Whale Ecology

About the Exhibition

Follow a timeline tracking the rise of the whaling industry, its eventual end in most parts of the world, and learn about the threats facing whale populations today.

Artifacts from nineteenth century whale hunts, twentieth-century whale protection movements, and current day marine mammal rescue efforts illustrate our changing relationship with the whales over the course of centuries.

Stunning underwater photography by Eric Savetsky brings to life the species of whales found in and around Nantucket Sound and beyond.

Whaling Today

While Nantucket’s whaling industry died in the mid-nineteenth century, commercial whaling endured elsewhere throughout the twentieth century. Ports in the United States and around the world continued to send ships in pursuit of whales to harvest oil, meat, and bones.

During this time, whaling became increasingly efficient. Steam-powered ships could pursue fin whales, which had been too fast to catch using sailing vessels and rowed whaleboats. Harpoon cannons that fired projectiles with exploding heads were able to kill whales with a single shot. These improvements, coupled with a rapid expansion of whaling after World War II, had a catastrophic effect on whale populations worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of whales harvested in just the last half of the twentieth century.

By the 1960s, people increasingly saw whales as majestic, intelligent creatures and not just sources of profit. Works like Farley Mowat’s Sea of Slaughter and A Whale for the Killing, coupled with a greater awareness of environmental issues, led to demands that whaling come to an end. In 1967, the American Cetacean Society became the first group dedicated to ending commercial whaling. It was followed by large national organizations like Greenpeace and smaller regional organizations like the Cetacean Society of Connecticut. Together these groups raised awareness about whales, lobbied politicians, and, in some cases, took direct action against whalers on the high seas. These actions culminated in the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 in the U.S., and an international ban on commercial whaling in 1986.

Even today, hunting persists. Japan, Iceland and Norway have resumed commercial whaling, and continue to harvest minke whales for domestic markets.

Whales face great threats today from mankind’s impact on the environment. An estimated 300,000 cetaceans are killed each year from entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships, while increased noise levels in the ocean pose significant threats to whale populations.

Along the East Coast of the United States, the North Atlantic right whale, its population already at a critically low level, is continually threatened by becoming entangled in fishing gear. The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, Mass., addresses this issue by dispatching volunteers equipped with custom tools to free entangled whales.

Rescue efforts are supplemented by scientific research conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and others. By attaching non-invasive tags to whales, data can be recorded illustrating whale behavior and vocalization at various depths. This information is then used to influence fishing and shipping rules, adapting them to reduce adverse impacts on whale species.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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