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Farewell to Tarwathie
Adieu Mormond Hill
And the dear land of Crimmond
I bid you farewell
I'm bound off for Greenland
And ready to sail
In hopes to find riches
In hunting the whale

(from) Farewell to Tarwathie Judy Collins

Basic Information

A whale is a large marine mammal of the family cetacea (which also includes dolphins and porpoises. Size varies from (comparative) minnows such as the pygmy sperm whale (at around 11') to the 98' blue whale, which is the largest species on record. Diet, likewise, varies from the microscopic krill and algae that are, ironically, the blue whale's diet to the giant squid that comprise at least part of the diet of the sperm whale.

Interestingly the 'killer whale' - a relatively small and aggressive species of whale - is not considered a whale at all by some authorities and thought to fit better into the dolphin or porpoise family.

Lifespan is unknown, but thought to be long in many species - a harpoon head over two hundred years old was found imbedded in a living whale, implying that at least some individuals live "a damned long time".

Intelligence is thought to be high - but arguments continue as a lack of reference points makes it hard to quantify for a marine mammal.

Historically humans have "fished" whales for their meat, bone and for the oil that can be rendered from their extensive blubber. Some species of whale are hunted for other, more specific products - the baleen filters used by the various plankton eating species (ironically known as whalebone) had a variety of industrial uses prior to the invention of plastics, narwhal tusks were harvested for their ivory value (or as fake unicorn horns) and the spermaceti from the buoyancy organs of sperm whales was highly prized as a top grade oil for making fine candles and lamp fuel, as well as in other industrial and pharmaceutical processes. Sperm whales also produce ambegris - but it takes quite a lot of aging before it is any use and wasn't a big aspect, even of the sperm whale fishery.

Whale fishing is - given the size of the animals involved - a somewhat perilous process, and for a long time humanity was confined to butchering those whales that found themselves stranded ashore. The next step was to locate whales in shallow water and force them to beach themselves - a form of traditional hunting that is still practiced in some parts of the world. Ship based whaling then followed - initially killing the whales at sea and then towing them ashore for processing then, with advances in technology, processing them at sea. The species hunted also changed, from the "Right Whale" - so named because it was relatively easy to catch and high yielding in oil and baleen to more dangerous species such as the sperm whale. The whaling industry peaked in the late nineteenth century, before overfishing and the rise of synthetic alternatives to whale products pushed it into decline. Public concerns over possible extinction lead to various international conventions in the 20th century forbidding whaling in most of the world - although several nations continue whale hunting for cultural reasons1.

See Also


2. Moby dick - probably the greatest novel about whaling ever published, albeit with the odd few rather outdated "facts" rolled in.
3. The Heart of the Sea - the story of the whaling ship Essex, very probably a major part of the inspiration behind Moby Dick. Indeed the film adaptation serves this up directly with Melville's interviewing of a survivor of the Essex being used to frame the plot.

Game and Story Use

  • You are hired as crew on board a sailing ship whose obsessive peg-legged captain has sworn an oath of vengeance against a white whale. Hilarity ensues.
    • If there's one thing this Arcanist has learned in life, it's: don't embark on obsessive vendettas against large marine mammals, because they symbolize God and will kill you.
  • Historically, whaling was quite a big deal and, especially in the medieval period, it was not unknown for a suitably equipped crew - even a ship that was going viking - to break off for an opportunistic attack on a convenient whale.
  • A beached whale was, historically, a bonanza for the local community - many cultures appropriated them as a perquisite of the crown, but for those that didn't, it was usually a festival of valuable oil and more meat that could be easily consumed.
    • In medieval England the the coroner was responsible for taking charge of "royal fish" such as whales. A PC coroner might find getting the king his money's worth an interesting challenge.
      • If it helps, a common solution was to sell the whale to a local community for a suitable price - they would then process the whale, sell or consume the results and pay the price into the exchequer. Properly done, everyone could benefit. The alternative was to use a lot of corvee labour and generally annoy everyone involved.
    • Where the whale is not stolen by the government, PCs may still get involved - possible arbitrating between two rival communities over a stranded whale. Bonus points if both together would struggle to consume all the whale meat before it went off but refuse to recognise the fact.
    • Regardless, a whale stranding was usually a case of "all hands to the pump" - all sorts of people who wouldn't normally get involved will find themselves roped in to help.
    • Added fun - the whale has been dead at sea for a long time and is not fit to eat (or for anything else) … PCs need to prevent the public health issues that would result from people messing about with it.
    • In the modern era, a dead whale on a beach is a damned nuisance - it takes heavy equipment to shift, but can't be left where it is unless it is extremely remote. Blowing it up with explosives has, historically, achieved nothing but an unholy mess.
  • You are hired by a group of conservationists to protect a group of whales; possibly from the guy above with the ivory leg.
    • There are, actually, a pack of nutters called the "Sea Shepherd Conservation Trust" who spend their time engaging in vigilante actions to protect whales and other marine life. Reasonable inspiration for those that could manage a game based on radical environmentalists.
  • You get swallowed by a whale. Not terribly likely, given cetacean anatomy; but hey, it worked for Jonah, Pinocchio, Baron Munchausen and Ultra Boy.
  • In the nineteenth century long range whaling bases popped up all over the planet in places as remote as South Georgia2, California and Alaska (mostly Russian). These can make good 'frontier posts' in a sea faring game, or an unexpected outpost of civilsation for PCs lost in the wilderness.
    • In the modern era, an abandoned whaling base can be an interesting - and eerie - location and a good hideout.
    • As the Argentinians found out, they can also be a good place to start a war.
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