A Whale of A Tale

Donna Cochran

A Whale of a Tale: An Analysis of Melville’s Moby Dick and the Influence of the Whaling Industry on the Ecological System

Until the mid-nineteenth century, wood was used as fuel to heat our spaces and cook our food; oil was used to light our darkness.  Most of this oil came from Right Whales, and when burned, it left a smoky residue everywhere.  The discovery that blubber from Sperm Whales contained gallons of oil that burned cleaner and longer made this product highly sought after, and therefore highly valuable to merchants.  Money and greed led to the brutal killing of millions of Sperm Whales, not only in the Northeast Atlantic waters of Long Island Sound and Nantucket, but were chased all the way around the world, past Cape Horn by whaling ships.  Along with this decimation, hunters became rich by the slaughter of almost as many buffalo in the American West.  Henry David Thoreau was concerned by all the greed that was being displayed and wrote several commentaries dealing with this issue.  He even lived on Walden Pond in an effort to prove that Man could live simply and in harmony with nature.  In his novel, Moby Dick, Herman Melville captures the beginning stages of the decline of the oceanic eco system.

The book of Genesis in the Bible states, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’”(New International Version Bible, Genesis 26).  For the last three centuries, Man has taken this passage quite literally, especially by Western entrepreneurs in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Centuries who believe the whole world is theirs for the taking.  After all, God has given mankind dominion over it all.  For centuries into today, Man has removed whatever he wants from the Earth, never seeing any need to conserve or replace it.  Man has always chased money, success, and materialism, without giving much thought to any short or long term consequences.   As stated in the documentary Into the Deep, produced by PBS, “Capitalism destroys its inventory” (Into the Deep).  Man, who is supposed to be the most intelligent of the animals, will destroy anything to make a profit.

As a young adult, Herman Melville worked as a sailor, but in 1841, he sought employment on a whaling ship, the Acushnet.  He travelled the world while whaling and spent considerable time on the Marquesas Islands living among the Taipis Natives.  He gathered much material for the books that he would eventually pen.  By the time Melville turned twenty-five, he had tired of the sailor’s life and returned to the United States to begin his writing career.  His books told of his sailing adventures.  American and English men romanticized whaling and enjoyed reading about these hunting adventures, so Melville’s work was met with much success.  After reading Shakespeare and becoming intrigued with Hawthorne’s dark style of writing, Melville decided it was time to write his masterpiece, Moby Dick.

Melville had received a copy of the diary of Owen Chase, the first mate of the Essex, a ship that was stove by a whale.   This diary became the blueprint for the last three chapters of Moby Dick, which is the story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive search for the whale that took Ahab’s leg.  Ishmael and Captain Ahab are the novel’s two main characters.  Ishmael is merely the observer, the recorder of facts.  He is on the voyage to reconnect with the sea as a cure for his depression.  While Ishmael is present physically on the ship among the other sailors, he is not present emotionally in the events that happen on the whaler The Pequod which Ahab captains.

Ahab is a tragic hero.  As the captain of the ship, he is on a whaling mission, but he is driven by something deeper; he is on a monomaniacal quest to kill the whale that took the captain’s leg.  By the time they find the great “Moby Dick,” Ahab has lost all focus, putting the safety of his entire crew at risk as he pursues this magnificent creature.  At this point in the novel, he is no longer concerned with the oil that he has been commissioned to retrieve.  His has become so obsessed that the entire ship is lost along with every crew member, except Ishmael.  In the end the whale is victorious.

For centuries, before being ‘discovered’ by the Europeans, the “New World” as it was known before being named the Americas, was populated by what we now term as Native Americans.  The Natives of these various territories at first attempted to befriend these explorers.  However, seeing the vast natural resources available, the Europeans began conquering them to take everything in the lands for themselves.

Native Americans have a great respect for Nature.  The Indians, as they were called by the Colonists, were very deliberate in everything they cut, cultivated, and killed.  Because of their respect for the natural world around them, the New England Natives practiced “drift whaling,” which entails using only the whales stranded on shore after a storm or before death.  These animals are far too heavy to get them back into the sea.  Even though whales are mammals, they cannot survive out of the water.  These Natives understood Nature to be a place of balance and gained vast knowledge of whales, including the different species and their migratory patterns, enabling the Natives to effectively live with these great beasts (Shoemaker).  After a whale’s death, the Natives were adept at taking full advantage of the whale’s resources.  The skin was used for housing, the bones were used as tools; none of it went to waste.  If a tribe moved, they would leave no trace of themselves at the place they left.  In today’s terms, it would be said that the Natives left no carbon footprint.

