Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World

| July 11, 2010

The PBS film “Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World” examines the history of whaling and the role it played in American life. Before the advent of petrochemicals, the oil that fueled everything from lamps to lubricants to cosmetics came from the blubber and skin of whales, making the whaling trade an extremely high commodity. Throughout the film, historical eyewitness accounts of those who participated in whaling are read, detailing not only the extreme danger the men encountered, but also the brutality with which they killed the whales. Whales were not seen as animals, but rather a highly coveted asset; it was noted that very few voiced any concern of potential over-whaling and extinction.
Nantucket was noted as the heart of whaling, acting as the main American port for ships to sail in and out of. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the late 1700’s that ships finally rounded the tip of South America at Cape Horn to tap into the vast Pacific ocean with their whaling fleets – before then, thousands of ships only swarmed the Atlantic ocean. One such ship was the infamous whaling ship the Essex, who although successfully made their way into the seemingly untapped Pacific, ended up sinking due to a battle with an incredible sperm whale – inspiring the classic novel “Moby Dick”.
With graphic detail, including some very old film footage, we learn about how exactly the whaling process worked – from the gruesome harpooning to the conversion of the blubber into oil on the ship itself, making the ships floating factories. A fourteen year-old cabin boy named Thomas Nickerson, wrote an account of his experience while on the Essex: “There is a murderous appearance to the blood stained decks. The huge masses of blubber and flesh laying there, and the voracity and looks of the men heightened by the red glares of the fires.”
The seamen on these whaling ships endured extreme conditions, including examples on the Essex disaster of the shipmates getting lost, running out of food and water, and having to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. Ironically, they had initially gotten lost, as they wanted to avoid the Marquesas due to rumors of cannibalism among their inhabitants.
Whaling, although not the commodity it once was, is still a thriving market throughout many other countries in the world. This film gives an informative and intriguing account of how this industry helped to build America into the world powerhouse it is today.

About the Author:

Shannon Huebscher is a copywriter and freelance writer living in Minneapolis, MN.
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