The first half of the nineteenth century was the heyday of whaling. In 1846 there were 966 whaling ships in the oceans of the world, 736 of which were American. New Bedford, Massachusetts, was the center of the American whaling activity; at its peak in 1857, that coastal town alone dispatched 329 whaling vessels and 10,000 sailors. Until the middle of the century, whaling was confined to the temperate and tropical seas and the Arctic Ocean, which, surrounded by land masses, was relatively placid. Much of the hunting concentrated on right whales, so named because they were the “right” ones to seek; coastal animals, slow-moving, docile when harpooned and, most important on the deep sea, buoyant when dead. In addition to an abundance of oil from its thick blubber, the right whale yielded high-quality whale bone, which was used to make corsets and umbrella stays. After the American and French Revolutions, the pseudoclassical fashion of feminine attire favored thin women. But after the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1833, the caprices of courtly fashion shifted to the ironclad, buxom femininity of stiff corsets and hooped skirts. The right whale was doomed. Between 1804 and 1876, American whalers killed 193,522 right whales in all of the oceans of the world. The right whale was soon hunted to near extinction in the North Atlantic, and the whalers turned their attention to another coast-hugging species, the humpback whale, which in its turn also became rare.
Having exterminated these easy prey, the whalers began world-spanning voyages in pursuit of the sperm whale, which had a head full of waxy spermaceti, ideal for making candles. And, like the right whale, the sperm whale did not sink when dead. During the austral summer, when adult male sperm whales migrated to cold polar waters, the tropical seas were filled with nursery pods of females and their young and with bachelor pods of socially immature males. The relatively small fry were easy prey for the whalers. But sometimes a large bull was hunted, and that could be dangerous. It was probably a solitary bull sperm whale that on November 20, 1820, attacked and sank the American whaler Essex, with a crew of twenty, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 3,200 kilometers off the coast of South America. The incident was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
David G. Campbell
I had the pleasure of spending time with David G Campbell during a cruise to the Antarctic. I love his book and will be posting excerpts from it from time to time.
The book is called “The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica” and is published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.
“A superior personal account of place, a remarkable evocation of a land at the bottom of the world” (Boston Globe)