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Whaling in New Bedford: Shaping Culture, Economy, and Conservation Efforts

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

Whaling- the killing of whales for food and oil- is an atrocious business that was previously carried out worldwide by nations with maritime borders and is responsible for the shocking amount of 16,000 whales killed annually for an extended period of 83 years. On the other hand, New Bedford is a coastal city in southeastern Massachusetts, and the city was previously one of the world's largest whaling cities, with a long history as a flourishing whaling hub during the 19th century.


Whaling first derived in New Bedford in the 19th century. The industry grew rapidly and became the main industry in New Bedford. It attracted adventurous sailors and entrepreneurs from around the world seeking for opportunities and wealth. The city's strategic location and natural harbor made it an ideal base for whaling expeditions. The whaling industry boomed, bringing wealth, trade, and cultural diversity to New Bedford. The economic impact of whaling transformed the city into the world's leading whaling port, shaping its growth and identity. People needed the whaling industry as the oil extracted from whales are effective material for fuel and light.


However, as the public recognized and condemned the gruesome nature of the practice and more effective and humane alternatives for whale oil emerged, the whaling industry declined. Consequentially, New Bedford shifted its main industry into fishery and tourism.


The New Bedford Whaling Museum is a product of this significant shift. The New Bedford Whaling Museum was founded in 1903, and its rich history reveals an intimate relationship with the communities it serves.


Whaling was deeply intertwined with the cultural fabric of New Bedford. It shaped the lives of its residents, fostering a unique sense of identity. This is particularly shown through the artifacts, artworks, and exhibitions in relevance to whaling displayed in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Today, the museum serves as a promotion for whale preservation and as a representation of the area's heritage and culture.


Installed in 2012, the permanent exhibition of scrimshaws is an outstanding illustration of the cultural network constructed around the whaling industry. Scrimshaw refers to the intricate carvings and engravings made on materials like whale ivory, bone, baleen, and walrus ivory. These materials were often considered byproducts of the whaling industry and provided sailors with an outlet for their creativity during long voyages at sea. The art of scrimshaw was deeply rooted in the whaling occupation, with sailors using the hard byproducts of their hunts to create works of art. Sperm whale teeth were polished and engraved with pictures, while walrus ivory and baleen were also utilized for their artistic potential. The pieces created through scrimshaw ranged from engraved pictures on teeth to sculptural forms, human and animal figures, handles, tools, and ornamental pieces for various objects. Scrimshaw not only showcased the artistic skills of the whalers but also served as mementos and gifts for their loved ones back home. The pieces often depicted a wide range of subjects, including whaling scenes, portraits of famous figures, patriotic themes, and domestic scenes. The diversity of scrimshaw was remarkable, with artisans utilizing additional materials such as wood, metal, shells, and cloth to enhance their creations.


Furthermore, the whaling industry's intricating impact on society is also shown through relevant stories and folklore passed down by generations. Folklore, mythology, and cultural memories about whales can tell us a great deal about human interaction with whales across cultures. In every culture, such stones function to encapsulate cultural beliefs about the origins of people, nature, and the universe and provide insight into the meaning of the universe and people's place within it. For most of human history, these myths were not written but passed down orally from generation to generation; they reinforced cultural beliefs, taught children about the world around them, and revealed the place of humans and whales in the world.


The museum not only depicts the history of whaling and its impact on New Bedford's culture, but it also emphasizes the necessity of whale conservation and meaningful contributions that an individual can make. The lobby of the museum, in particular, embodied posters and exhibitions with figures depicting the reduction of the whale population and the impact of the whaling industry's genocide on whales. Whaling causes a significant drop in whale populations and puts whales at risk of extinction. Between 1900 and 1999, scientists estimate that 2.9 million whales were killed, and many species experienced catastrophic cutbacks. According to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the pre-whaling whale population was staggering. There were around 160,000 to 240,000 Blue Whales, approximately 150,000 Humpback Whales, and an astounding number of 1,000,000 Sperm Whales, according to estimates. The Blue Whale population is now a fraction of what it was before whaling, with an estimated population of 10,000 to 25,000 individuals. Similarly, the population of Humpback Whales has declined, with an estimated population of roughly 40,000. Sperm Whales, which formerly numbered in the millions, are now thought to number around 300,000 individuals.


Additionally, the importance of preserving and protecting the whale population was also demonstrated in the exhibitions. Specifically, whales play a vital role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems. As apex predators, they regulate the populations of their prey species, such as krill and small fish, contributing to the maintenance of marine ecosystem balance. Moreover, whales contribute to carbon sequestration and mitigating climate change through their vital role in the oceanic food chain. Thus, preserving and protecting whale populations is essential for the health and sustainability of our oceans. The museum showed the threats whales are currently facing, such as ocean pollution, hunting, ship strikes, entanglement, and habitat loss. Nonetheless, it also advocates actions individuals can adopt to help preserve the whale population. It specifically mentioned a routine called "keep watch, slow down, stay away, report," which describes the ideal set of actions individuals should implement when they see a whale during a sail.


In conclusion, whaling holds a significant place in the history, culture, and conservation efforts of New Bedford. Understanding the historical and cultural aspects of whaling helps us develop an understanding of how it shapes New Bedford's culture and economics. Recognizing the ecological importance of whales and the need to protect them is essential for the sustainability of our marine ecosystems.



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