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Discovery Magazine 9/1/2003

“Thar She Blows!”

by  Zach Smith

The cry pierced the hot afternoon air, “Blows! Blows!” The lookout had spotted the fishermen’s elusive prey. The helmsman steered the massive ship toward the falling plume of mist, where a gray hump could be seen rising just above the surface of the waves. As the sailors worked the rigging and the officers barked orders, the captain watched as a small group of men, called harpooners, prepared to show their skills. Small boats were lowered into the water and rowed toward the great hulk. When the small boats were close enough, the harpooners plied their craft—plunging harpoon after harpoon into the flesh of the giant sperm whale until it was dead and rolled over on its side.

For hundreds of years, this was the scene aboard countless whaling ships. Thousands of whales met their deaths every year at the hands of the skilled harpooners. The result of their work was devastating—the whale population, in almost every species, was reduced from hundreds of thousands to scant hundreds. But why did this happen? During the 1700s and 1800s, whale oil was a valuable commodity. It was used as fuel for lamps and as a high quality lubricant. Today, it is still used in soap making, leather working, and as a lubricant. The Japanese consider whale meat a delicacy, and the teeth of “toothed-whales” (such as the sperm whale) are prized for their ivory. The many uses of the different parts of a whale have made them very valuable to hunt. However, like every animal that has been over-hunted, some whales are now considered an endangered species.

New laws prohibit whales from being over-hunted, and the result is that the whale population has risen in the past few years. There are about 200,000 sperm whales living in the oceans of the world, and more than 10,000 humpback whales. Through the work of conservationists, whales are now becoming more plentiful, and some, such as the gray whale, have been taken off theendangered species list. Soon, more people will be able to hunt whales again, because we now know what to do to keep them from becoming extinct.God gave us a wonderful gift in the whale; its many uses makeit not only a beautiful creature, but an important one as well.



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