Whales as oil wells

Modern life relies heavily on oil. We use it to power our vehicles, and use the gas that collects above it to heat our homes. We make plastics from it. Yet the first oil well was drilled in only 1859. Before that, people collected oil at ‘seeps’ where it appears above ground — and they got it from whales. The horrendous whale hunting of the 19th century, centred on Nantucket in America, was all about oil. The whales that were slaughtered were boiled down in strips, on the ships, to extract oil from their blubber. It was used for lighting and it oiled the machinery of the industrial revolution. In the 1840s, over 700 whaling ships plied the world’s oceans, 400 of which had their home port in New Bedford, Massachusetts, called ‘the city that lit the world’. The journeys to the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic coast in pursuit of whales often lasted years and were very dangerous, not only for the whales. Oddly, just as oil now yields both fuel and plastics, so did whales. The ‘whalebone’, which was not really bone, was used in some of the same ways as plastic is used now, for toys, stiffening rods in clothes and even the springs beneath typewriter keys. (Baleen is the flexible, fibrous material that makes up the filter some whales have in place of teeth.)

Yes, this is a terrible waste of whales. It’s just as well we stopped. But mineral oil is a terrible waste of everything. Whales won’t like living in a hot sea. Turn the heating off, put on a jumper… Save the whales. Again.

Find out more about the history of oil production or whaling.

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