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The oil at the bottom of the world

By Safina Center Fellow and Writer in Residence Paul Greenberg

Last week I was in the middle of revising the krill chapter of my forthcoming book on omega-3 fatty acids when I got an unsettling note from MacDuff Everton, a National Geographic photographer who had accompanied me on my cruise to Antarctica at this time last year. En route back through the Drake Passage, sometimes the roughest patch of water in the world, the S/V Orion had lost its main engines. Winds were blowing at 50 knots and seas topping 30 feet. With only the auxiliary engine running the Orion was forced to limp slowly north toward South America.

I recalled my own time in those same seas, the ship rising in an interminable assent up those big frothy peaks. I’d started out on Dramamine, moved up to Scopolamine and then finally sought out the ship’s doctor and asked “for the nuclear option.” A pill so potent that it knocked me out for 12 hours. Only when the wind had ratcheted down to 30 knots did I venture on deck where I watched a lone albatross peacefully using the enormous wind to provide the equally enormous lift necessary to loft the 12 foot wide bird over the Southern Ocean’s monstrous peaks. It is a testament to the Lindblad crew that this year’s journey made it home safely and without further incident.

Wrecked 19th century whaling vessel off the shore of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Paul Greenberg.

Wrecked 19th century whaling vessel off the shore of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Paul Greenberg.

But more than anything this recent setback in the far south made me think how odd it was that humans ever tried to exploit the Southern Ocean at all. Without any of the comforts of a modern vessel why would they even try? What was so valuable at the bottom of the world?

The answer, surprisingly, was margarine.

In 1867 the Emperor, frustrated that his troops were afflicted by chronic shortages of butter while on the march offered a prize to anyone who could come up with a shelf-stable substitute. One Hippolyte Mège Mouriès answered the call. Mège Mouriès turned to an emerging chemical process called hydrogenation to see if he could win the contest. When a fat is hydrogenated the unstable double carbon bonds are blasted with hydrogen atoms in the presence of a catalyst. The resulting fat is much more stable and, equally important, slow to melt. Mège Mouriès won Napoleon III’s prize, patented his process in France and then England and then the US.

And all at once, margarine became a common way fats got into the western human diet. This was all well and good as long as there was a ready supply of oil and for the early years this was the case. India was developed as a center for the production of linseed, also known as flax. When India was hit by an unusually strong monsoon at the turn of the century the flax crop failed. Suddenly the main source for margarine was gone. Incredibly, wild whales at the far end of the world proved to be an economically viable substitute.

Swift Oleomargarine ad, circa 1919. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Swift Oleomargarine ad, circa 1919. Source: Wikimedia Commons

With a purpose now created for the wholesale slaughter of the great southern whales an industry could now be developed. Who then would do the slaughtering? Here in lay a political pathway parallel to the chemical pathway pioneered by Mège Mouriès. Just as hydrogenation was being perfected in France, Norway was completing a century long independence project, finally breaking away from Sweden in 1905. Historically a whaling people, the country was now in desperate need of capital. And with an abundant supply of margarine-producing blue, finback and humpback whales there for the taking with no legitimate national jurisdiction to regulate the fishery, the Norwegians quickly established what would become one of the great slaughterhouses humans had ever built.

The scenes of depravity witnessed by many of the early whalers defied imagination. As D. Graham Burnett relates in his monumental “Sounding of the Whale” a kind of ever-churning Hades transformed these intelligent into their elements. Workers encountered horrifying whaling stations where blubber-filleting “flensers” scaled carcasses “like mountaineers, cutting steps up the flesh as footholds for their boots.” Places that reeked like a “charnel house boiling wholesale in Vaseline,” whose dangers included rotting mother whales’ “forcible ejection of an unborn fetus (which could be larger than an automobile).” Such scenes led the most hardened whalers to remark, “What penalty, I used to wonder, would the gods in due time inflict for such a sacrilege?”

The Norwegian government had little sentimentality about all of this. Even though Antarctica is about as far from Norway as any two points on Earth can be from one another, Norwegian national identity came to be tied up in the spoils of the white continent. Already a major producer of cod liver oil they had the knowhow and the market sense to deal with marine lipids and by the time all that rendered oil had traveled the 10,000 miles from Antarctica it was divorced from its grisly provenance. Moreover profits from Norway’s main whaling station in Grytviken were stunning even by dot.com standards, bearing dividends of 15% and 32.5% respectively for 1907 and 1908. The sheer magnitude of the undertaking was also startling. From 1905 until the whaling moratorium of 1974 the combined blue and fin whale population would be reduced (both physically and chemically) from hundreds of thousands of individuals to less than 4,000.

At a certain point output was no longer measured in terms of numbers of creatures killed but in “BWUs”–Blue Whale Units, i.e. the amount of oil that could be rendered from one blue whale carcass. A fin whale was about .75 BWUs. A humpback, .25. And though talk would arise periodically within Norwegian fishing circles of establishing “Maximum Sustainable Yields” for cetaceans, the overall numbers of whales in the Southern Ocean only went down, the direct result of a sinister calculus.

In the early part of the 20th century the British mathematician Colin Clark determined that if all the whales of the Southern Ocean had been killed and reduced to oil in one fell swoop and sold then and there for investable capital, the annual return on investment would be significantly higher than the value of a smaller, sustainable harvest of whales made year after year. With such monstrous economics working against it, it’s clear that whalers and whales had little chance for coexistence. It was a Ponzi scheme built to transform a race of animals into a pool of oil and eventually liquid capital.

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Paul Greenberg is author of a forthcoming book on omega-3 fatty acids and the marine food web, titled The Omega Principle: A Journey to the Bottom of the Marine Food Web. It is due out by Summer 2018. The accompanying Frontline documentary is slated for release in early 2017.

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