Whaling and whale oil

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Whale oil is oil made from the boiled blubber of whales. It was widely used during the 19th and early 20th centuries. With the widespread use of whale oil during this time, whaling was also at its peak, with thousands of sailors employed in hunting whales for their blubber.

A Brief history of whaling

Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen circa 1690 by Abraham Storck

Although whaling reached its peak during the 19th and 20th centuries, it had been practiced for thousands of years, usually by societies such as the ancient Norwegians and Japanese, who had strong cultural ties to the ocean. Whaling started becoming important commercially around the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when whale oil was used for oil lamps and whalebones were used for corsets. Eventually, whale oil began being used in candles as well and whalebones were made into hoop skirts. As the demand for whale products increased, so did the need for more whalers, and more whales. With whale hunting increasing, finding whales along the Atlantic coastline became more difficult, and whalers started traveling farther to places such as the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans.[1] Around the time whaling peaked in the United States in the mid-1850’s, new technology was beginning to make whaling easier and more efficient. Harpoon guns appeared around 1850 and explosive harpoons came around about a decade later.[2] Whaling in the U.S. eventually began to decline, possibly due in part to the negative affect of the Civil War on whaling fleets and declining stocks. Fortunately for the whales, oil was struck in Pennsylvania, and the petroleum industry that opened in 1859 offered an alternative to whale oil.[3]

Imports of whale oil(blue line) and sperm oil (red line)between 1805 and 1905

Although whaling in America began declining after the mid-1800’s, other countries continued their whaling operations, and with better boats and technology, were able to make whaling extremely efficient while further reducing whale populations around the world. In addition to the greater ease of whale catching, protective quotas regulating the number of whales caught were routinely ignored so that by the time the United Nations called for a ban on whaling in 1972, some species were at the point of extinction.[4]

Types of whale oil

Whale oil is often used as a general term for the oil made from boiled blubber; however, different types of oily substances were taken from whales for commercial products. The primary whale products, not including baleen (mentioned below), are sperm oil, spermaceti, whale oil, and ambergris.

  • Sperm oil is oil from sperm whale blubber and is distinctive because of its light color and valuable qualities. It produces a clear, bright light when burned and does not produce smoke or a foul odor, it retains lubricating qualities under high temperatures, and the refining process for sperm oil produces quality soaps.
  • Spermaceti, also known as head oil or head matter, is a liquid wax found in the heads of sperm whales which crystallizes when it comes in contact with air. Like sperm oil, it burns clear, bright, and with no odor, but because it is a wax, it was used primarily in candles rather than oil lamps. Spermaceti made the highest quality candles which were used as a standard for photometric measurements.
  • Whale oil, also known as train oil, is oil from whales other than sperm whales. Its color was usually a shade of brown and, although not as high quality as sperm oil, was used for many of the same products: candles, lubricants, and more (see below). The primary sources of whale oil were right whales, bowhead whales, and humpback whales.
  • Ambergris was a waxy substance sometimes found in the whales’ intestines. It hardened upon contact with the air and, in the realm of ocean products, its value was only exceeded by pearls and coral.[5]

Uses of whale oil

Whale oil was used for a variety of purposes over the years. Its best known usage was for illumination in gas lamps because it burned brighter and clearer without a foul odor, but it was also used in candles and had other more modern uses. Some of the uses of whale oil over the years include:[6][7]

SpermOil.jpg
  • oil lamps/candles
  • watch oil
  • motor oil additives
  • lubricant for delicate instruments
  • glycerine
  • cosmetics
  • rust-proofing compounds
  • detergents
  • leather tanning
  • typewriter ribbons
  • perfumes
  • pharmaceutical compounds
  • soaps
  • vitamins

Aside from the uses of whale oil, whaling also produced many products from baleen, the long strips of keratin that baleen whales use instead of teeth. These products included: carriage springs, corset stays, fishing rods, frames for bags, trunks, and hats, hoop skirts, buggy whips, and umbrella/parasol ribs. The demand for these products may have helped keep the whaling industry afloat after the Civil War and the discovery of petroleum.[8]

Environmental effects of whaling

A Humpback Whale

The primary environmental effect of whaling is the overfishing of whales, which can lead to the endangerment or extinction of certain species. Overfishing can also create problems by causing imbalances and instability in the food chain and ecosystem. The decades of intense whaling took its toll on the whale populations, so that by the 1970’s the United States had eight whale species listed as endangered. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in 1946 to try and regulate whaling and prevent overhunting, but loose regulations, high quotas, lack of enforcement, and countries that underreported catches weakened its power.

Member countries of the International Whaling Commission shaded in blue

In 1982 the IWC called for a moratorium on commercial whaling which, although voted against by Norway and Japan, went into affect in 1987.[9][10] This moratorium, along with protected sanctuaries formed in the 1970’s and 80’s and the United Nation’s call for a ban on whaling, has allowed whales that were fished to the brink of extinction to begin to recover. Some countries still hunt whales outside IWC jurisdiction, often for food, but the amount of whales caught is much fewer. Today, the whale species are not considered critically endangered. However, despite the decades long ban, some whale species’ populations are still in critical conditions: including the North Atlantic right whale, the Arctic bowhead, and the Pacific blue whale.

See also

References

  1. Big Fish: A Brief History of Whaling. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2015, from http://education.nationalgeographic.com/news/big-fish-history-whaling/
  2. Whales and Hunting | New Bedford Whaling Museum New Bedford Whaling Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2015, from http://www.whalingmuseum.org/learn/research-topics/overview-of-north-american-whaling/whales-hunting
  3. Whale Oil. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2015, from http://www.petroleumhistory.org/OilHistory/pages/Whale/whale.html
  4. Whales and Hunting | New Bedford Whaling Museum New Bedford Whaling Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2015, from http://www.whalingmuseum.org/learn/research-topics/overview-of-north-american-whaling/whales-hunting
  5. Whales and Hunting | New Bedford Whaling Museum New Bedford Whaling Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2015, from http://www.whalingmuseum.org/learn/research-topics/overview-of-north-american-whaling/whales-hunting
  6. Whale Oil Uses. (n.d.). Retrieved July 30, 2015, from http://www.petroleumhistory.org/OilHistory/pages/Whale/oil_uses.html
  7. Whales and Hunting | New Bedford Whaling Museum New Bedford Whaling Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2015, from http://www.whalingmuseum.org/learn/research-topics/overview-of-north-american-whaling/whales-hunting
  8. Whales and Hunting | New Bedford Whaling Museum New Bedford Whaling Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2015, from http://www.whalingmuseum.org/learn/research-topics/overview-of-north-american-whaling/whales-hunting
  9. Big Fish: A Brief History of Whaling. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2015, from http://education.nationalgeographic.com/news/big-fish-history-whaling/
  10. Whales and Hunting | New Bedford Whaling Museum New Bedford Whaling Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2015, from http://www.whalingmuseum.org/learn/research-topics/overview-of-north-american-whaling/whales-hunting

External links

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