Learn About The Bloody Whaling Trade At The New Bedford Whaling Museum

If you’ve always wanted to read “Moby Dick” but have never made time for it, grab your sleeping bag and head to the New Bedford Whaling Museum the first weekend after the New Year, for their annual Moby Dick Marathon. Each year, the museum, located an hour south of Boston, marks the date in 1841 when Herman Melville set sail from New Bedford on a whaling vessel bound for the South Pacific by staging a marathon reading of the 225,000 word classic.

Anyone can sign up to take a 10-minute turn reading from the book and those who make it through the entire 25-hour performance wins a prize. Visitors camp out on the museum floor, and some bring hardtack and grog in order to dine like 19th Century whalers.

I’ve yet to make it to the Moby Dick marathon, or the whaleboat races the museum hosts in the summer, but I visited the museum last week and loved it. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, thousands of men earned their living hunting whales for their valuable oil, which illuminated lamps and lighthouses and served other purposes as well. Nantucket was America’s first real whaling capital, but New Bedford eclipsed it in the early 19th Century.

The whaling trade made New Bedford one of the wealthiest cities in the country by the mid 19th Century. By 1857, the town boasted some 329 whaling ships, barks, and schooners, valued at $12 million, which provided employment for some 10,000 men in the area.

Whalers made a living traveling on the high seas for years at a time. Melville deserted his ship after 18 months in the Marquesas (and later hooked on with other boats before eventually returning to Boston more than three years after he set sail from New Bedford), but it wasn’t uncommon for sailors to be gone from their families for 3-4 years at a time or longer. The low ranking crew members lived in deplorable conditions and were paid based on a profit sharing system that sometimes left them with little to show for years of toil under near-starvation conditions.

For example, the Whaling Museum Visitor’s Center shows a graphic about the earnings of a typical whaling vessel that was at sea for 2 years, 9 months and 22 days from 1853-5. The boat made a total profit of $75, 402, and of that, the merchant who bankrolled the enterprise made $19,793, the captain made $1,885, the chief mate $1,131, and the seaman brought home just $133 bucks a piece. Adjusted for inflation, that $133 is still only $3,442 for nearly three years of work!

But there were some perks for engaging in this bloody, thankless work. Some men preferred being out on the open seas to the bleak factories that employed so many in the 19th Century, and the opportunity to couple with comely lasses in the South Pacific was also a clear bonus.

The museum sheds light on the life of the whalers and the creatures they hunted, with some amazing visuals, like a huge replica whaleboat and some whale skeletons that kept my kids occupied while I read the displays. A series of displays showing all of the high and low tech spears and guns that were used to hunt the whales show how bloody and brutal the occupation was.

The development of kerosene from coal and advances in petroleum drilling in the mid to late 19th Century caused the gradual decline of the industry, starting in the 1860’s. The last whaling ship left New Bedford in 1925, but the town is still a busy port with a tidy, historic downtown.

The experiences Melville had at sea launched his career, though his first books, Typee and Omoo, were published as novels because few could believe that the adventures detailed were true. Americans haven’t hunted whales in many decades but the Japanese still hunt these beautiful creatures, under the dubious claim of scientific research, despite the fact that an international treaty banned the practice in 1987.

According to The Daily Telegraph, Japanese whalers intended to slaughter up to 900 whales this year but ended up hauling in 266 minke whales and one fin whale. (Whalers historically hunted fin whales but not minke whales.) The disappointing haul was due to bad weather and harassment by environmentalists, who actually succeeded in halting Japanese boats in 2011 after they killed 172 whales.

According to a display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, whales, though generally docile, did occasionally fight back, managing to sink ships on at least three occasions- the Essex in 1820, which served as the inspiration for Moby Dick, the Ann Alexander in 1851 and the Kathleen in 1902. Here’s hoping the whales figure out how to fight back against Japanese efforts to kill them for “scientific research.”

