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Whaling, Science, and Exploration: A View From 1820

February 16, 2011

Today’s news that the Japanese whaling fleet has suspended operations in the Antarctic is very good indeed. While the protest group Sea Shepherd has been criticised (largely by the whalers) for ‘dangerous’ tactics, whaling is as indefensible in 2011 as public floggings, or slavery. For a small number of Japanese, whaling is a matter of national pride: whale meat was an important source of food in the years following World War 2, and whaling was one of the purposes to which military ships were adapted in a period when Japan was forced into what some saw as a humiliating disarmament. Of course, what we now call scientific whaling, isn’t really.

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Scientific whaling goes back a long way, but 200 years ago it didn’t mean quite the same thing as it does now. In 1820, when William Scoresby published his Account of the Arctic Regions, whale products were central to life in the industrialised world, so much so that British whalers were subsidised, and heavily regulated by the government, to prevent whalers selling their catches elsewhere. Most whalers saw their sole purpose as being to catch whales, but Scoresby spent large amounts of time documenting them, and describing their behaviour. Even though some of what he recorded has turned out to be mistaken, including his conclusion that whales have poor hearing, but excellent eyesight, Scoresby’s observations were significant scientifically, as well as for the commericial success of the whale fishery.

Scoresby’s skill and success as a whaler allowed him to make discoveries that might otherwise have taken many decades to come to light. Certainly his Account of the Arctic Regions remained the primary work in the literature of the Arctic for almost a century, and, for all its faults, a landmark in the natural history of the whale. Whaling also allowed Scoresby to make voyages of exploration. He charted the east coast of Greenland, measured the varying density of seawater, and conducted experiments with magnetism that were only possible in close proximity to the North Pole.

But Scoresby also knew that the commercial and practical necessities of whaling held back scientific discovery and exploration. In fact, while Scoresby himself was careful to record measurements of harpooned whales, many of the descriptions he cites of whale physiology come from stranded animals, not captured ones. Similarly, despite being well equipped to do so, whalers could not afford to take up the challenge of searching for the North West Passage, even for a £20,000 prize. In 1817, Scoresby concluded in a letter to Joseph Banks that the demands of whaling, and the expense of hiring a ship and crew for a speculative voyage, made such attempts impossible: ‘Now it is evident to those who visit the Greenland seas that were such a passage accomplished, it might not be again practicable in ten or even twenty years–it is evident that no premium could be adequate to the expense.’ (quoted in T&C Stamp, William Scoresby, Arctic Scientist, 1976, p. 67). Scoresby himself petitioned the Admiralty in 1817 for the command of a dedicated expedition, but was turned down in favour of less experienced naval officers.

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