Whale Hunting – Cultural Impact

How did whale hunting begin? Was it because these feared mammals were a nuisance or were man perhaps threatened by these amazingly huge creatures?

For centuries, valuable materials to cultures all over the globe were provided by the whales. The valuable materials referred to was Baleen and blubber, but nowadays substitutes to these expensive materials are consistently available, lower in cost, and no longer requires the killing of these majestic marine mammals. Long before Europeans began whale hunting, American Indians called the Inuit and other native people devoured whale meat. Whale meat supplied an important source of protein in places of the world with inadequate number of land animals available as food and in the northern regions that were affected by a growing season that was too short to sustain a base of agriculture.

The Inuits were doing whale hunting in kayaks with tools such as stone harpoons. They brought in only a few whales each year and used every part of the animal for food, tools, fuel, and even building materials. These small number of whales killed annually by the Inuits did not have that much impact on whale populations for more than a thousand years. However, whale hunting became a significant sports with the influx of European whale hunters followed by New World whale hunters.

The Europeans and New World whalers were not really interested in the meat provided by the whales, rather they were more interested in the blubber and whale bone (Baleen) supplied by these animals. Oil is fabricated from the whale meat and blubber which are used in lamps and used as a lubricant. Blubber from whales contains over sixty percent oils and once processed with the development of hydrogenation, the manufacture of margarine, lard, and shortening from whale oil began.

Whale hunting for whalers can be a profitable investment, as one right whale could give in as much as ninety barrels of oil and five hundred forty kilograms of Baleen, also known as whale bone. The strong and highly flexible Baleen was fashioned by manufacturers into buggy, umbrella stays, whips, strapping for beds, skirt hoops, brushes, and caning for chairs. The expenses for the entire voyage of whale hunting could be paid from one whale, everything else is clear profit.

In the twelfth century, the Basques of northern Spain were hunting right whales in the Bay of Biscay. Watchtowers were manned by spotters who alerted waiting boats to nearby whales. The waiting fishermen could quickly launch their rowboats to kill whales with their hand-held harpoons. When whales became scarcer, the fishermen had to go further from their home waters. By the sixteenth century, hunters for whales traveled as far as Newfoundland to do whale hunting. Soon the English launched their first whaling enterprise which was profitable, and was soon followed by the Danish, Dutch, French, German, Norwegian, and Portuguese. The competition between these countries for whale hunting resulted to divisions in coast. As the number of whalers increased, so did the numbers of right whales caught. With the decline of whale populations, whale hunting voyages moved further out to sea and into deep waters.

In 1935 by the time northern right whales were given protection, scientists estimated that there were only about a fewer than one hundred right whales left in the North Atlantic Ocean, making extinction a great possibility for these amazing majestic marine mammals.

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