“The whale,” wrote Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, “would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him.” Nineteenth-century whalers, of course, weren’t put off by bulk—quite the opposite. On their long oceanic voyages, where fresh meat was scarce, their kills were also sources of much-needed food. And so, as Melville describes in Chapter 65 of his magnum opus, they would cook biscuits that had been soaked in whale oil, fry flour-coated sperm-whale brains, and guzzle down whale “fritters”— moldy scraps of fat that had gone brown and crisp after being left ashore for too long.
Humans had been catching and eating whales for millennia, but America came to to dominate the world of cetacean slaughter in the 19th century. With hundreds of powerful ships, gun-loaded harpoons, bountiful coasts, and a strong seafaring tradition, the Yankee whalers were incredibly successful. It is estimated that they harpooned over 100,000 sperm, right, bowhead, humpback, and pilot whales for their oil and whalebone, killing more of these animals than in the previous four centuries combined.
But whales weren’t the only animals they killed.
The ships spent months or years at sea, returning to port only when their holds were heaving with whale remains. With little besides hard biscuits and preserved meats to eat, the crews leapt at any chance to get fresh meat. Whale meat, sure, but that became rarer over time as the whalers became victims of their own success. Fish, of course, but ships that ventured far north would encounter oceans that were covered in ice. So, they often sent away teams onto islands to plunder the local wildlife.