This episode explores the historical significance of one of the most beloved energy sources of all time: Whales. Where do whales fit in to the history of energy, and what exactly is their relationship to oil and gas?
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Hey everybody! Tavis here bringing another episode of RARE PETRO’s hydrocarbon history. If you are new to the series, I encourage you to check out the other episodes as well. This is also a visually based series, so if you are listening, I’m sure you will learn something, but you are going to learn a lot more if you watch, and have a bit more fun as well. Trust me, this series pairs well with a beverage and a snack, so kick back, relax, and let’s get to learning!
I initially planned to select this as a topic for an episode while playing a video game. You heard that right. I was playing “Black Flag,” which is an installment in the Assassin’s Creed series. In this game you play as a pirate seeking his fortune, and there is plenty to do along the way. One of the things you can do is whaling. You hop out on your whale boat and release a flurry of harpoons in order to kill it, load it onto your pirate ship, and harvest it for resources. This takes place in the early 1700s, but it got me thinking about how much whaling still occurs today, and how whales tied into the history of energy evolution. A few minutes later I got to googling and I accidentally fell down a rabbit hole that would eventually lead to the collection of research material for this episode.
As it turns out, whaling has a history that extends further back than I could have ever guessed. Petroglyphs found in the Neolithic Bangudae site in Korea depict whaling and could be dated back as far as 6000 BCE. As time progressed, Norwegians, Japanese, and indigineous communities were the only communities that hunted whales as they were incredibly dependent on the natural resources found in their bodies. Meat, skin, blubber, and organs (really anything that was soft enough to chew) were used to get healthy servings of fats, proteins, and minerals. Baleen, or the sort of bristles that toothless whales use for filter feeding could be woven into baskets or used in roofing. The actual bones of the whale were used for making tools or ceremonial artifacts. Even the teeth were valued as a special ivory to be used in chess sets, among many other things. As Europe began to expand its empire, the selection of manufactured goods expanded as well. That baleen I just mentioned? Now that corsets are in fashion, whales have another reason to be scared of humans. Sure whales were hunted almost worldwide, but one whale could provide enough raw material for thousands of pounds of food and product. But there was one product that was always used. Perhaps corsets aren’t always in fashion, but energy is.
Whale oil was an incredibly valuable resource for industrial nations. It powered lamps, could be used for heating, lubricants, soaps, paint, you name it. It was the stuff of advanced modern comfort. America as we know it began whaling back in the early 1700s off the coast of Massachusetts, but war often found its way to these regions as we fought for independence. In the early 1800s there was a period of peace, and with it, rapid industrial growth. By 1833 there were 392 American whaling vessels. By 1846 that grew to 735 and you could find 80% of the world’s whaling ships in the United States alone. In one year, the American whaling industry was churning out over 4 million gallons of sperm oil, anywhere from 6 to 10 million gallons of train oil, and 165 million pounds of bone. Whaling was not incredibly profitable, as margins were often slim. In 1858, 64% of those in the business failed to make a profit. You think this would be a turning point, and you would be right. The world continued to grow, and so did the demand for energy, so why didn’t whales become extinct some 200 years ago? Grassroots environmental movements and legislation. (record scratch) I’m joking, it was the development of advanced technology.
You see, sir Edwin Drake hadn’t drilled the first oil well yet. If you don’t know who that is, be sure to subscribe, because we will definitely have an episode talking about him sooner or later. Really, all the oil that we had found was just on the surface of rock and considered to be a thicky, gooey, nuisance. Eventually, a few scientists discovered that it could be refined into kerosene to be used in heating lamps. Not only would it burn more effectively than whale oil, but it would burn cleaner so that you wouldn’t have to accept greasy leftover residue and terrible smell if you wanted to see at night. Not only this, but it never spoiled, unlike whale oil. By the end of the 1850s, America had just experienced its first oil boom. Now, over 30 kerosene plants were operating in the US churning out gallons of this super fuel that could be used in the very same lamps that were using whale oil. A sperm whale can produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-40 barrels of oil depending on its size. By the 1870s, oil production soared to 20 million barrels annually, so the need for whale oil was sufficiently displaced. From there, it transforms into the story that we all know and love so much. A man named Rockefeller begins to invest in further refining, and oil proves to be a valuable resource for the whole world. But eventually, kerosene was even pushed out of the illumination market to be shelved beside whale oil as Edison introduced his electric bulb that could produce light without an open flame in the cleanest way possible. At this point, investors had redistributed their capital from whaling to other more modern industries like textiles. This not only benefited the whales, but seals in the north were spared as fewer whalers needed them for food and additional heating. Sea turtles in the Galapagos were almost eaten extinct by busy whalers in the area. The last American whaler left port in 1924.So that brings us to near modern history. How come whale populations are still being threatened? Well, whaling experienced its second coming in the middle of the 20th century. In the 1960s enough people were concerned with the potential eradication of the whale population that charities were created and supporting research was kickstarted, and many people chose to support it. Unfortunately for the movement, the whole world wasn’t on board. The Soviets were using whales as food sources, the Norwegians wanted to adhere to tradition as there was still demand for whale products, and Japan never really stopped. Eventually, 1986 rolls around and most of the world agrees that we need to stop. Quotas were set for subsistence whaling so that indigenous communities could still rely on whaling, and research permits were granted to allow “scientific whaling” which Japan continues to do today. All other whaling was banned within an international moratorium. While this is still incredibly alarming news, a graph from 2005 to 2017 shows that humans are claiming anywhere from 1500-2000 whales per year, but the trend is still continuing to decline. So, what did we learn today? I think the biggest thing we can take away from this is: The advancement of modern technology can allow us to diversify our uses of nature. Whales and oil are natural resources, both rich in carbon. If we hadn’t advanced technologically since 1850, our population would not have grown as fast, but we likely would have exhausted the whale population by now, and coal or trees would be the only other heating and lighting sources available to us. Thanks to our use of hydrocarbons, several species were also saved from going extinct. Of course, there are many many many other factors to consider, but it is hard to refute that the use of kerosene bought whales more time, and hopefully just enough that we continue to advance technologically to find other valuable ways to wield energy. After all, that is exactly what this series is about, because I want to raise awareness of the good things that oil and gas has brought. Besides, you don’t get the prettiest results from googling “how does oil save animals.” But again, I will link everything I found useful in my research below, along with a really cool whaling documentary from 1957. If you are at all interested in seafaring, hunting, or manufacturing, I highly recommend giving that video a peep. Sort through my resources, fact check me, and challenge me! The last thing I want to do is sit up here and spew lies, and if there is something you feel I’ve misunderstood, I would love if you emailed me at firstname.lastname@example.org to express those concerns. Who knows? We might even be able to craft a podcast or video where we address those emails, but so far we’ve been mainly receiving positive feedback. But this has been Tavis Kilian with RARE PETRO, and until we see you next time, take care everybody.