6,000 Elephant Seals yielded 2,000 tons of quality oil per year.
Not just whales were harvested for oil used in margarine, transmission fluid, or for lamp fuel. This puts the disturbing abuse of natural resources for energy into perspective. Most of the hunted penguins were the animated Gentoo, with their cherry red beaks right out of a Max Factor makeup commercial.
But a single whale produced 120 gallons of oil and therein was the bigger prize. All whales were taken, but the sperm whale produced an extraordinary high grade wax from the brain cavity that was worth three to five times more than any other oil.
Can we justify what our ancestors did? “They didn’t know the impact on the environment,” or “They didn’t have energy options.” Stop a moment and consider what we may be accused of in the future, with excuses made to keep dirty or dangerous fuels?
Stromness and Leith were South Georgia whaling stations, now silent testimony of the bloody past . Imagine the stench in this place as whales were hauled by chains from the water and dragged up the flat plain for processing. The area would have been slick with blood and smelled of excrement and rotting carcases. The lonely graveyards are testament of dangerous working conditions.
Fur seals were almost eradicated by 1910, but their numbers have rebounded. I think it’s poetic justice that the men are gone,but these hunted mammals populate the rusting ghost towns. (notice the blonde pup? Only 1 in 1,000 are born this color)
In 1916, Shackleton struggled to reach Stromness after enduring a hurricane in a rowboat and landing on the wrong side of this mountainous island that had never been circumvented before. Hiking up, they reached an immense glacier and took a leap of faith by sliding down the icy precipice-the quickest way to their destination. Without survival gear, ropes, or crampons, this was a huge risk. Falling into a crevasse would have meant death. But nothing was safe about Shackleton’s expedition from the first moment the Endurance got trapped in the ice.
What fortitude did it take to survive against such horrible odds?
Look back at Scott’s 1900-1904 expedition when Shackleton hired on as a third lieutenant. These two men were different breeds. Shackleton was every man’s friend and a merchant marine. Scott was elite Royal Navy and led a privileged life. This expedition was a life of hard knocks for them both. Neither skied and both were inexperienced handling dog sledges. Still, they went further south than ever before. When Shackleton collapsed with scurry and all the dogs died, it’s believed the rift between the two men exploded. Did Scott blame Shackleton, never letting him forget that he was a liability? Did Shackleton not respect Scott’s methods of authority?
Feeling himself the underdog, Shackleton would have understood what it took to be a good commander. This helps explain his unbending will to protect his men at all costs. He’d already walked in their shoes.
We also followed the last miles of The Bosses self-rescue, ducking screetching Antarctic Tern’s and visiting the station where the emergency rescue for his men began. It took Shackleton four tries and four months before conquering the ice and finding his team alive on Elephant Island. He’s not remembered for failing in life or his exploration bids. He’s honored for conquering insurmountable odds to become a hero and save lives.
Leith is close to Stromness and Japan used the facility through the 1960’s, long after baleen from whales wasn’t used for ladies umbrellas, corset stays, or riding whips.
In 2015, Japan agreed to stop hunting in Antarctica, after it was ruled illegal by the international court. But they found a loophole and harvested 333 minke whales for a “scientific program” that ended up on the dinner plate. Considering the overall amount of seafood harvested by Japan, this small quantity indicates lower consumer demand. Norway, Iceland, and Russia also have commercial whaling operations.
To play devil’s advocate, in our culture baby cows are killed as veal. Unless you are vegetarian, you eat mammals. Some cultures see whales as fish and a food source, while others see the emotional character from “Free Willy.”
The watchdog of populations and health of whales is the responsibility of the International Whaling Commission, which is a voluntary organization laying down bans.
Japan has stated they will resume harvesting whales in Antarctica. Personally, I don’t think ANY country should take ANY resources from this wilderness. This is our last pristine place, balanced in a delicate ecosystem. There are other places for controlled harvest (Example: around Norway and Iceland where historically whaling is part of the culture.)
What can you do, if you oppose harvesting of whales? Research your perfume, cosmetics, soaps and glue to be sure whale parts aren’t used. Let those companies know that you don’t support them and why. Support the International Whaling Commission and organizations that research these mammals and when you travel, do not eat whale meat. If companies don’t make money killing whales, the harvesting will stop.
Pictures below: Sei Whale, Humpback Whale and Minke. I cannot describe my excitement at being next to these giant creatures in a small zodiac boat.