Heart of Darkness

Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2008
300 pp, $25.00

Fin, Right, Blue, Sperm, Minke, Humpback: one by one, chapter by chapter in this remarkable book, each species of whale reaches commercial or outright extinction, all the while “managed” by governments and the International Whaling Commission. Over the years there has been no lack of human concern for whales and what they represent, but as often as not, this support is overmatched by decades’ worth of lobbying, political maneuvering, fake science, lying and outright defiance by nations determined to pursue industrial whaling.

The pattern doesn’t seem to change much. The harvesting of Right whales goes back at least to eighth century, when Japanese began to make use of animals that had washed up on beaches. By the 11th century Basques were hunting Right whales on an organized basis. From then on their fate was sealed: “the Right whale disappeared,” writes Darby, “as a casualty of the industrial revolution. Whale oil lit homes and the headlamps of miners; it lubricated machines and made jute pliable to weave; it helped to temper steel and cut screws…[it] was the everyday oil before petroleum.” Today in the Gulf of Maine the hunt is long over, but regulators and fishermen continue to spar over the best way to protect the tiny number of remaining Right whales. The outcome of that contest, for the whales if not the fishermen, is far from certain. Internationally, Right whales have been protected from whalers since 1931, but Soviet vessels continued to chase and harpoon them for years afterward, and today Right whales are still threatened with entanglement and by ships that collide with them.

Blue whales – fast swimmers, difficult to hunt because they sink when killed – only became targets of the whaling industry in 1863, when one Thomas Welcome Roys, an American whaler, killed a Blue with a rocket harpoon he had designed. “The rope held, the whale was dragged up from 70 fathoms (128 metres) and oil started to flow from Blues,” Darby writes. Roy’s invention, subsequently refined, sparked a large-scale hunt for all whale species that wouldn’t end until most of the animals were gone, and that continues today in the guise of “scientific” whaling by Japan. Driving this carnage was the development of new markets for whale oil including margarine and soap.

Darby, a Tasmanian journalist, has covered whaling and other environmental issues for a generation, describing himself as “hooked on the tension between environmental crises and objective journalism.” To his great credit he has interviewed, in depth, whaling’s proponents and apologists – Russians, Norwegians, Japanese, profit-minded entrepreneurs, retired harpooners, inventors of various lethal technologies – as well as its opponents including Greenpeace and others capable of acting violently in defense of whales.  His book, while telling a shocking story, is fair-minded and very complete.

Darby offers disquisitions on topics such as the composition of sperm whale oil: “Filtered sperm oil,” he writes, “contains 76 percent wax esters and 23 percent triglycerides. The chemistry makes it an organic oddity; an extremely fine and ‘slippery’ oil, highly resistant to breakdown. Tanners poured it into vats to keep their leather supple. As machinery tolerances tightened, it was dripped in as the high pressure lubricant of choice. Locomotives benefited. So did the automatic gearboxes of cars, and the mechanics of ballistic missiles.”

Books like Harpoon come along rarely and should be read by anyone with an interest in the future of the planet, particularly those of us willing to recognize that at least where whales are concerned, no one in the industrialized world has clean hands.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.