stones, and bones. The Wampanoag thought of whales as gifts from the gods as whales provided them with food, bones for tools, and other survival needs. By the late 1600s, whale products and income from their sale had become so important to colonists that every Cape Cod town had residents practicing whaling to support themselves.
As the population of America grew so did the demand for whale products. Thus more people and communities became interested in learning and profiting from the whaling trade. Nantucket's 14 mile offshore location gave it an advantage in searching for whales feeding and migrating past Cape Cod. In 1690, the people of Nantucket Island recruited Icabod Paddock, a Cape Codder, to teach them how to whale. Early on, Nantucket whaleboats remained in local waters as they searched for whales. However, American whaling lore states that in 1712 offshore whaling was started when a Nantucket whaler was blown out to sea by a gale into the middle of a pod of sperm whales. The men aboard the whaler seized their luck and took some of the sperm whales. These men learned that the blubber from the toothed whales produced high quality oil, as well as a waxy substance called spermaceti and ambergris. Ambergris was used in making perfumes and spermaceti was made into smokeless candles that produced a bright, clear light.
Whalers also profited from whale baleen. Baleen is a flexible material, up to 12 feet long and 6 inches wide, found in the mouths of toothless whales. Baleen grows in a comb like row and hangs from the whale's jawbone. The baleen acts like a spaghetti strainer, letting water out of the whale's mouth while keeping the food in. Because of its versatility and strength, baleen was fabricated into a multitude of functional and decorative objects, from baskets to fishing line to frames of petticoats. The raw material is comparable to present-day plastics and was commonly used by the brush industry for bristles. In the 20th century, baleen was eventually replaced with spring steel and plastics.
The profits from whaling were high due to the fact that so many parts of the whale could be used. As a result, the increased whaling activity caused all whale populations to drastically decline in the Atlantic Ocean. Whalers then needed to go farther and farther away from their homeports to make a profit. As voyages became longer, the ships were redesigned to be wider, longer, and sturdier to carry the necessary number of men, food, and equipment, for 2 to 4 year voyages. However, these larger vessels could not cross the sandbars at Nantucket's harbor entrance because the water was too shallow. Large whaling vessels had to unload their products onto smaller ships that could then bring the products to land. Eventually, New Bedford became New England's busiest whaling port, as it had a deep harbor and a railway system that could transport whale products to many destinations.
In 1868, the harpoon gun, a gun used to fire a spearlike weapon with a barbed head, was invented. Later, explosive harpoons and faster steam powered factory ships hunted humpback, fin, and blue whales that had been too swift for the sailing ships to follow. These technological advances reduced whale populations so that some species were in danger of extinction. Whales became so rare that in 1946 the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was signed and the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established to oversee whale populations and establish guidelines for the whaling industry. In 1986, IWC approved a resolution to end commercial whaling, though some countries continue to whale. Today, the populations of many whale species are increasing, but the North Atlantic right whale and the southern blue whale remain in danger of extinction.
Questions for Reading 1
1. List the different groups of people mentioned in this reading who hunted whales. Why did they hunt whales?
2. What parts of a whale are mentioned as being useful? How were they used? What new materials were later developed with advancing technology to replace baleen?
3. Why were whaling ships redesigned to be larger and sturdier? What effect did this have on the Nantucket and New Bedford whaling industries?
4. What reduced some whale populations nearly to the point of extinction? What steps were taken to reduce this risk? What dangers do you think still threaten the survival of whales?
Reading 1 was adapted from documents at the archives of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, New Bedford, MA and Julie A. Lauffenburger, "Baleen in Museum Collections: Its Sources, Uses, and Identification," Journal of the American Institute of for Conservation, 1993, Volume 32, Number 3, Article 1, pp. 213-230.