the whale


Philip Hoare is best known for his biography of Noel Coward, but he turns his attention to a much grimmer subject than the follies of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” in “The Whale,” an eminently readable chronicle of the tragic interaction between humans and whales. Using Herman Melville’s life and “Moby-Dick” as touchstones, Hoare traces the whaling industry from its origins in 18th century New England to the present. Although the basic story of the near-extermination of the great whales is well known, the numbers Hoare cites are staggering. In the mid-18th century, more than 5,000 street lamps burned whale oil every night in London alone. Turning whales into oil, corset stays and scrimshaw was big business: “By 1833, seventy thousand souls and seventy million dollars were tied up in whaling and its associated crafts; ten years later that figure had nearly doubled. The United States exported a million gallons of oil to Europe each year.” Production on that scale decimated whale populations: more than 1 million sperm whales swam the world’s oceans in 1712; by the end of the 20th century 360,000 existed.

more from Charles Solomon at the LA Times here.