The Uses of Whale

Originally published in Meatpaper, Issue 19, (aka “The Fissue”)

In 2011, Japan killed 266 minke whales and one fin whale  during hunting season in the Antarctic. It had hoped for 900, but whaling boats were followed by anti-whaling boats. The anti whaling boats threw ropes into the whaling boats’ propellers. The whaling boats shot at the anti-whaling boats with a water cannon that it had purchased especially for this situation. The anti-whaling boats responded by hurling stink bombs onto the deck of the whaling boats. This, understandably, took up some valuable whaling time. The water cannon helped a little, the Fisheries Agency reported. The previous year’s haul was only 172.

In 1918, group of prominent Americans sat down to a meal of whale, coffee, and gingerbread at the Museum of Natural History. The Federal Food Administrator, a man named Arthur Williams, told a reporter covering the story for the New York Times that it was as delicious a morsel as the most aesthetic or sophisticated palate could possibly hope for. Other guests described it as tasting like pot roast.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the Museum of Natural History, told the assembled guests that he had “ascertained from reliable sources” that 100,000,000 pounds of whale meat could be supplied annually to the United States of America at 12 and a half cents a pound – a lot of meat in an era when chicken was seen as a special occasion food and a lot of Americans still ate squirrel.   Seraphin Millon, head chef at Delmonico’s, then proceeded to describe “nearly a dozen” ways of cooking whale meat.”It could be done up as a stew,” the article stated. “It could be curried and served on toast. It could be made into a “Deep Sea Pie,” as delicious as any pot pie that was ever invented.”

In 1851 , Moby Dick was published, two years before the “Golden Age” of American whaling reached its peak, and just a few decades before its irretrievable decline. The book was a chatty, at times journalistic exegesis of the whaling industry – Melville felt that whaling had never been written about as it was actually lived – as a business, as a job, as a floating office that you could rarely escape.

And so he wrote about everything, including the edibility of whale. “Only the most unprejudiced of men nowadays partake of cooked whales” the book’s narrator, Ishmael, confides, just a few paragraphs after Stubb, the second mate of the Pequod, demands that a subordinate climb down the side of the hull and cut him a bedtime steak out of the whale killed that afternoon.

When you’re working on a whaling boat, Ishmael continues, eating whale is inevitable. As blubber is rendered into whale oil in kettles mounted on the ship deck,shipmen will dip their biscuits into them to pass the night watch. But Stubb, Ishmael continues, is an oddity. It’s grotesque, Ishmael continued “That a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light.”

Those 10,000,000 pounds of whale meat mentioned at the Natural History Museum were excess from of a new technology: the ability to distill fuel from petroleum. At first the ability to refine oil from petroleum seemed like an unexpected gift to the whales – whale oil had been the fuel that lit and lubricated the Industrial Revolution, converting whales from large curiosities into great sentient oil deposits that made or broke the fortunes of the investors who sent ships out to tangle with them.

By 1910, just a few decades after the crash in whale oil, fishing vessels began to be outfitted with diesel engines. Whaling was profitable again – not because whale was valuable, but because now boats could move as quickly as they did. Instead of being converted into light this time whales were transmuted into margarine and pet food.

Those early decades of the 1900’s were also the early years of whale science. The Museum of Natural History itself dispatched researchers, and those researchers found themselves, as whale scientists of this era inevitably did, in Grytviken, the major whaling camp of the Antarctic,. At Grytviken the sea ran literally blood-red. It cured the white paint on a ship’s hull to a dull yellow. One scientist wrote home apologizing for his inability to make oceanographic observations during this part of the voyage, due to the ship being surrounded with “hot glue water, entrails, and various discharges.”

Steam winches dragged whales on shore to be butchered by men in nail-studded boots who climbed them “like mountaineers, cutting steps up the flesh as footholds,” wrote D. Graham Burnett years later in his history The Sounding of the Whale. The shores of Grtyviken were lined with macerated bone. Half-dismembered whale carcasses floated in the bay like abandoned ships. “What penalty,” another scientist confided, years later, “I used to wonder, would the gods in due time inflict for such a sacrilege?”

In 1986  the global anti-International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling, except for subsistence use by groups like the Inuit. Japan and Norway continued whaling on the grounds that they were not whaling, but conducting scientific research on how many whales there were so that they could tell when would be time to start whaling again and also on the grounds that they were whaling nations and very sentimental about it and finally because other nations were hypocrites inexplicably attached to whales but perfectly happy eating the last of everything else in the ocean. Maseuku Komatsu, a senior official in the Japanese Fishing Industry, described minke whales, as “a cockroach in the oceans. There are too many and the speed of swimming is so quick.”

Whaling today is more an idea than a business. Both Japan and Norway subsidize their whaling industries. In 2011 the amount of frozen whale Japan had stockpiled was 6000 tons, up from 1500 tons in 1997 and 4000 tons in 2005. School lunch programs, the historic dumping ground for subsidized meat, proved problematic. In 2007, tests run by a local assemblyman in a rural whaling town revealed that whale sold at the local supermarket contained ten times the recommended levels of methyl mercury – he used the tests as grounds to ban whale from the school cafeteria. Two centuries of industry had made whale inedible in another way. Whales live for a long time – in the modern era those who wish to avoid bioaccumulated toxins feed their children meat from the short-lived. .

A generational shift was happening, and young Japanese were proving just not that into eating whale. “We have,” a spokesperson for the Institute for Cetacean Research told a reporter for Agence France-Presse, “to think about new ways to market whale meat.”

Meanwhile, whales are shifting their migration routes off the coast of California. they now take more direct paths to Baja California and have discarded the circuitous ones that were adopted, scientists have theorized, by whalers who once lurked and waited for them along the coastline.

It’s a tough business being useful to someone else’s livelihood, or dinner. One story of how whales returned to the oceans in the first place has to do with avoiding being eaten. The whale’s oldest terrestrial ancestor, the long-extinct Indohyus, was a small deerlike creature which, the story goes, had the ability escape predators by diving underwater and holding its breath for long periods of time.

At the time, underwater must have felt like a pretty safe place to be. By the time it had fully changed into the unmolested master of the briny deep, the only resemblance between the two would lie in the delicate bones of the ear. But it worked. For millions of years after they were diner more often than dinner.

Now they are something in between predator and prey: hunted, but rarely eaten. Six thousand tons of uneaten whale says that cetaceans have found themselves once again in an age when they are useless. The trick this time will be parlaying inedibility into safety.