Hiking the Basque coastline

While the Sierra de Toloño offers some amazing trails and views, the most alluring sights I’ve seen in the Basque region are along its coastline.

The coast of northeast Spain and southwest France along the Bay of Biscay is part of the Basque heartland. Inland villages played a key role in keeping Basque culture alive, but it’s the ports–Bilbao, San Sebastian, and many smaller towns–that helped the Basques make their mark on world history.

Today I’m hiking a stretch of Spanish coastline east of San Sebastian and within sight of the French border. Much of my trail today corresponds with the famous Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage route stretching from France to Galicia on the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula became popular in the Middle Ages. It’s still one of the most popular trails in Europe, with a record 200,000+ hikers last year.

I can see why. Our route takes us past little towns where churches once offered medieval pilgrims spiritual solace, vineyards growing on steep slopes leading down to the sea, and wide views of the water. The coastline here is rugged, with jagged rocks jutting up from the foamy surf and numerous little islands, some topped by churches and homes.

%Gallery-124603%One of these islands has an important history. It makes up part of the little port of Getaria, home to Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Basque people’s most famous sailor. He was one of Magellan’s officers on the explorer’s circumnavigation of the globe.

The journey started in 1519 with 241 men. That number quickly dropped due to malnutrition, disease, mutiny, and storms. When Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521, two other officers took joint command. They were killed by natives soon thereafter. Another officer took over, but he proved unpopular and when his ship sprung a leak, some men decided to follow Elcano in the only remaining vessel. They finally made it back to Spain in 1522 with only 18 of the original crew.

His hometown, shown above, isn’t very big and probably wasn’t much of anything 500 years ago. I can imagine Elcano climbing to the top of that little mountain on the island that dominates Getaria and looking out over the sweeping view of the Bay of Biscay. It’s not surprising such a place produced one of the world’s greatest sailors.

Continuing along the coast we find a slope covered in thick grass. Looking out on the sea, there’s a good view of Getaria to our left and to our right, almost lost in the distance, we spot the coastline of France. It’s a perfect place for a picnic and we feast on Spanish tortilla (a bit like a thick omelet with potatoes), cheese, bread, and fresh cherries. I’ve been on a lot of hikes in Spain and I’ve eaten well on all of them. This picnic takes the prize for best view, though.

This coastline made much of its wealth from whaling. Whale oil used to be the petrol of the world, lighting up the streetlamps of Paris and London and used in a variety of products. While whales enjoy some protection today, they were hunted by the thousand until early 20th century and came close to going extinct. Basque whalers were some of the most adventurous. When stocks were used up in the Bay of Biscay and other parts of the European coastline, Basque whalers went further afield to Siberia, Iceland, Greenland, and even the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, they may have arrived in the New World before Columbus!

Our hike ends when we make it to the beach at Zarautz, an old whaling port turned resort. People are surfing and swimming, the smart ones wearing wetsuits to protect them from the cold water. When whaling died and the iron industry faltered, the Basque coast reinvented itself as a northern resort paradise for rich Europeans. San Sebastian, which I’m visiting in the next installment of this series, was one of the best. When you see the photos you’ll know why.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

The effect of Japan’s tsunami on whaling

In an ironic twist of fate, Japan’s recent tsunami may have accomplished something conservationists have been fervently attempting for years: Driving a final nail into its pro-active whaling communities.

The first outsiders only recently reached the small town of Ayukawahama, which was crushed by thirty-foot waves. So was the headquarters of the biggest business in town, Ayukawa Whaling, one of the country’s most prodigious hunters of big whales.

The waves rushed six hundred feet inland, wiping out 80 percent of the town’s 700 homes. Four hundred of its 1,400 residents are missing, assumed dead. The peninsula town is described as having been reduced to “an expanse of splintered wood and twisted cars.”

In these days two weeks after the natural disaster the impact on the whaling town carries a kind of finality. Ayukawa lives off whaling. It is one of just four communities in Japan home to small fleets that twice a year hunt whales in waters close to Japan, differentiating them from the fleet that heads to the Southern Ocean each November.

“There is no Ayukawa without whaling,” said a 27-year-old whaler.The four boats of Ayukawa Whaling were sucked out to sea by the retreating tsunami waves, thrown back onto shore a mile down the coastline. The company’s 28 employees ran for the hills. All survived but have now been laid off.

The company’s chairman told the New York Times that while he hoped to rebuild the factory, refloat the company’s boats and get back to hunting whales, he admitted it wouldn’t be any time soon. It will take months and lots of money to pull his boats back onto the sea; his processing plant for whale meat was reduced to splinters.

Nearby the daughter of a 54-year-old woman scavenging for food found a tin of whale meat among the debris. “I wish we could eat whale meat every day,” said the 17-year-old. “But the whalers are so old, I think they’ll just quit or retire after what has happened.

“I think whaling is dead here.”

During the height of the Southern Ocean campaign which usually runs from November to March, many news stories can make it seem like whale hunting – and whale meat eating — is a passion for all Japanese. The reality is that Japan does not thrive on whale meat and there are increasingly fewer companies engaged in whale hunting.

Despite the success of the Sea Shepherd’s this past season – its successful harassment forcing the Japanese to end its season early and reducing its take by some 75 percent, to less than 200 whales – the tsunami waves may ultimately get credit for stopping the hunt.

If you follow the exploits of Sea Shepherd and its outspoken leader, Captain Paul Watson, you’d think they might be celebrating aboard its mother ship, the “Steve Irwin.” But Watson’s public reaction has been appropriately muted:

“Nature does not play favorites and just as the earthquake struck New Zealand recently, the fires ravaged Australia two years ago, and the tsunami struck India and Thailand not so very long ago, the message is clear — we all share the dangers of living on the water planet called earth,” he wrote.

“In the face of such peril from the forces of nature, we are all equal.

I have heard many people say that Japan’s tragedy is karma. People who say such things do not understand the concept of karma. This earthquake struck Japan purely on the basis of geography and geology.”

In another twist, the Japanese factory processing ship “Nisshin Maru,” which the Shepherd’s had hounded back to port a month early, is being used by the Japanese government to deliver aid supplies (charcoal, 100,000 noodle cups, kerosene, cranes) to the hard-hit north.

“Sea Shepherd believes that the ‘Nisshin Maru’ should be permanently converted into a humanitarian aid vessel,” suggested its website.

But the Japanese have rebuilt from the dust before and started over, with great success. One Ayukawa whaler was quoted two days after the tsunami: “As long as there are people who will carry on whaling in the absence of vessels or facilities, whaling could be revived … eventually.”

Whale Wars resumes: Sea Shepherd and Japanese Fleets Head Back to the Southern Ocean

Whaling season in the Southern Ocean is off and gunning, with both Japanese and Sea Shepherd ships alike steaming for the fertile hunting grounds off Antarctica

Last season was largely regarded a “win” for the conservation group (even though it sacrificed its $2 million chase boat, the “Ady Gil,” in a collision with a whaling ship) since the whalers missed their goals by a wide margin.

The Japanese fleet of seven ships had hoped to take home 850 minke whale — in the name of science and research in order to avoid the international moratorium against whaling that’s been on the books since 1986 — but successfully hunted only 506. They’d also hoped for 10 fin whales, but killed just one.

This year, perhaps due to the increased visibility the Shepherd’s campaign has attracted thanks to Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” series (the upcoming season will be the fourth it has documented), the Japanese fleet left port several weeks later than usual for its annual five-month hunt.

The size of its fleet was reduced as well. Last year it included a factory ship, three harpoon ships, a supply ship and two patrol vessels; this year’s fleet has been cut by at least three ships. At the same time the Shepherd’s have beefed up their harassment team by replacing the sunken “Ady Gil” with a 115-foot monohull named “Gojira,” Japanese for Godzilla, which combines the words for “gorilla” and “whale.”

