Whaling came into practice as early as 6000 BC in South Korea. It began to increase as the demand for whale oil, whale meat, and margarine increased. Many early cultures also viewed whaling as a spiritual experience.
The Makah people, whose whaling dates back 2,000 years, would pray, fast, and hold rituals before each whaling expedition. To the Makah, whaling has a spiritually deep purpose.
The whaling practice of early native cultures soon transformed into an industry as the first Europeans appeared. The first to become whalers were the Basques, who soon discovered that whale blubber could also be used as lighting fluid, and the meat could be eaten as well.
After the Basques began hunting, whaling fleets went out into the cold Arctic waters to slay the economically valuable whales. There were also major conflicts between the British and the Dutch for whaling grounds as whaling became more common in Europe.
European and Asian countries were not the only ones interested in whaling. Soon after the establishment of the New World, the American colonies joined in the industry. Colonists caught their first sperm whale off the coast of Nantucket in 1712.
Spermaceti, the commonly used oil from the sperm whale, was used in the American colonies to make candles. The oil produced no smoke and no smell.
By the 1800s, whaling was a major industry in America.
American whaling started to decline by the 1850s, when oil wells were discovered. Although whaling was still seen as valuable, the mass whaling industry ended in the Americas.
As time progressed, so did technology and the slaying of whales became easier. Breech-loaded cannons were invented in 1925 and pistons in 1947.
Not only are modern weapons greatly depleting whale populations, they are much more cruel than weapons were in native times. Weapons used by the Japanese and Norwegian whaling industries include harpoons as well as explosives ranging from bombs to grenades.
These new tools began to drastically reduce whale populations, and environmentalist and animal protection groups began to take notice. Yet although whale hunting has been stopped in many parts of the world, it is still prevalent in some modern societies. At the same time, some cultures that were centered around the spirituality of the whale have had to stop their practices. The tribe mentioned above, the Makah, had to stop practicing their whale-centered spiritual traditions for over 70 years because of the threat of extinction of the whales.
Commercial whaling is revamping and continuing. In late 2007, a Japanese fleet of whalers set out to kill up to 1,000 whales, including 50 humpback whales, the first time since a 1986 commercial whaling ban in that country. The Japanese are permitting the new whaling expeditions in the name of research. According to scientists, the whale hunt that lasted into April of the following year will give them a good picture of the internal structure of whale organs. To critics, this just seems like a way to open up the whaling industry again.
Organizations such as World Against Whaling and Greenpeace fight each year to stop whaling. Members stage protests, lobby governments, talk with the whalers, do almost anything.
Hollywood has begun to take notice of this disturbing trend towards brutal massacres of whales. Actress Hayden Panettiere travelled to Japan in 2007 and joined protesters against the dolphin and whaling industries. Panettiere was so passionate she was arrested by Japanese officials, but later released. She is also the spokesperson of the Save the Whales Again! Campaign and returned to Japan in 2010 to continue her work. Other celebrities have stepped up too in support of preservation.
In 2008, a controversial television show debuted on Discovery Channel. Whale Wars follows the efforts of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and their crew members to prevent whaling. The show gets a bit violent as the crew goes to extreme measures to stop commercial whaling. Many have called it controversial but the men continue to try and save whales from near extinction.
Whether it is for science, industry, or pleasure, whaling still exists in some parts of the world today. There is no telling if this practice will ever disappear, as it is a part of some cultures. But it endangers a number of whaling species and has already depleted mass populations of whales. Many have protested, but there is no sure sign of an absolute ban.