Animal Studies Bibliography
Roman, Joseph. 2005. Whale. London: Reaktion.
(Summarized by Cadi Fung, Animal Studies Program, Michigan State University)
Roman opens the book by discussing the whale as it was perceived in antiquity. The whale was feared by early sailors; some “feared that inhaling the moist air could cause dizziness and fainting fits, possibly death” (8). The whale also makes an appearance early in the Bible as the leviathan, but it was not until modern translations that whales were distinguished from other large sea animals (9). According to Roman, there was no distinction between a sea monster, cetacean, or great fish for much of recorded history.
The whale has long played an important role in mythical stories, and Roman provides many examples of these. He also describes the different ways whales were depicted in medieval imagery, often with sharp teeth, ferocious features, and a powerful spout. The spout was of particular significance, as it was usually the first sign that alerted people to a whale’s presence.
The Invention of Whaling
Chapter 2 traces the history of whaling, which is first visually depicted as a Korean petroglyph from 6000 BC (27). Although barbed darts and traps were the earliest methods of capturing whales, harpoons are what enabled humans to exploit them. In the arctic north, the bowhead whale was the animal of choice, with a 50 cm thick blubber layer and large mouth (large baleen plates). Unfortunately, young female whales were the main target. Because bowhead females are not sexually mature until their late teens or mid-twenties, bowhead reproduction decreased with the increase in hunting.
Whaling cultures in this region used almost every part of the whale: the meat, skin, and oil were consumed, baleen strips were made into toboggans, and jawbones and ribs were used as runners for sleds. Other whale bones were used for building houses and kayak frames. Because whales were integral to the survival of these people, taboos and rituals developed around the activity of whale hunting. For example, Aleut whalers rubbed “human fat or menstrual secretion on the tips of his spears,” and it was believed that human skeletons and corpses could communicate with whales (40).
The Royal Fish
This chapter highlights the Basque people, who exploited whales and were excellent whalers. Unlike the Inuit and Norwegian subsistence hunters, the Basques hunted for profit and likely invented commercial whaling. One historian estimates that they killed “as many as 40,000 right whales from the Atlantic between 1530 and 1610” (49).
As whale meat and oil rose in demand, local whale populations declined and whalers spread out across the Atlantic to search for more whales. Right whales and bowheads were the most popular and profitable to hunt, but the North Atlantic grey whale was also targeted and eventually went extinct. Whalers became extremely efficient in their hunting by learning the migration patternsseasonal abundances, and weaknesses/strengths of the whales (56). However, this efficiency allowed them to be wasteful, and many whales were killed but never retrieved.
In North America, colonialists hunted right whales along the shore of Nantucket, and shore whaling flourished in the 17th century. The school year was based around the whaling season, which occurred between December and April. By the late 1700s, the colonies supplied more whale oil to Britain than the entire British fleet in Greenland (69).
As coastal whale populations declined, whaling moved offshore and into the open ocean. Whalers targeted sperm whales because of its superior oil. Instead of processing the whale onshore, whalers now had to separate the desired parts of the whale while at sea.
Life revolved around the whale. Children went to school until they were 12, and at 14 they were sent to sea. Some young women only married men who had killed a whale; open battle ensued because of the quest for oil and bone (72). Whaling was a dangerous enterprise, resulting in many human deaths, and sometimes whales attacked and capsized ships.
A Diving Mammal
Chapter 5 describes the natural history of the whale. In the 18th century, people began figuring out that whales were in fact mammals, not fish. Cetaceans are some of the only mammals that give live birth underwater. The maternal bond between mother and calf is known to be very strong. Some whales are even known to “brave injury or sacrifice their life for their calves” (114).
Scientists concede that cetaceans are “ungulates or artiodactyls that adapted to the sea; they are evolutionarily nested among pigs and peccaries, hippos and sheep, cows and camels” (104). Whale ancestor Rhodocetus seems to have been amphibious, with webbed feet to paddle through the water (105).
The classification of whales is still debated by scientists, but in general, it is agreed that there 70 to 80 species of cetaceans divided into nine families. There are baleen and toothed (odontocete) whales; non-toothed whales feed on zooplankton, and toothed whales generally feed on fish.
Oil and Bone
In Chapter 6, Roman reiterates and elaborates on the many uses of whale parts, particularly oil and bone. Whale oil was used as fuel and in candle-making, and was also the source of glycerine (developed from the hydrogenation of whale oil). Whale bone was an important material in the creation of many household items, including shirt hoops, tongue scrapers, shoehorns, fishing rods, and corsets (121). Of all whale products, though, the most “exotic and highly prized” was ambergris – whale intestines. Ambergris was “valued as an aphrodisiac, laxative, spice, and for incense and cosmetics” (124). Beginning in the mid-1800s, however, fossil fuels and spring steel replaced the use of whale oil and bone.
In 1861, the explosive harpoon was invented. This weapon led to the crash in population of humpback and blue whales (129). With the advent of new whaling technologies and faster, more powerful hunting vessels, whaling became even easier. The use of whale oil changed, however, and eventually margarine was created from whale oil. As a result, whale oil production increased.
During times of war, whaling typically decreased, but tens of thousands of whales were killed by depth charges and bombs released from ships and planes. Up until the late 1950s, whales were used as target practice for the US Navy (134). Around the same time, whaling sites in the Southern Ocean were discovered, and whale populations everywhere steadily decreased. Eventually, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed, but was ineffective at enacting positive change.
Exhaustion and Failure
Eventually, whaling decimated whale populations. In the 1920s, commercial hunting in the Bering Sea caused a famine on St. Lawrence Island, and traditional whaling disappeared in the North Pacific (141). Whalers moved on to the Southern Hemisphere, and within a few decades, two million whales were killed, including more than 350,000 blue whales. The changing dynamics in ocean life resulted in changing diets for whales like the killer whale, which began feeding on seals and otters. The IWC essentially did nothing, and even scientists teamed up with whalers. Eventually the quota for whaling was lowered, but it was too late; populations had crashed so drastically that many were irrecoverable.
Save the Whales
What sparked the whale conservation movement? Beginning in the 1960s, artists, filmmakers, and scientists like Jacques Cousteau revealed the life of a whale to the general public. Researchers learned more about marine mammals and found that they were extremely intelligent and playful animals with incredible echolocation abilities. Movies popularized whales and dolphins, and Farley Mowat’s book A Whale for the Killing helped spark a generation of environmental activism. Greenpeace and other environmental groups formed. Non-whaling nations joined the IWC, and eventually regulations to protect whales were put in place. However, whaling nations like Japan are still a major problem in the whaling industry.
At the end of this chapter, Roman describes the ways in which whales have provided humans with entertainment throughout history. It began with the display of preserved dead whales in the 1800s, and evolved to enterprises like whale watching and wildlife encounters.
Eating the Whale
In this chapter, Roman goes into detail about the history of Japanese whale hunting, which dates back at least 1,000 years. The Japanese used every part of the whale, and each whalewas regarded as a highly valued prize (188). The souls of whales were celebrated by the whalers, and today, Japanese officials claim that whaling is an integral part of their cultural identity. The country has come under scrutiny for its continuation of commercial whaling, poorly disguised as “scientific research.” Similarly, native tribes in North America claim that whaling is an important part of their cultural heritage, and request that they be able to hunt whales as part of their cultural preservation.
This last chapter describes the relationships between whale and researcher, as well conservationists’ attempts to acquire political and economic support for marine mammals. The interest in marine mammals has grown considerably because of innovative research on communication and culture of whales and dolphins. However, whales are now under a new threat – anthropogenic oceanic noise, particularly from naval submarines. The noise and sonar are disorienting to the whales, causing them to change their songs and sometimes even strand themselves.
The chapter ends on a hopeful note, stating that some whale populations are slowly returning, while others are gaining full protection status. Conservation is increasing, as is the fascination with the creatures themselves.