"There were giants in the world in those days." Genesis 6:4, King James version (Pearce, 2010).

History of Whales

To learn more about whales, we need to look into the history of whales in the ocean ecosystem to understand why they require protection from human influence. From reviewing history, we can see that humans have been a destructive force on many levels, including themselves. and while great nations are froth with checked pasts, the history of whales is no different. As more research is conducted about past whale populations, humans may be able to further realize how deeply they have created a void in the oceans for future generations to experience and suffer through. It is hoped that seeing our past endeavors as failing life sustaining systems will lead us into tomorrow responsibly and productively go forward into a new tomorrow enriching life sustainable efforts.

The history of whales is remarkable commencing more than 55 million years ago (Lambert, 2016). Old stories and chronicles tell us about whale populations being hundreds of times greater than they are today when these beasts swam the depths of the oceans (Pearce, 2010).

Early in the 4th century BC, Aristotle, an ancient Greek Scientist, wrote a book called “The History of Animals” wherein he described at that time 170 kinds of marine organisms; however, today we know that was just a drop in the bucket of the large abundance of marine organisms discovered (Wang, 2013).

Commercial Whaling

Many whales are endangered largely due to the past era of commercial whaling when whales once were valued almost entirely for the goods they could provide, such as:

  • their meat (Roman et al, 2014)
  • to make pet food
  • sinews for tennis racquet strings
  • oil from the blubber of whales
  • manufacturing lipstick
  • stays and supports for ladies underwear
  • spermaceti, a waxy substance located in the head cavities of sperm whales, used in candles, ointments, and industrial lubricants
  • a waxy substance called ambergris, from a sperm whale's digestive system, used in making perfume (The Marine Mammal Centre, n.d.)
  • fuel
  • lubrication
  • manufacture of nitroglycerine,
  • baleen or whalebone for its flexibility and strength (Roman et al, 2014)
  • corsets
  • fishing rods
  • street lamps
  • machinery (Pearce, 2010).

Today whales are now instead increasingly being valued for the many benefits they provide in the oceans (Roman et al, 2014).

Blue-Footed Booby of Galapagos Islands

Pre-Industrial Hunting Era

It is suggested by the History of Marine Animal Populations project there is growing evidence of massive declines in whale populations due to humans in the pre-industrialized hunting era, before explosive harpoons and factory ships, to the tune of 70,000 whales (Pearce, 2010).

Back 1000 years ago, right whales where hunted in the first global industry (Pearce, 2010). It is suggested whalers were hunting in the Arctic ocean long before explorers arrived, such as Darwin in 1835 arriving at the Galapagos Islands which was already overrun by vessels hunting sperm whales (Pearce, 2010).

Bowhead whale populations in the 17th and 18th century were collapsed in the northern hemisphere by thousands of whaling ships (Pearce, 2010). The whaling industry then moved off Greenland wiping out the largest whale grounds in the world (Pearce, 2010).

19th Century

Earlier records in the 19th century may be more accurate as they had no incentive to falsely report catches; however, records are suggested to be incomplete (Pearce, 2010).

Another issue, according to Peace (2010), that may complicate the numbers is whaler’s logbooks only reported whales that were killed, landed and reported, but whales that were:

  • killed and not landed due to ship strikes
  • harpoon injuries
  • fishing nets, or
  • used as navel target practice were not reported.


While Canada stopped commercial whaling in 1972, a worldwide ban or moratorium was implemented in 1982 by the International Whaling Commission to stop hunting large whales for commercial uses (Fisheries & Oceans Canada, 2018); however, some countries still kill whales to do:

  • scientific research,
  • illegally commercially hunt whales, and
  • certain Native American tribes kill them for food for their subsistence through regulated hunting with yearly quotas (The Marine Mammal Centre, n.d.).

While some whale populations have recovered slowly since 1986, the global moratorium may be temporary allowing whalers to continue if a whale species climbs over 54% of pre-hunting levels, such as Atlantic Humpback whales and Pacific minkes; however, it may still be too early to dust off harpoons (Pearce, 2010).

While the calculation may sound like a simple academic problem to solve, it is more important than ever to first start with the right figures of past whale populations; however, there are many issues arising from past records (Pearce, 2010).

It is suggested whale populations were much larger than previously thought (Pearce, 2010). Estimates once compared the size of current populations to whale numbers caught in the past from reviewing logbooks; however, now there are other ways to calculate historical numbers (Pearce, 2010).

Genetic Evidence

With the emergence of genetic evidence through investigation of genetic variation, whale populations blow the historical numbers out of the water, especially for humpback whales (Pearce, 2010).

While initial whale populations were once thought by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to be about 20,000 humpback whales in the North Atlantic and 100,000 globally from calculating the historical numbers of catches compared to current populations, genetic investigations suggest that estimate is as great a number as 240,000 in the North Atlantic alone and suggests global numbers may be as high as 1.5 million humpback whales historically (Pearce, 2010).

While critics hold these numbers in controversy due to possible interbreeding of whale populations it is also suggested minke whales are estimated to also be greater than the IWC previous number of 600,000 to instead being also 1.5 million whales historically leaving whales still in early stages of recovery (Pearce, 2010).

It is suggested trying to reconcile the conflicting numbers is difficult due to:

  • incomplete official whaling records, especially the post-war records,
  • illegal harvesting of whales by some countries, suggested to be in the 1950 and 1960’s,
  • coupled with false logbook records sent to the IWC, for example, in a harvest of 25,000 humpback whales, reporting only 2710 to IWC (Pearce, 2010).

While the past population of whales is controversial, the growing historical evidence is siding with the DNA evidence suggesting whale populations today are mere ghostly reminders of their former populations and dominance in the oceans (Pearce, 2010).

“We don't know what was lost with the whales - or what else might reappear if their numbers soared” (Pearce, 2010).


The ocean has gifted us generously with marine biological resources and the human desire of exploration has never died (Wang, 2013).

Marine biology is today one of the most important areas of both marine science and life science that interconnects with many other disciplines, including:

  • medical science
  • environmental science
  • becoming one of the quickest and most actively developed subjects (Wang, 2013).

“The whale's past may be shrouded in mist, but one thing's for sure - their future is in our hands” (Pearce, 2010).

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Created By
Maria Lisa Polegatto


Created with images by Dominik Bednarz - "untitled image" • MJ Tangonan - "Natural History Museum" • NOAA - "Pod of killer whales" • He Junhui - "untitled image" • Karly Jones - "untitled image" • Kailey Sniffin - "untitled image" • Gen Dalton - "Santa Monica" • Naseem Buras - "Streets Of Brussels, Belgium" • Tim Mossholder - "Christmas Candles" • Andy Brunner - "untitled image" • Zoltan Tasi - "untitled image" • Joshua Sukoff - "Whale Breaching Hawaii" • Hal Gatewood - "untitled image" • Jakob Owens - "untitled image" • NOAA - "Killer whale dorsal fin"