The state of Washington-based group’s mainstays the “Bob Barker” and “Steve Irwin,” as well as a faster helicopter, all of which departed Hobart, Tasmania last week, will join the speedboat, which previously held a record for blasting around the world in just 74 days.(The off-season was hardly quiet for the Shepherd’s, particularly the “Ady Gil’s” skipper Pete Bethune who spent four months in a Japanese jail and was given a two-year suspended jail term by a Japanese court for boarding one of the whaling ships. Despite having spent an estimated $1 million defending Bethune, after the trial the group’s charismatic commodore Paul Watson engaged in a public spat with the just-freed Kiwi over who exactly and what had caused the sinking of the “Ady Gil.” Apparently peace has been made though, and Bethune has launched his own group intent on protecting pilot whales in the Faroe Islands.)

Pro-whaling countries are not backing down from a fight. In a two-day meeting last week in Shimonoseki, Japan, representatives from 24 countries and regions convened to “map out their joint campaign” for resuming whaling.

Greenpeace campaigners predicted from Tokyo that this was saber rattling and that the reduced Japanese fleet and late departure means the 2010-2011 hunt will produce less than half of last year’s hoped-for-quota.

“As of August 2010, there were over 5,700 tons of whale meat in frozen storage, over a year’s supply,” said Greenpeace’s Wakao Hanaoka. “This wasteful taxpayer-backed program produces product no one in Japan wants.” He cited surveys that suggested even a majority of Japanese are against whaling in the distant high seas.

flickr image via gsz

Eating whale in Greenland

Don’t hate me but I ate whale meat. More than once and from more than one species (cringe).

I didn’t do it for the sake of boasting–I’ve eaten whale before in other countries. I did it because when you get invited over for dinner at somebody’s house in Greenland and they serve you whale, you just eat it and smile and say, “Qujanaq”(thank you).

As a guest in Greenland, I was first served a tender whale steak smothered in caramelized onions, and honestly-it was good. I still felt uneasy about eating it, though–I was indoctrinated by the Save the Whales campaigns of the 1980s and still believe that commercial whaling is fundamentally unnecessary.

Perhaps more disturbing was seeing humpback whale on a plate, which I also tasted and felt guilty about. Hunting humpbacks is banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and the species is still listed as endangered under the United States’ Endangered Species Act. However, the IWC does include an “aboriginal subsistence whaling” clause that recognizes tradition and allows indigenous hunting communities to take enough for their own consumption, as long as its done “sustainably”, meaning within the limits of internationally-recognized quotas.

The Inuit of Greenland have been whaling for a few thousand years and that won’t change any time soon. While visiting the southern town of Qaqortoq, a minke whale was hunted and butchered right down in the harbor. What followed was an odd blend of ancient tradition and 21st century technology: cell phones buzzed around town to spread the news, and all the old folks gathered around to chat and linger. It was a big event–whole families walked in to look over the meat, people brought their own bags and carefully picked out the morsel they wanted. For a few minutes, I was able to suspend judgment and just witness the way life is lived in Greenland.And life in Greenland includes eating whale. Not all the time-whale meat is rare and not eaten everyday. Also, whale isn’t cheap. In the supermarket, a pound of narwhal costs around $40. Smoked salmon is far more abundant and much cheaper, as is musk ox and reindeer (also tasty). But whale is the delicacy people love and the way Greenlanders talk about it is not unlike Americans raving about KFC-it’s oh so wrong, but it just tastes so good.

At some point, all travelers have to find that balance between personal beliefs (“But I’m a vegetarian!”) and simple respect towards the place they are visiting. For me, that meant eating tiny chunks of whale blubber as an appetizer at a cocktail party in Narsarsuaq.%Gallery-103128%