In the sixteen hundreds, after Massachusetts had been settled, the colonists began to take over the whaling industry and Native men were contracted to teach the colonists to hunt whales and to build and use the harpoons.  Most of the hunting at that time was done from shore stations.  Charters were obtained from the towns, and Natives were hired to man the whaleboats (Shoemaker).   Even though they were pacifists, the Quakers owned most of these whaleboats. They didn’t consider killing whales against their religion since they were only animals, and the Quakers certainly enjoyed the profits their ships made.  However, unlike the Natives who used the whole whale, the Colonists were only interested in the oil.  After a kill, the blubber was removed and boiled down to extract the oil.  The remaining part of the whale was dumped back into the sea.

So, whales had to be hunted in order to retrieve enough oil to supply the demand.  The author of Living with Whales states, “By the start of the 18th Century, the number of right whales in the North Atlantic that could be pursued from stations along the New England had dwindled from overhunting” (Shoemaker 4).  Fleets of ships were sent into the sea to chase these mammals every day.  Several types of whales were abundant in the Northern United States, mostly in the waters of the Atlantic around Massachusetts.  Active whaling towns flourished in Nantucket, New Bedford, and in the Long Island Sound.  As the whaling industry increased, the whales began migrating south and eventually travelled from Nantucket all the way past Cape Horn.  Whaling still exists today, and hundreds of species of fish are dangerously close to becoming extinct due to overfishing.  The mass hunting of whales that took place over two hundred years ago is a direct cause of the near extinction we see today of these animals and could have been the beginning of the ecological imbalance occurring in our oceans today.

Whales are intelligent creatures.  As they came to understand that they were being hunted along their natural territory, they began migrating from New England, heading further and further south.  They travelled “ever farther, ever longer, ever deeper until there was no place left for them to go” (Into the Deep).  The whales went past South America, rounded Cape Horn and headed north.  The trips of the whaling ships originally lasted a few days, gradually extended to weeks, then months, and finally years.  In the latter years of the nineteenth century, most whaling ships voyaged for two or three years.  Because of the length of these trips, the ships had to be built better, bigger, and stronger.  These became the spaceships of their day, and were, for all intents and purposes, floating factories that could handle everything from hunting the whales to retrieving the oil and storing it to bring back to market (Into the Deep).  These ships became home for the men who sailed on them.

In 1820, one sperm whale had enough.  The morning of November 20th started out as any other day on the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket.  None of the crew realized that before the day was over they would be rammed by a sperm whale, not once but twice, and the ship would be lost.  After the initial hit, the whale “passed under the ship, grazing her keel as he went along” (Heffernan 26).  The sailors thought this was an accident.  After recovering from the shock, the crewmen began preparing for the abandonment of the ship since it was clear that it was going to sink.  They didn’t have too much time for preparation before a member of the crew saw that the whale had recovered, turned around and headed directly back for them, “with tenfold fury and vengeance” (Heffernan 26).  The crew members would call this an unprovoked attack, as if the ship had no responsibility in the event.  After all, they were only out on the sea to do their job, which was to kill whales.  They couldn’t fathom that one would not want that fate, let alone have the audacity to seek revenge.

Through the novel Moby Dick, Melville gives us several narratives of whale hunting.  Each one is described in great detail.  The first begins with the hurling of the harpoon, which meets its mark.  The crew keeps throwing darts, wounding the whale with every hit.  The whale tries to free himself from harm, pulling the manned boat with him.  When the whale slows, the men begin to pull on the rope to get them closer to the great beast.  The whale is in agony, still trying to get away; meanwhile the sea surrounding both the animal and the boat is mixed with the whales’ blood.  When the crew comes into contact with the mammal, a lance is shoved into it time and again until the whale bleeds to death (Melville).

Due to the size of the dead whale, hours are required for the crew to drag the leviathan back to the whaling ship.  Melville gives us a view into the brutal way in which these majestic creatures are then skinned and their carcasses wasted. Chains were dropped into the water to secure the whale next to the boat for the night during which sharks would feast on the whale.  These sharks, also, are killed and brought on board for their skin.  The next morning, the animal was lashed to the windlass, and hauled out of the water.  The windlass is used to keep the whale turning as the blubber is stripped off the body.  To demonstrate the method of skinning the whale, Melville likens this procedure to stripping the rind off an orange.  The blubber is raised aloft until the upper end reaches the top of the main-sail and the blubber is then cut in two, after which the spiraling continues.  This skin produces one-hundred barrels, or ten tons of oil.  When the leviathan was completely skinned, the chains were loosened to allow the animal’s carcass to fall back into the sea.  During the hours it takes for the remains of the whale to sink, other creatures feast on its meat.  The ship then heads out, in search of their next kill (Melville).

Perhaps it was Melville’s intention to include such graphic, violent descriptions to shock his readers.  Perhaps he hoped to let men who would never have the experience live vicariously through these books.  It’s also possible that Melville was himself so thrilled by the kill that he savored re-living the experience through the telling of his story.  Melville may have wanted to evoke sympathy for the whale by presenting such scenes of violence and describing the brutal massacre of millions of helpless animals only for the oil.  The rest of the whale was considered trash and unceremoniously dumped.  The meat could be used to feed the men.  The bones could be made into tools and sold.  Other parts were useful, and the white men could have learned from the Native Americans how to not leave anything to waste; however, as seen from the buffalo massacres in the West perpetrated by the white men, they thought no further than the immediate profit.

