The Tale of the Whale

Nina Burleigh
2 min readDec 4, 2015

Nina Burleigh is on assignment with Newsweek in Antarctica.

We have seen many whales around the Antarctic Peninsula in the last few days. Their great black backs rise up out of the freezing brine and disappear, sometimes followed by a tourist-pleasing flip of the tail, called a fluke.

It’s hard to believe but these massive creatures are only two steps up the food chain from photosynthesis. They gorge on shrimp-like creatures called krill. Krill feed on one-celled creatures called diatoms, which live on sunlight.

The tale of the whale in Antarctica has not been a happy one. Antarctic exploration was always driven by commerce and imperialism, and whaling stations went up on otherwise uninhabitable shores almost as soon as explorers mapped them. In fact, some imperiled explorers, like Ernest Shackleton, survived only thanks to the whaling stations, camps in the Antarctic wilderness where men carried out the bloody task of killing whales in frozen seas and rendering them into oil.

For hundreds of years, whale oil was an essential commodity like petroleum. It formed the framework of many economies, and had myriad uses, from soap to industrial lubricant to fuel. It was traded on the market the way crude is today. As recently as last mid-century, it was an essential ingredient in margarine.

Commercial Antarctic whaling continued into the 1960s and only ceased after the 1986 international Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on taking whales for any non-scientific purpose. Not everyone abides by it. The Japanese have just dispatched whaling ships toward the Antarctic Ocean, announcing they plan on taking 333 minke whales for science. That number is down from the thousand they had been taking in recent years.

Humpback whales feeding off the coast of Antarctica last night
Antarctic Krill

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