Whales have supplied a bewildering array of human needs. As recently as the 1960s, whale oil went into ice cream, soap, brake fluid, linoleum and margarine; whale livers were turned into vitamin A; whale ink was used to dye typewriter ribbons; tennis rackets were strung with whales’ insides and cat food was made from whale meat. In earlier times, during the 19th century, whales provided us with whalebone corsets for pushing ladies’ bosoms into unnatural forms, with lamp oil to light houses, with the pungent perfume of ambergris for anointing monarchs or seducing lovers, and with whale ivory – the teeth – for piano keys. Now, since the international moratorium on whaling of 1986, most of this giant whale economy has collapsed. Soya beans, plastics and various mineral oils have easily taken their place. But we still exploit whales for at least one thing: myth-making.

Ever since Jonah found himself stuck in the belly of one for three days and three nights, whales have been an epic spur to the human imagination.

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