Whaling and Animal Rights

The whaling industry was without question cruel. Most whalemen had little regard for the feelings of whales. Spirit of the Turtle is in no way a defense of the industry past or present. But in the 19th century the whaling ship did offer a refuge for many who were down on their luck. The pay was awful and the conditions grueling, but for some the danger and adventure of a life at sea was exhilarating. For others the opportunity to be recognized for their skills and talents regardless of skin color or social standing was sufficient compensation. Whaling was the first fully integrated industry in American history.

For Solomon Ward, the hero of Spirit of the Turtle, whaling was also a way of maintaining ancient Unkechaug traditions of living off the sea. Seafood, including marine mammals, is rich in nutrients and was an important food source for the native people of Long Island. Solomon’s family, however, disapproves of deep sea whaling, recognizing the negative effects of long sea voyages on family life. By the mid-19th century, intensive industrial whaling had caused the serious depletion of several species of whale. In Spirit of the Turtle, Solomon and the crew of the Maryann experience this firsthand in their long and often unfruitful pursuit of sperm whales.

A turning point in people's understanding of animals' capacity to feel and suffer came with the publication of Anna Sewell’s novel Black Beauty in 1877. It may seem surprising that one book could have such a strong impact, but told from the horse’s point of view, Black Beauty required its readers to consider the emotional lives of animals.  As people’s empathy for animals increased and extended to a wider range of creatures, legislation followed improving the lot of many.

In 1972, the United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act which banned whale hunting in American coastal waters and also prevented the import and export of meat or other body parts. Some exceptions are made for indigenous groups, such as the Makah in the Pacific Northwest, who engage in subsistence whaling as a way of keeping tradition alive and improving the health of their community. The Unkechaug today do not hunt sea mammals.

Recently, the American Association for the Advancement of Science considered a proposal to extend human rights to animals such as dolphins and whales. Scientific research has shown cetaceans are not only highly intelligent but have complex cultures. In fact, pods of orcas have been found to communicate using distinct patterns of clicks and whistles not used or understood by other pods. In other words, each orca community throughout the world may speak its own language.

In Spirit of the Turtle, Solomon’s voyage begins in 1848, so he would have had no opportunity to benefit from the insights of Black Beauty or the findings of current scientific research . Nevertheless, he feels pity for the whales and does not enjoy the hunt. In keeping with traditional Unkechaug beliefs, he considers the “taken whales” gifts of the Creator or the spirits of the sea. Respecting the animal and giving thanks for the bounty it provides is paramount in Solomon’s mind. The roasting of the fin and tail was a way of showing gratitude.

For an excellent account on sustenance whaling and its role in native cultures, see:

Coté, Charlotte. Spirit of Our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makaj and Nuu-chah-multh traditions. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.

For more on the history of whaling:

Diddel, Margaret Thompson. Thistle in Her Hand: The Sea Adventures of a Young Whaling Wife. New York: Windswept Press, 1988.

Dolin, Eric Jay. Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. New York, London: W. W Norton & Company, 2007.

Schmitt, Frederick P. Mark Well the Whale: Long Island Ships to Distant Seas. Cold Spring Harbor: Whaling Museum Society, 1971


A superb film highlighting the need to recognize whales' rights:

Blackfish (2014) directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and produced by Manny Oteyza