Why Were Sperm Whales So Valuable in the 19th Century?
In the late 18th century, a major commercial industry developed around the hunting of sperm whales, as immortalized in the Herman Melville novel Moby-Dick. But what exactly made these whales valuable enough for whalers to leave their homes for a dangerous three-year journey around the globe?
Up until it was replaced by cheaper alternatives like petroleum and kerosene in the late 1800s, sperm oil was a highly sought-after commodity, used for candles, lamp oils, cosmetics, soap, ointments, and machinery lubricants. And there was only one place it could be found – inside the head of a sperm whale. There are over 500 gallons (1,900 liters) of the waxy, semiliquid substance known as spermaceti in a sperm whale's head cavity. Spermaceti was prized for the clean, bright, long-lasting candles and lamp oils it produced, in contrast to the smelly whale oil lamps made from the blubber of baleen whales.
Scientists are still unsure of the biological function of the spermaceti organ - it may have a role in regulating the whale's buoyancy, as sperm whales are known to dive to depths of 3,280 feet (1,000 m) in search of squid. Another theory is that the organ is involved in echolocation.
Sperm whales were also sought after for their meat, blubber, bone, and ambergris, a solid waxy substance found in the whale's digestive system and used as a fixative in perfume.
Sperm whale facts:
- The sperm whale got its name because early whalers mistook spermaceti for the whale's semen.
- Sperm whales have the largest brains of any known creature – past or present – on Earth.
- Jojoba oil has many of the same properties and uses as spermaceti – without the need for hunting whales. For the record, the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on whaling that went into effect in 1986.
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