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Whaling: A Historical Exploration of the Hunt, Impact, and Conservation Efforts

a large ship in a body of water

Most people know that the famous novel Moby Dick is all about whaling, but the real history behind this practice often stays behind a veil. For centuries, people hunted whales for fat, meat, and more. Tragically, many types of whales were driven close to extinction. Since the 1980s, international organizations banded together to end whaling and protect whales. Dive into the history of whaling and learn how you can make an impact to help conservation efforts and save whales.

What Is Whaling?

An easy-to-understand whaling definition is the practice of hunting and harvesting whales. In the past, people valued whale meat and blubber and used them to create lamps, lubrication materials, and various food items.

People also hunted and killed whales for their bones and baleen, the bone-like structures in a whale’s mouth used to filter feed. People used these parts of the whale to produce corsets and umbrellas.

A Brief History

The history of whaling goes back a long, long time. Early indigenous communities practiced subsistence whaling, which didn’t seem to harm whale populations overall. It was in the 17th and 18th centuries that commercial whaling took off. At that time, Europeans and Americans created a massive demand for whale oil-fueled lamps, and sperm whales and right whales were targeted relentlessly by huge whaling fleets.

Technological advances such as exploding harpoons and steam-powered ships made whaling even more effective and deadly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result, many whale species were pushed to the brink of extinction, and the consequences for marine ecosystems were devastating.


Is Whaling Illegal Now?

In 1986, seeing that whale populations had dwindled worldwide, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned the practice of commercial whaling. After that year, most countries worldwide moved towards conservation instead of hunting. This change has ultimately helped whale populations rebound. However, researchers and experts believe there is still only 1/4 the number of whales in the ocean as there would be if industrialized whaling had never happened. 

Unfortunately, some countries object to the whaling ban and continue to catch and kill whales. Whalers in Japan, Iceland, and Norway use loopholes or cover their actions under the guise of research to get around the international moratorium on whaling.

What Conservation Efforts Are in Place?

Since the 1980s, there have been many efforts to conserve whale populations. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) monitors things like illegal trade in whale products to make sure people aren’t killing whales for their fat, meat, or bones, while the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) and the IWC help research and manage whale populations worldwide.

Countries worldwide are also creating marine protected areas (MPAs) to help protect whales and their habitats. These areas ensure that whales can live, travel, and breed safely.

How You Can Help

Even as just one person, you can help save whales. Here are some practical conservation efforts to take part in:

  • Go on a whale-watching tour
  • Learn and share knowledge about whales
  • Research your seafood and pick sustainable sources
  • Donate to nonprofits that do conservation, like the American Cetacean Society
  • Volunteer with a whale-focused organization
  • Speak with government officials about whale conservation

Some Hollywood films try to idealize the history of whaling, giving it an adventurous and romantic look, but the reality is far more gruesome. It’s important to understand that the consequences of industrial whaling still impact the world today. While the ban on commercial whaling was crucial to saving these awe-inspiring animals from the deep step forward, governments must agree to enforce regulations to protect whales. Take part in whale conservation and education by booking a whale-watching tour today.