Food and Light: The uses of whale

December 6, 2012

story by Heather Smith
illustration by Yutaka Houlette
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

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 antiwhaling boats. The antiwhaling boats threw ropes into the whaling boats’ propellers. The whaling boats shot at the antiwhaling boats with a water cannon that it had purchased especially for this situation. The antiwhaling boats responded by hurling stink bombs onto the decks of the whaling boats. This, understandably, took up some valuable whaling time. The water cannon helped a little, the Fisheries Agency of Japan reported. The previous year’s haul was only 172.

In 1918, a 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.

It’s grotesque, Ishmael says, “that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light.”

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 12.5 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. “It could be done up as a stew,” the New York Times 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.

According to Ishmael, when you’re working on a whaling boat, 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, he says, “that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light.”

Those 100,000,000 pounds of whale meat mentioned at the Natural History Museum were excess from 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 1900s 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’s 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 Grytviken 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 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, 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 that Japan had stockpiled was 6,000 tons, up from 1,500 tons in 1997 and 4,000 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 10 times the maximum 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 to be not that into eating whale. “We have to think about new ways to market whale meat,” a spokesperson for the Institute for Cetacean Research told a reporter for Agence France-Presse.

Whaling today is more an idea than a business.

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 their avoiding being eaten. The whale’s oldest terrestrial ancestor, the long-extinct Indohyus, was a small deerlike creature that, the story goes, had the ability to 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 Indohyus had fully changed into the unmolested master of the briny deep, the only resemblance between the two lay 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. 

HEATHER SMITH writes about art, science, bugs, and democracy. She is currently a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.

YUTAKA HOULETTE remembers eating whale as a child in Japan and thinking it was too rubbery. He is an illustrator living in Oakland. You can see more of his work at

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

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