In Beringia

Backyard and Beyond

“We polar whales are a quiet inoffensive race, desirous of life and peace… I write on behalf of my butchered and dying species. I appeal to the friends of the whole race of whales. Must we be murdered in cold blood? Must our race become extinct?” An editorial in The Friend, October 15, 1850. This Honolulu-based paper was a temperance publication aimed at sailors.

I found this plaintive call in Bathsheba Demuth’s fine book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. The cetaceanophile editorial fell on ears stopped up with the desire for wealth and, further down the line, wages. Bowhead whalers reduced the population of this large and slowly maturing whale substantially before the markets for them crashed. Balaena mysticetus are the longest-lived mammals, reaching an astonishing two centuries in age. But they were killed and flensed all the same. Until kerosene made whale oil…

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