One of the things Caili first realized about me is that I get obsessed with certain topics really quickly. It might be called either “Neil’s latest fascination” or “Neil’s flavor of the week.” No matter what you call it, this is what happens: I get deeply interested in a random subject, learn everything there is to know about it…and promptly lose interest after about two weeks. I’ve covered a lot of ground with my fascinations over the last few years, from English Premier League soccer to obscure historical murders, from Lyndon Johnson (a complete maniac) to the 1910s (one of the most turbulent decades ever). But one of my favorite fascinations ever—one that holds a special place in my Wikipedia-addicted heart—is whales and whaling.
Like most of my momentary obsessions, my interest in whales started with a book: the fantastic In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. (I cannot recommend this book enough. Buy it now.) Here are some things that are awesome about whales and whaling:
- In the 1800s, whale oil (extracted from the whales’ brains) was so prized for its use in street lamps and as heating oil that sailors traveled from the East Coast of the U.S. to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to collect it. There was no Panama Canal so this involved sailing from Massachusetts out into the Atlantic and then around the bottom of South America, all in an old-timey sailing ship. This is absolutely insane to do.
- To kill a whale, sailors got into glorified rowboats and paddled for miles, finally spotted a whale and then attempted to stab it in the head with a harpoon at point-blank range. This is even crazier than bullet #1 above, because it didn’t kill the whale but only pissed him off.
- Whaling was so absurdly dangerous that at the industry’s peak, about 25% of the adult women in Nantucket were widows on account of their husbands getting eaten by whales like in Pinocchio. (Or maybe just drowning.)
- Remember when you were in grade school and some kid made a joke about sperm whales? “Sperm, heh heh,” went the joke. Well, that was an accurate joke. They were named that because the oil in their heads looks like semen. Not kidding. They were also called “right whales,” because they were the right whale to kill if you wanted to earn a bunch of money. Sailors in those days were pretty literal.
- Once they had a whale captured and exhausted enough to finish him off, sailors turned the deck of their ship into a full-blown butcher shop, hacking the whale up and getting just the parts they needed. Can you imagine how much blood there was? I bet you’re getting lightheaded just reading this.
Those are some of the best things I remember from my 2-week whaling obsession. Stay tuned for more of my momentary obsessions and let me know if you have a topic you think I’d enjoy—I’ll love it for a while and then discard it like a bunch of old whale blubber.