Navigating the Whale Holocaust

Earlier this summer I visited the Whaling Museum on Nantucket. It reminded me of a non-human Holocaust Memorial Museum but with a twist. There was no thread of shame or horror running through the museum. No regular reminders of the atrocities we committed on this intelligent and beautiful species that has every right to life that we do.1 Instead, this was for the most part an amoral treatment of the whole period in Americans’ history of whaling (which I should point out stopped not because we grew a conscience but because it was no longer lucrative).2 The exhibit started with an exploration of the early history of Nantucket—the brief and almost required part about Indigenous peoples being there first (and the following sanitized bit about their removal). Then some information about the first colonist families to settle the island, and the entrepreneurs that built the island into a whaling powerhouse, and surprisingly, a Quaker stronghold as well.3

Imagine killing this majestic being as a job. (Engraving by Amable Nicolas Fournier via Wikipedia)

The Spermaceti of Darkness

Draining the spermaceti from a sperm whale’s head. By the bucket. (1864 illustration via Wikipedia)

After the gentile descriptions of the founders, the exhibit heads straight into the meat of the matter: the hunt, the flaying of the whale corpses, how much each ship would make on a whale. Interestingly, while the captain and investors did well, the lowest paid sailors might actually owe more after a journey than they earned, meaning they’d have to head out immediately on the next hunt.

The next room went straight into a detailed treatment of how to get the sperm oil out of the spermaceti organ (in a sperm whale’s head). While most banal, this was perhaps the most horrific segment. As the exhibit explained, after extracting spermaceti from hunted whales’ heads and boiling it to prevent it going rancid, it was then brought to a facility where, like olives, the spermaceti was pressed in a giant machine, extracting different grades of oil (extra virgin, in the case of olives, or “winter-strained sperm oil” in the case of sperm whales (with the waxy remains being made into candles and other products). But unlike in the concentration camp memorial museum in Dachau, for example, there was minimal (if any) ignominy conveyed with this rendering.

An important note at this point: I don’t make the comparison to the Holocaust or how it is remembered lightly. The Holocaust (with a capital-H) refers to the specific and horrific World War II genocide of six million Jews and several million other “undesirable” humans, many burned in crematoriums (historically, holocaust actually meant an offering that was burnt completely on an altar). The slaughtering of more than three million whales was absolutely also a genocide, and considering that these beings were turned into oil and wax primarily to burn, holocaust seems a fitting word for their treatment as well.4

The Whale Oil Press at the Whaling Museum. If only there were some regular reminders in the museum of the horror patrons were witnessing. (Image of Whale Oil Press from Nantucket Historical Association)

A Whale Called Moby

But there was one moment of triumph in the museum, where I found my spirits lifting rather than the feeling of shame and sadness I felt walking through Dachau thirty years ago (and now the Whaling Museum). It was the equivalent of reading about Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto rebelling or prisoners collaborating to take out Nazi camp administrators. You can’t help but cheer for them. A whale, for some reason (perhaps having seen others in his pod hunted, like in Avatar: The Way of Water), decided to ram the whaling ship, Essex, and destroyed it. The whalers abandoned their ship and boarded their lifeboats. But, fearing there were cannibalistic savages on the nearest islands (20-30 days away), they headed instead for South America. And as that was a long journey (three months), they ended up eating each other instead—first the corpses, but in one boat, lots were drawn, and a man, Owen Coffin, got the short stick. Yes, that’s ironic (trying to avoid cannibals, they become cannibals themselves), as well as tragic. Though after witnessing such brutality, how could one not feel a moment of elation when reading about this whale’s victory over the Essex?5

There was another whole room at the museum celebrating the beautiful items made from whale bones and teeth—from carvings to kitchen tools. Again, there was a complete lack of recognition that these works of art came at the terrible expense of living, sentient beings. (Image of carved sperm whale tooth by Merlynne6 via Wikipedia)

An Orca Rebellion

Also noted in the discussion of the Essex was that it served as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. That was new to me and makes me want to read this famous novel (I had to read just an excerpt in high school). But truthfully, more exciting than this fictionalized account is the ongoing cultural evolution in a pod of killer whales off the coast of Spain.5 Since 2020, a group of playful, vengeful, or perhaps foresighted orcas has been battering boats, damaging rudders and even hulls, and recently other orcas have adopted this practice as well.

