Animal Info Whales History

About the history of whales from worship by the ancients to hunting and whaling in modern times, description of herd behavior.



Whales were objects of awe to Stone Age man, and of worship to the ancient Greeks. To most other peoples from prehistory on, they have been objects of the hunt, and all 10 species survive today only in remnant populations, with 8 of the 10 already approaching extinction. Although shore whaling was initiated in the 11th century by Norwegians and Basques, deep-sea whaling did not begin until the 17th century, when Nordic Europeans sailed after the Greenland right whale, a benign, slow-swimming, predictable whale whose body conveniently floats to the surface after death. New Englanders, Dutch, British, Russians, and others joined the chase, and by the turn of the century whaling pressure had cut deeply into the stocks of right, bowhead, and sperm whales. However, the slaughter of other species continued, aided by the efficient techniques of the modern "floating factories," which employ high-speed chase boats, sonar tracking, and grenade-tipped harpoons. The effect on the blue whale population has been especially devastating; their number has been reduced by an estimated nine tenths since 1946.

Today only Japan and Russia continue to carry on major offshore whaling operations, with an annual yield of over 35,000 animals. In spite of the pressure of world opinion--including a U.S. import boycott on whale products, resolutions by both houses of Congress and the AFL-CIO, official requests from the Departments of Interior and Commerce to end commercial whaling, peaceful interference by protesters on the high seas, and even a unanimous vote from the U.N. every year since 1972 calling for an immediate moratorium on world whaling--the two countries have made it clear that they intend to continue intensive whaling, although they have agreed to reduced quotas at the insistence of the International Whaling Commission.

The highly social whales are experiencing a breakdown in the herd structures so essential to breeding and the rearing of young, and although critically pressured species are breeding at increasingly younger ages, their slow reproductive rate and the vast distances now separating them work against any significant recovery of former populations, even if all whaling were in fact stopped at once. Early uses for whale products included lamp oil and candles; stiffening for crinoline, bustles, corsets, collars, whips, and fans; and ornate whale-tooth etchings known as scrimshaw. Today whale products are used mostly in the manufacture of items such as soap, wax, varnish, glycerin, cosmetics, and mink food. Sperm oil is used to manufacture munitions and lubricate everything from watches to ballistic missiles, but the principal demand comes from the Soviet space program. Substitutes exist for these products, but the whale is still a cheap, accessible source of supply.

The movements of the great whales are governed by two activities, breeding and feeding. Because the microscopic crustaceans on which baleen whales feed are most abundant in cold waters, those species spend summer months in the Arctic and Antarctic straining from the seawater a quantity of food amounting to up to 20% of their body weight daily. These Mysticetes, the largest of which have aortas large enough for a child to crawl through, have throats too small to pass even a medium-sized fish. The sperm whale, on the other hand, frequents any ocean where giant squid can be found, and swallows its food whole. In the fall, the baleen species commence a migration of as many as 3,000 mi. to scattered breeding and calving grounds in the warmer latitudes. Between the time they leave the polar seas and the time they return six months later, they eat little or nothing, living off thick reserves of subcutaneous blubber--up to half of their body weight--which also provide insulation against extremes of temperature.

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