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Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world
Sarah Zielinski
Wild Things

New movie asks viewers to care about whale hunters. Will they?

sperm whales

Centuries of whaling reduced the world’s population of sperm whales by two thirds. 

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The new movie In the Heart of the Sea follows the crew of the whaling ship Essex on their doomed 1820 voyage that inspired the Herman Melville novel Moby Dick. In the remote South Pacific, the Essex was destroyed in an encounter with a sperm whale, and the 20-man crew had to pile into three small boats to escape. Over the following weeks, the men struggled to survive and resorted to cannibalizing those who perished.

The movie, which has received tepid reviews, suffers from a major flaw: It expects the audience to root for a crew that set out to kill whales. And in a time when one poached lion can provoke a huge outpouring of love for the animal and anger toward the shooter, that may be too much to ask. Especially given the horrific scope of whaling.

Humans have been killing whales for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 17th century, when commercial whaling began, that the killing began to ramp up to numbers big enough to threaten species. Sperm whales became prime targets, prized for the spermaceti, a liquid wax found inside their heads, and the waxy ambergris produced as a by-product of digestion. And then there was all the whale oil, rendered from blubber, that was used to light lamps and make margarine and soap.

Prior to the 20th century, commercial whaling was a difficult and dangerous business, as the Essex incident illustrates. When sailors spotted a whale from a ship, they would climb into small whaleboats to pursue their prey. They would harpoon the animal, which would then tug the whaleboat (hopefully not too far from the main ship) until it became too tired and stopped swimming. Then, a sailor would make the final kill, striking the animal in the heart or lungs. If the whalers were lucky, the huge animal would be killed before they were.

Given the danger of hunting large creatures in the open ocean, it’s difficult to imagine that this hunting method would make much of a dent in whale populations. But it did. Hal Whitehead, a whale biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, estimated that by 1880, whalers had managed to reduce the sperm whale population by 29 percent, from 1,110,000 whales before commercial whaling to about 788,000 animals. But that’s not where the sperm whale’s story ends.

Whaling slowed down in the late 19th century, as petroleum replaced whale oil and sailing ships disappeared. A couple of major wars also intervened. But then whaling picked up again, and this time, modern ships and exploding harpoons meant that hunting whales was now fairly easy and safe. With many baleen species having been driven to low numbers by the previous era of whaling, these new whalers turned to the sperm whale. The earlier generation of whalers managed to kill some 5,000 sperm whales per year at most; in the 1960s, they killed as many as 25,000 annually. (And the situation might have been even worse — both the Soviet Union and Japan falsified whaling records during the height of 20th-century hunting.)

The commercial killing didn’t stop until the International Whaling Commission ended whaling in 1985. Despite the ban, Japan continues to hunt whales, including sperm whales, purportedly for scientific purposes, though the meat is sold in markets.

Whitehead has estimated that by 1999, a decade after hunting ended, there were only 360,000 sperm whales, about a third of what had existed during pre-commercial whaling. Whether that number has increased since then isn’t known, but the International Union for the Conservation of Nature considers the animals to be vulnerable, one step shy of endangered.

Given this history, I find it difficult to feel sympathy for a bunch of whalers on the big screen. So if I do decide to go see In the Heart of the Sea, I’m rooting for the whale.

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