From the news accounts, it’s not clear they’re being malicious, but have just made a game of bumping boats and breaking rudders. Though one hypothesis is that a pregnant orca was injured by a boat and learned to protect herself and her calf or even fight back. But whatever the motive, especially as no one’s been injured, and the orcas are just damaging rich peoples’ sailing vessels, I can’t say there’s not part of me that takes a bit of joy in this little play/turf-guarding/rebellion.6 After all, it’s put one small cluster of humans back in their place a bit, where they have to think twice before venturing into the ocean like they own it.

Unfortunately this rebellion has little chance of spreading to other pods as different pods “don’t speak the same language,” as Deborah Giles, the science and research director at Wild Orca, notes. But as with the Essex, it’s nice to hear of at least one instance when the creatures of the sea win for once.

What explains orcas’ behaviors? Play or revenge…. (PBS video exploring this group of orcas’ unique cultural adaptation)

Go (Away) Whalers!

It could’ve been worse, it could’ve included a harpoon as an earlier logo featured. (Hartford Whalers’ logo designed by Peter Good at Wikipedia)

The final room in the museum celebrated Nantucket’s revival—from post-industrial failure to a rich site for tourism (to the point that home prices are so high, it’s now difficult to live there). But again, what was most fascinating was New England’s continued celebration of whaling up until the present.7 I grew up cheering for the Hartford Whalers, our local ice hockey team whose jersey had a W and a whale fin, set perfectly so the H (of Hartford) was visible in the white space between them. As a kid, did I understand when cheering these hockey players (Go Whalers!) that the name was a tribute to the slaughter of millions of whales? And as the row of different team jerseys revealed that wasn’t the only Whalers team out there.

While the Whaling Museum should absolutely continue teaching visitors about Nantucket and its role in this industry, it should not treat this in a values-neutral way. Or even an ‘Oops, we didn’t know better’ way but should treat it in the same way the African slave trade, the Holocaust are, and how the treatment of Indigenous peoples should be.8


1) That’s not to say hunting of whales is always unforgivable—in an Indigenous context when this was one of the only viable food and fuel sources for communities, this practice may have been justified, just as it is sometimes justified to kill other animals or even humans (as rare as that might truly be). While some will surely argue that no killing is allowed—whether of other humans, of other creatures, or especially whales and other charismatic megafauna, when whales were many, humans few, and when the act was respectful and ritually bounded (limiting this practice) I think it could be justified (especially if it meant life or death for a community). There are many justifiable exceptions to the rule of thou shalt not kill other human beings as well, especially when that individual threatens anothers wellbeing.

2) The exhibit specifically points out how whaling wound down in Nantucket: a big fire that consumed much of the town; men leaving to search for gold in California; more men leaving to fight in world wars; the growth of ships and the railroad (making Nantucket a poorer harbor and less accessible than coastal alternatives), and the development of fossil fuels as a better replacement to whale oil.

3) Why the Quakers, with all their non-violent focus, did not concern themselves with the slaughter of whales is a question worth exploring.

4) Even more history on the term holocaust: the term was used for other massacres before World War II, as early as 1190, such as a massacre of 1,300 people burned in a church by French troops, and was also used to refer to the genocide of Armenians by Ottomans (both in the 1890s and during World War I).

5) Yes, yes, killer whales are members of the dolphin family but I doubt whalers made this distinction and hunted them too.

6) It’s worth noting that if these were humans, there is a strong argument to be made for this approach. They are essentially deflating tires in SUVs (or maybe pouring sugar in gas tanks), as Andreas Malm discusses in How to Blow Up a Pipeline. They’re not hurting anyone, and if people stay out of their area, they will not be bothered. Of course, in this case we do not understand their motives—it could be fun, territory-defense, perhaps even pushing out those competing with/disrupting their tuna-fishing grounds. Though I’d like to believe their actions have a higher purpose!

7) It is worth noting that there was no celebration of the whale’s resistance at the Whaling Museum, instead the whale was further dehumanized by calling it “enraged” even though accounts suggest its action was more deliberate than that (it ”quietly observed the ship from a hundred meters away” before suddenly striking). The descriptions also note that the ship was already half full of whale oil, so maybe the whale truly did witness its brutal activities. If we’re going to anthropomorphize the whale, it makes as much sense to consider this a sign of wisdom as rage.

8) Bonus Photo:

Imagine the irreverence of having a Holiday Party at a museum commemorating mass murder. (Image from Whaling Museum Photo Gallery)
Share this Reflection:

3 Responses

  1. Anna Churchill

    I hope you will share this reflection with the museum.

  2. John

    Scary how many times I’ve walked through that museum as a child without even blinking an eye. Great reflection, thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *