Sperm oil is a special kind of oil obtained from the head cavities of sperm whales. It is chemically different from ordinary whale oil, being mostly liquid wax. It had different properties and applications than regular whale oil, and was more expensive.
Whale oil was widely used in oil lamps and to make soap and margarine. With the discovery of substitutes such as kerosene and vegetable oils, the use of whale oils declined considerably. With most countries having banned whaling, the sale and use of whale oil today is almost non-existent.
Whale oil was obtained by boiling strips of blubber harvested from whales. This process was called "trying out". The boiling was carried out on land in the case of whales caught close to shore or beached. On longer deep-sea whaling expeditions, the trying-out was carried out on the ship itself so that the waste carcass could be thrown away to make room for the next catch.
Baleen whales were generally the main source of whale oil. The oil of baleen whales is exclusively composed of triglycerides, whereas that of toothed whales contain a lot of wax esters. The bowhead whale and right whale were considered the ideal whaling targets. They are slow, docile, and float when slain. They yield plenty of high-quality oil and whalebone. They were hunted to near extinction.
Whale oil has low viscosity (lower than olive oil), is clear, and varies in colour from a bright honey yellow to a dark brown, according to the condition of the blubber from which it has been extracted and the refinement it went through. It has a strong fishy odor. When hydrogenated, it turns solid and white, and loses its unpleasant taste and odor.
The composition of whale oil varies with the species from which it was sourced and the method by which it was harvested and processed. Whale oil is mainly composed of triglycerides (molecules of fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule). Oil sourced from toothed whales will contain a substantial amount of wax esters (especially the oil of sperm whales). Most of the fatty acids are unsaturated. The most common fatty acids are oleic acids and its isomers (18:1 carbon chains).
Whale oil is exceptionally stable.
|specific gravity||0.920 to 0.931 at 15.6°C|
|refractive index||1.4760 at 15°C|
|iodine number (Wijs)||110-135|
|viscosity||35-39.6 cSt at 37.8°C|
The use of whale oil saw a steady decline starting in the late 19th century due to the development of superior alternatives and, later, the passing of environmental laws. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which has all but halted the use of whale oil today. The Inuits of North America are granted special whaling rights (justified as being integral to their culture), and they still use whale oil as a food and as lamp oil.
Whale oil was used as a cheap illuminant, though it gave off a strong odor when burnt and was not very popular. It was replaced in the late 19th century by cheaper, more efficient and longer lasting kerosene.
After the invention of hydrogenation in the early 20th century, whale oil was used to make margarine, a practice that is no longer used. Whale oil in margarine has been replaced by vegetable oil.
Whale oil was used to make soap. Until the invention of hydrogenation in the early 20th century, it was only used in industrial-grade cleansers because its foul smell and tendency to discolor made it unsuitable for cosmetic soap.
Maoris cutting up the blubber of beached pilot whales (New Zealand, 1911).
In literature and memoirs
The pursuit and use of whale oil, along with many other aspects of whaling, are discussed in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. In the novel, the preciousness of the substance to contemporary American society is emphasized when the fictional narrator notes that whale oil is "as rare as the milk of queens." John R. Jewitt, an Englishman who wrote a memoir about his years as a captive of the Nootka people on the Pacific Northwest Coast in 1802–1805, describes how what he calls train oil was used as a condiment with every dish, even strawberries.
Friedrich Ratzel in The History of Mankind (1896), when discussing food materials in Oceania, quoted James Cook's comment in relation to "the Maoris" saying "No Greenlander was ever so sharp set upon train-oil as our friends here, they greedily swallowed the stinking droppings when we were boiling down the fat of dog-fish."
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