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The great pursuit

Leviathan The History of Whaling in America Eric Jay Dolin W.W. Norton: 480 pp., $27.95

July 08, 2007|Debby Applegate | Debby Applegate is the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for "The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher."

ON Jan. 3, 1841, a 21-year-old schoolteacher named Herman Melville set sail aboard the Acushnet, a Yankee whale ship headed for the South Seas. After 15 grueling months, Melville jumped ship in the cannibal-infested Marquesas Islands, figuring that even being eaten would be better than life on a whaler. Still, this failed voyage had a remarkable effect on American culture. Inspired by true stories of vengeful whales -- particularly the sinking of the Essex by an enraged sperm whale and the exploits of an albino whale nicknamed Mocha Dick, legendary for his ferocious attacks on whale ships off Chile -- Melville's tale of Captain Ahab's suicidal obsession with killing the white whale Moby-Dick has become a symbol of humankind's doomed struggle to subdue nature.

On April 27, 1975, a group calling itself the Stop Ahab Committee sailed out of Vancouver on the Phyllis Cormack, a fishing boat chartered by the Greenpeace Foundation in its first whale campaign, to hunt down and halt a Soviet fleet. The Russians were found among a school of sperm whales 40 miles off California near Cape Mendocino.

With cameras rolling, group members maneuvered themselves between a Soviet ship and its target, as a cannon-fired harpoon flew over their heads and exploded in the side of a whale. The international uproar created when this shocking film footage appeared on TV was a critical turning point in the early environmental movement, putting Greenpeace on the map and culminating seven years later in one of the movement's great success stories, the first international whaling ban. Greenpeace's rallying cry of "Save the Whales!" helped make environmentalism mainstream and became the symbol of our effort to shift from the habits of exploitation to the habits of conservation.

Whales have always captured the imagination. God himself favored them, according to the King James Bible, not only creating them before all other creatures but giving them their own line in the book of Genesis, Chapter 1, Verse 21: "And God created great whales." They are truly sea monsters, seemingly half-animal, half-fish, yet mammals like us. They represent nature at its most extreme in size and power and mystery.

At the same time, as Eric Jay Dolin observes in "Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America," they were also America's first successful international industry, one that employed hundreds of thousands of workers and created enormous wealth. Whale oil was a key ingredient in the production of soap, textiles leather, paint and lubricants, and above all, it was a source of light. The baleen, a flexible but sturdy keratinous material cut from the whale's jaw, was used for hoop skirts, corsets, brush bristles and other everyday objects. Yet whaling was not just any business, like timber or mining. Unlike a stand of trees or a vein of gold, whales fought back. These violent battles between the leviathans and the "iron men in wooden boats," waged in a vast and dangerous ocean, give the subject a rare drama and poignancy.

Dolin, who holds a doctorate in environmental policy and planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and works as a fisheries policy analyst for the National Marine Fisheries Service, begins his story in 1614, with the arrival in New England of the legendary Capt. John Smith in pursuit of gold, copper and whales, dubbed "the Royal Fish" by the English settlers. No gold was discovered, just whales in astonishing abundance. The Pilgrims described watching schools of whales frolicking just offshore, easy to reach but grievously difficult to catch. Instead, the colonists practiced "drift whaling," harvesting the dead or injured mammals that frequently washed ashore. In one 1700 account, a woman walking the beach between what is now East Hampton and Bridgehampton, Long Island, passed no fewer than 13 stranded whales.

But this easy bounty didn't last long. Demand for whale oil exploded in the 1730s, when London began mandating the use of street lamps from sundown to sunrise as a crime-fighting measure. In response, enterprising Yankee colonists began "shore whaling," sailing out with harpoons to hunt within a few miles of the coastline. By 1760, those whales were gone and colonists were forced to go farther out to sea.

Through a combination of opportunity, innovation and obsessive devotion to their craft, the Americans quickly built the most sophisticated and well-capitalized whale industry in the world. They developed techniques, such as moving the furnaces for processing whale oil directly onto their ships, creating one of the first industrial assembly lines and turning their vessels into "floating factories" that allowed for longer, more profitable voyages. They invented spermaceti candles, the brightest, cleanest-burning candles in the world and a tremendously valuable international commodity, further pushing up demand for whales and leading to the creation of the "Spermaceti Trust," the globe's first energy cartel.

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