No one admires the old Yankee (and other assorted ethnic) whalers like I do.
If I hadn’t, I couldn’t have written the book I did. I spent seven years virtually living with them while researching and writing The Lost Fleet. Many of these blubber hunters, as they were called–captains, mates, harpooners, and crewmen alike–were very great mariners and lived like heroes from Homer and overcame corresponding challenges. They had great skills in navigation and seamanship in both small boats and in large square-riggers, and courage.
They had to be both accomplished mariners and whale hunters, two not necessarily allied skills. Each time a whaleboat crew lowered, it was by no means assured if the whale or his hunters would survive the day. I’ve seen whales up fairly close, both from boats and kayaks. They are huge and gentle, even polite giants–but when attacked can be very lethal opponents. Understandably, the hunt was a rather tense experience. Using ancient weapons against an ancient enemy, the whale hunter in his boat experienced the giddy joy, camaraderie and horror of sharing great danger with five other on whom, literally, his life depended .
They were admirably, even enviably tough. They all had to suffer bad food and water, the cramped hell that was the forecastle, the hard work in the rigging in storm or calm. They performed their own crude surgeries. One Nantucket master with a crushed leg supervised the amputation of the limb himself. Another whaler from Martha’s Vineyard, having a block fall on his foot, cut the toe off before the pain set in. They also left behind art–scrimshaw and songs, to name a couple of varieties. If we evaluate a society by its arts, the whalers appear in not so bad a light. They have also left us with great and grand stories–the Essex to name just one. And they, more than any other type of explorer or mariner, typified the romantic traveler who cruises in all the world’s seas, mixing with assorted brown, red, yellow and even white natives (not necessarily to the aboriginals’ benefit), and seeing many indescribable sights.
Also, from the pragmatic point of view, the whalers were providing things people wanted or needed. They lived in a time when there were no reliable illuminants. It’s hard to imagine the need they filled. We can manufacture light now with the flip of the switch. There were no plastics or springs or lubricants to ease our lives or oil our machines. The notion of animal rights–aquatic mammals included, was virtually non-existent. A choice between a human comfort and the life of the monster of the deep was no choice at all.
But, having studied this gritty breed of men (and women), I also realize they were exterminating an intelligent form of life that has as much a right to exist and be left alone as we. I’ve seen humpback whales breach and play and hunt in groups and have a love and respect for them that borders on a passion: give me a whale over a human any day. As a New Englander, all I need to do is look just off the coast to see the effect of these brave, capable and greedy mariners. Our right whale population is still hovering near extinction. The sperm was driven away or decimated. Off California, they nearly exterminated the gray whale. Looking north to Alaska, the bowhead whale has been driven to dangerously low numbers. (We’ll skip the outrageous successes of the Scandinavian, Japanese and Soviet whaling fleets on the fin whales for now.)
Which brings me to my last point about what I like about the old Yankee whalers–they no longer exist. They’ve gone off and retired. They remain only in stories. All I that I can say about the monstrosity that is modern whaling is that it’s an industry as brutal as it is pointless. The enterprise, to the degree that it’s practiced by a very cynical Japan, Norway and Russia, has none of the romance of Yankee whaling–to the degree there was any–to redeem it. The whales they kill have no chance of fighting back. The automation of the killing is near complete. It’s devoid of courage or skill and ugly.
Killing whales now–for any purpose–subsistence or commercial, is a needless exercise. Commercially, it’s bad business and bad ethics. And, as has been observed before–there’s more profit and downright goodwill in being paid to take people out to watch a whale in his watery home rather than destroying him. If the shrewd and money wise Yankee whalers had been able to make a buck taking people out in whaleboats to observe whales, they would have done it, and skipped the rest of the brutal job.