Whale hunting, or whaling, has its roots in prehistoric times, as whales have always been of major value to human beings. It used to occur in waters just off the shore, which were accessible to ancient whalers. However, as technology has developed and progressed, so have the techniques used to hunt and kill whales. Sadly, this means that, no matter where they conceal themselves, they cannot escape the onslaught of human whalers.
The whaling of ancient times was suddenly boosted in the 19th century, when whale oil became a much-demanded commodity. It was used for the running of locomotives at this time, and was, as a result, known as train oil. Later, it was necessary for margarine and other products. After that, whale meat, blubber, fins and skin also grew in popularity as a resource, a foodstuff, and even a delicacy. By the 1930’s, about 50 000 whales were being slaughtered every year. As is so often the case, the human demand soon exceeded the number of whales left alive in their natural ocean environment.
In 1986, there was a ban on commercial whaling that was imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in an effort to replenish the population numbers of the remaining whale species. These efforts are believed to have prevented the extinction of a number of whale species, but whaling continues to threaten the well-being and even the survival of these gentle giants.
There are a number of whaling methods and associated threats that face these marine mammals. These include:
Invented in the 1730’s, whaling guns have not changed all that much. They are muzzle-loading weapons, but present a few complications in terms of boat safety, accuracy and effectiveness. High-powered rifles are used to kill whales today.
There are harpoons that are fired from guns and those that are launched using the strength of the arm. Since times past, harpoons were made of iron for its durability and strength. They had barbs on them to ensure that they did not simply slip out of the whale, but held their damaging grasp. Today, the harpoons are equipped with grenades, so that the whale stands very little chance of survival.
Acting as a massive knife, these were iron implements used to stab the whale to death. They would not break, but were flexible enough to twist under the powerful stabbing motions of the whalers.
One of the very common methods used today (in the few places in which whaling is legal or performed illegally) involves surrounding a pod of whales with the boats and forcing them towards the shore, where they will die on land.
Whale products continue to be of importance to many cultures and countries. These include:
This is the oil that comes from the processing of the blubber of Sperm Whales. It is set apart from the oil gleaned from other whale species in that its qualities of illumination are superior (burning with clarity and without smoke) and its excellent lubrication. One of its by-products is an excellent quality of soap. This oil was a major export for North America.
This is a liquid wax that can only be found in the head of the Sperm Whale. It crystallises as soon as it comes into contact with the air. It is known for its clean, smoke-less burning. As a result, it was used extensively in the making of candles, as well as of cosmetics, medicinal ointments, clothing, and typewriter ribbons.
This oil was often known as train oil and was acclaimed for its lubrication and illumination qualities, as well as for food. It was harvested from Right Whales, Bowhead Whales and Humpback Whales. By-products of the process included soap and a candle that burnt brighter and with practically no smoke.
The keratin baleen plates were used in a number of products, ranging from skirt hoops and corset stays to fishing poles and umbrella whips.