A Whale of a Time

*Featured image: Sperm whales under attack, from Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839). Photo: The New York Public Library via rawpixel, public domain.

By: Daniel Dumas

Zodiac crossings of rough seas, imperial expansion, and narratives of resistance and resilience. This is not the backdrop of an action flick coming to the silver screen, but rather a few snippets from the upcoming RCC Perspectives issue entitled “New Histories of Pacific Whaling,” which will be released this month. Over the course of this past summer, I had the opportunity to work as an editor on the Rachel Carson Center team and my major task was to assist volume editors Angela Wanhalla and Ryan Tucker Jones in getting this particular issue ready for publication. This post gives you a sneak peek of the topic while discussing the work that goes into a Perspectives issue. But before diving into this, a little about me.

As a native speaker of English and a doctoral candidate in the RCC’s Environment and Society program since 2018, I joined the editing team in June to help manage the RCC’s blog Seeing the Woods, draft social media posts, copyedit various online contributions, and workon Perspectives. When I learned that I would be working on the “New Histories of Pacific Whaling” issue, I thought to myself, how could I be a good editor for this project as someone who has so little experience with water worlds? I grew up a good 700 kilometers from the sea and spotted my first whales (a pair of gray whales) last year while visiting the Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest—a truly magnificent experience. So I felt a little unsure of whether my expertise would be sufficient.

When learning something new, a good place to start is by reading. So, that’s what I did, reading through the different papers (over and over) and getting a sense of the immensity of the Pacific Ocean and the many histories that crisscross its unfathomable expanses. I had the chance to be electronic pen pals with scholars from three continents researching histories of whaling in Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Fiji, Japan, Russia, the United States, and Canada. What struck me most about the issue itself is the focus on Indigenous experiences of the Pacific whaling world, bringing to light the stories of Indigenous peoples, especially women, who took part in or were associated with whaling parties.

Aside from reading and copyediting the articles, a particularly enjoyable task was to come up with potential cover images for the issue. I will not reveal the chosen image, but I can give you a glimpse of the close runner-ups. The featured image for this blog post was my personal favorite, an illustration by W.J. Linton from Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839). Here you have a scene of chaos—whales and whalers battling each other—with the latter victorious in the center, and the former overturning boats and their assailants to the right.

A lithograph of the bowhead whale from a German natural history
A lithograph of the bowhead whale from a German natural history series (1878). Photo: Rawpixel Ltd via flickr, CC BY 4.0

Another potential cover image was a lithograph from a German natural history series published in 1878. In this scene, a crew stalks a bowhead whale somewhere in northern waters—perhaps the Bering Strait—and is complete with a three-masted ship and a whimsical iceberg in the background. A final contender, in my eyes, was Sir Oswald Walters Brierly’s 1876 watercolor “South Sea Whalers Boiling Blubber/Boats Preparing to get a Whale Alongside.” Brierly traveled the world aboard various vessels, spending a considerable amount of time in the Pacific, and became Queen Victoria’s marine painter in 1874. To me, this particular painting captures a scene full of mystery, intrigue, and human industriousness, perhaps even hinting at over-exploitation with the number of fires lit across the night sky.

2_South Sea Whaling
“South Sea Whalers Boiling Blubber/Boats Preparing to get a Whale Alongside” by Sir Oswald Walters Brierly (1876). Photo: Dixon Galleries, State Library of New South Wales via Wikimedia, public domain.

As is the case with each issue of Perspectives, plenty of time and effort from an entire team of editors and contributors goes into preparing and publishing an issue. Working so intensively on a project like this gives an editor a particular bond with the topic, so along with the volume editors and contributors, I’m looking forward to “New Histories of Pacific Whaling” hitting the press this holiday season.

You will be able to read it online here. Kick back, relax, get yourself a cozy blanket and a warm drink, and marvel at these retellings of high-seas adventures in history from the comfort of your home. Off to sea we go!

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