Date of Award


Document Type




First Advisor

Dr. Tim Knight

Second Advisor

Dr. Jim Taylor

Third Advisor

Dr. Kevin C. Motl


Historical evidence shows that whale hunting by humans has been occurring for millennia. We are still finding evidence of early whaling cultures. In May 2007, a group of Alaskan Eskimos were butchering a 50-ton bowhead whale they had caught, when they found the barb of a 19th century whaling harpoon wedged in its bones (Dolin, 2007).

Archaeological evidence for whaling goes as far back as 3000 BC (Ward, 2001). Whaling was very primitive and limited to smaller and slower whale species. In the 1620s, early American colonists began learning how to butcher whale carcasses that had washed ashore or beached themselves on the New England coast (Barcott, 2007). The growing demand for products obtained from whales led to the development of "shore-whaling" in the 1650s. A village lookout would signal a small group of men when a whale was close to shore. The men would climb into a small boat and paddle out to the whale. They would then throw a harpoon tied to their boat into the whale's body. The idea was to let the whale drag them until it tired, when the fatal kill would be made with a long knife. After half a century of selectively hunting the whale populations in the shallow waters near the coastline, a depletion of nearby whales pushed for the development of larger whaling ships that could withstand longer journeys and bigger prey (Barcott, 2007).

The two primary products Americans desired from whales were oil, made from boiling whale blubber, and baleen (Dolin, 2007). Whale baleen was used in women's fashion, such as hoop skirts and corset stays. The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1848 caused a dramatic drop in the demand for whale oil (Dolin, 2007). The whaling industry was kept alive solely by the need for corset stays. A corset-less Parisian fashion line in 1907 put an end to the American whaling industry (Barcott, 2007). Whalers elsewhere saw a dramatic change in their fishing methods with the invention of a Norwegian steam-powered exploding harpoon in 1868 (Ward, 2001 ). Options for whaling species could now be expanded to include larger, more powerful game. Primary species sought by the whaling industry was heavily influenced by the technology available to whalers (Ward , 2001). Initially, the Humpback whale was over-hunted due to its slow speed and close proximity to shorelines. As whaling ships became faster and whaling trips could last longer, focus was shifted to the Blue whale, the most sought-after whale species for whaling ships. But, when the Blue whale population began to decline and chances of finding one while on a whaling expedition decreased, whalers began taking Fin, and then Sei, whales. In the 1970s, an international agreement banning the killing of Fin and Sei whales was passed, leading the whaling industry to hunt Minke whales. Whaling in Antarctica really began in 1904, when the first of several whale processing stations was established in Grytviken, South Georgia (Ward, 2001). Factory ships were used as early as 1925 (Ward, 2001 ). The larger vessels allowed processing of the whale carcass to occur on board the ship, eliminating the need for on shore whaling stations. And, because all catching and processing was done at sea, whaling vessels could avoid national whaling regulations.

Included in

History Commons



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.