In the mid to late Nineteenth Century, there were mass slaughters of buffalo in the West.  Bison hides and tongues were in high demand due to the technical ability to tan bison hide in Europe.  Teams of hunters went out to the buffalo grazing grounds and hunted voraciously every day.  The remains of the bison were left to decompose in the extreme heat of summer; the air was so putrid with the smell of rotting flesh that these hunting grounds were almost unusable for decades.  The estimate of these animals midcentury was over fifteen million.  By the end of the slaughter, there were only one hundred left (Taylor 1).  One culprit in this tragedy was the Federal Government of the United States.  Some say that the Government merely turned a blind eye to the problem.  Others state that it was a plan to eliminate the Indian population, since their survival depended so heavily on the buffalo.  In either case, this is just another example of man’s total disregard for the resources that have been given to him (Taylor 24).

Crude oil was discovered in 1859, dropping the need for Sperm Whale oil down to zero.  When the Civil War began in 1861, the whaling ships were diverted to other duties on the sea.  Thus, the whaling industry in America ceased.  There are still boats going out of Nantucket looking for the great beasts.  However, now it is a tourism trade, and the boats are used to transport people on whale watching expeditions.  Some countries in the world do continue to hunt whales.  According to the WDC, Japan, Iceland, and Norway still actively hunt whales, even though it is illegal (WDC).  The meat is not needed; it is put into pet food in these countries.  Japan justifies this by saying that whaling is part of their culture and they practice sustainable whaling, and have no plans to abandon the practice (Animal Planet).

Henry David Thoreau, like Melville, was deeply concerned about the greed and wanton waste around him.  He left his parents house to live on Walden Pond for two years and two months.  It was his desire to live deliberately and simply.  He built a house with only one room, and furnished it with only a bed, table, and three chairs.  He grew his own vegetables, fished and hunted his meat, and ate the wild berries and nuts growing on the property.  He never took more than he could finish, and wasted nothing.  This was an experiment to show America it could be done.  He was only a mile from civilization, and often went home or to visit Emerson, but he still lived his conviction.  He was a conservationist ahead of his time.  He believed fully that man should work to live, and not live to work (Thoreau).  This is the opposite of the greed shown in Moby Dick.

With the human population growing, the demand for food is also expanding every day.  With this need for more sustenance, the consequences put our resources in immediate danger.  Many fish are now on the endangered species lists.  Many canned tuna labels now proclaim that they are dolphin free products since many of these mammals were caught in the tuna nets and then killed instead of being released back into the sea.  Steps regarding sustainability of fish are now being enacted, but is it too little too late?  Rain forests are being cut down, mountains are being strip-mined, and many animal species have been lost forever, all in the name of money.  Man feels that he is justified since God gave him dominion over the Earth.  The issue is that there is only one Earth, and resources are limited.  If these are depleted faster than replaced, there will be no resources left.  The total depletion of resources could very well mean the end of man.

Man does need food, shelter and clothes, but, how much of anything is enough before it becomes too much?  Even though we are beginning to understand the consequences of our actions, man has to realize that certain measures such as stronger poaching punishments, sustainable farming, and water conservation need to be taken.  Due to the expansion of human housing, animals are losing their natural habitats and are either going extinct or having to look for new places to live.  The forests and wetlands need to be protected.  The oceans and rivers need to be allowed to restock themselves.  Hunting needs to be more tightly regulated.  The animal kingdom, through instinct, regulates the population.  Maybe we need to look to them to learn lessons of our own.









Works Cited


 Bible, The. New International Version Gift and Award Version, Revised 2001, The Zondervan Corporation.

Heffernan, Thomas Farel. Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex. Wesleyan, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 15 February 2017.


Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. Part of the collection: The Environment produced by PBS, Written and Directed by Ric Burns, 2010 WGBH Educational Foundation and Steeplechase Films, Inc.


Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Bantam, 1984


Shoemaker, Nancy. Living with Whales : Documents and Oral Histories of Native New England Whaling History. University of Massachusetts Press, 2014., 2014. Native Americans of the Northeast. EBSCOhost, proxy.kennesaw.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat05234a&AN=ebrary.ebr11214664&site=eds-live&scope=site.



Taylor, M. Scott. Buffalo Hunt: International Trade and the Virtual Extinction of the North American Bison. American Economic Review, vol. 101, no. 7, Dec. 2011, pp. 3162-3195. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1257/aer.101.7.3162.



Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. Walden.  Signet 2012, Introduction by W. S. Merwin, Afterword by William Howarth, Pages 3 -260



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