Whaling to Watching: A History of Whales and People

July 20, 2020

Whales’ massive size, incomparable intelligence, curiosity, and sociability make us want to connect with them, and we are thrilled by the mystery of what a whale does beneath the ocean’s surface. But we did not always look at whales with interest and admiration, and only recently have we started valuing them as part of an ecosystem by studying and watching them in their natural environment.

 

Whaling

Historically, whales were feared by many ancient peoples. The word “cetacean”, which encompasses whales, dolphins and porpoises, comes from the Greek word “cetus”, meaning “sea monster”. Despite their scary reputation, whales have been hunted around the world for millennia. In B.C. alone, whaling by indigenous peoples can be traced back 4000 years.

Whale blubber (the fat layer) was cheap, and easily rendered into oils used in oil lamps and machinery. Their bones were used for fertilizer and chicken feed, and their baleen (filter-feeding structure) was used for corsets and umbrellas.

With the dawn of the industrial revolution came the need for oil, and thus the commercial whale slaughter began. Whale blubber (the fat layer) was cheap, and easily rendered into oils used in oil lamps and machinery. Their bones were used for fertilizer and chicken feed, and their baleen (filter-feeding structure) was used for corsets and umbrellas. Whaling began in the Pacific Northwest in the 1830s, and whales were hunted at a highly unsustainable rate. By the early 1900s, humpback and north Pacific right whale populations had plummeted, but the modern era of whaling had only just begun.

Credit: newhistorian.com

The inventions of steam power and explosive harpoons revolutionized the whaling industry. Whales were fewer and further between than ever, but they could no longer outrun boats and could be taken down much faster. Faster boats also meant they could stop specializing in humpback and right whales, and expand to faster whales, like sperm, fin and sei whales. Commercial whaling lasted until 1967 in British Columbia, due to competition from vegetable oils and the exhaustion of whale populations.

 

Entertainment

Whales have long been kept captive for entertainment and scientific purposes. Cetacean captivity started as early as the 1860s, when P.T. Barnum captured six belugas from the St. Lawrence River, and shipped them to New York to keep in his museum. He succeeded in training them, however most of the animals did not live long. The first oceanarium opened in 1938 in Florida and was built as a set for movies, and later put on shows to entertain the public with their trained bottlenose dolphins.

Live whale captures really picked up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s, with the first capture of an orca in 1964 and lasted until 1977.

Credit: Milan Boers. Tilikum also known as “Shamu”

Whale capture continued throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it really picked up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s with the first capture of an orca in 1964. Wild killer whale capture continued only until 1977, as it had become widely controversial among the public. Despite the end of wild capture and the globally growing whale watching industry, orcas and other dolphins still persist in aquariums around the world today due to captive breeding. While aquariums have played a vital role in allowing the public to connect with whales and dolphins, it is now very clear that cetaceans do poorly in captivity.

 

Eco-Tourism

Aquariums may have introduced the public to cetacean species as more than a sea monster or a commodity, but both you and the animals gain much more by seeing them in the wild. Watching whales in their natural habitat has become one of the most popular eco-tourism activities in British Columbia (and around the world). Nothing compares to seeing a wild whale living, breathing, and diving into the cold ocean, knowing there are no bounds to where it can go next. Take the adventure of a lifetime with Prince of Whales and we’ll prove it.

Both you and the animals gain much more by seeing them in their natural habitat!

Credit: Lili Wilson

 

Sources:

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/whales/man/mancron.html

https://www.seeker.com/whale-watching-a-booming-business-discovery-news-1766490722.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/16/science/ancient-romans-whales.html

http://www.tofinomuseum.com/index.php/11-blog/26-part-of-our-past

Eric Keen. 2014. B.C. Whaling (Back when they were just big fish). Bangarang Backgrounders.

https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2014/04/08/debunking-captivity-3-reasons-not-to-keep-dolphins-in-a-tank/

 

 

Written By: Lili Wilson