Pacific Postcards

Skylar Essay 3

Skylar Sepulveda

Dr. Fraga

GESM 130: Pacific Beaches and the American Imagination

19  November 2021 

Assignment #3: Whales vs Americans 

Historically, Americans and early colonizers have used the pacific ocean as a vessel for economic expansion. While other cultures and places around the globe have spiritual, religious and meaningful ties with the ocean, the capitalist driven Americans exploited the ocean's contents for commercial gain. To this day many businesses including the seafood industry, recreational industries, and other job markets rely on the ocean, and oftentimes the ocean's offerings are exploited and overused. The Photograph of Harpoon Gun on the Whaler “Hercules” is one photograph displaying one example of a tactic used to kill whales in the twentieth century in order to harvest the oil they produce. This photo was taken by L.S. Slevin in 1919 in Moss County in Monterey, California. The moment in time this photo encapsulates is a perfect indication of how Americans profit off the ocean for economic benefits rather than respecting it for its greater values, and reinforces the notion that Americans have been conditioned to think of the ocean for its economic values above anything else. 

Americans across the country are heavily influenced by the images they see, and the image of a Photograph of Harpoon Gun on the Whaler “Hercules”, helps guide the thinking that we as a country have been reliant on the ocean for its economic benefits to humans, and almost glamorizes the bloody killing of whales in the pacific. This image produced through the lens of a westernized perspective, shapes the way Americans view our historical interactions with the pacific ocean. This photograph shows a man on top of a whaler boat holding onto a very large harpoon in operation to kill a whale in Monterey, California. The position in which this man is portrayed shows him above the ocean and ultimately the whales, alluding to the idea of man being more powerful than the oceans creatures with the help of technological weapons such as harpoons. The naturalistic and candid essence of this image gives the impression that this was a very normal and necessary operation, guiding Americans to believe that this industry was not rooted in evil intentions, but rather economic opportunities. Whalers in the nineteenth and twentieth century were primarily hunting whales for the oil that was derived from the whale's blubber and was used for various things such as: candles, soap, etc. Very quickly whales became critical to American culture and images of whales and whaling boats could be seen on both the East and West coasts. This image portrayed in a benumbed fashion shows the way in which this cruel industry was desensitized and impacted the way Americans viewed the economic practices of the past few centuries. 

The ocean is one of the richest sources of different environmental processes the globe has to offer to humans. Humans (especially Americans) take the ocean for advantage by exploiting its natural species such as whales and hunting them towards extinction, while the ocean greatly aids our survival by supplying more than 50% of the world's oxygen. By Americans overlooking all of the benefits the ocean naturally offers to us and depleting the oceans ecosystems it sheds light on the economic driven mentality of humans, specifically Americans. Humans conquest of the pacific ocean reinforces the idea of manifest destiny, by already conquering mainland United States, American business men decided the next step was to conquer the oceans and take advantage of the abundance of  resources it had to offer. The ocean cultures have shaped America in the past, present and will continue to in the future because of the way we are so dependent on the commercial values it holds. This ties into the notion that the economic interests captivate Americans attention rather than the other benefits the ocean gives us without having to be depleted. 

This photograph was taken in 1919 on a whaling expedition that took place off the coast of California, where L.S. Slevin was accompanying a group of men on their business voyage. The Ryan Tucker Jones article, "Running into Whales: The History of the North Pacific from below the Waves," heavily focuses on the way underwater species were major actors in America's history of interaction with the ocean. Tucker moves on in his writing to say “the North Pacific was a space of pulsating commercial, intellectual, and microbial exchange, constrained by no state” furthering the idea that Americans presence in the pacific ocean and through the actions of whale hunting created a space for flourishing exchanges (Tucker, 351). Tucker sheds light on the impact Americans had on a seemingly untouched vast ecosystem, primarily for the economic benefits that it allowed Americans to have during this time and to the present day. Tucker focuses much of his writing on how it was not uncommon for animals and people to cross paths, however it was not really that large of an issue until Americans started hunting the whales towards extinction, alluding to the fact that our intervention on the ecosystem was massively detrimental. The overexploitation of the whales, otters, fish and other supplies the ocean creates and inhabits is a subject Tucker talks about greatly in this piece and its relation to America's greed.  Tucker goes on to say that “Humans were always running into whales and other animals, although the consequences were not always so benign for either party” (Tucker, 349). The idea of us “running into” animals is a play on our tendency as Americans to solely focus on the economic value of situations and continue to hunt animals such as whales for the commercial benefit tied to their products. Tuckers enlightenment on human interaction gives greater contextualization to L.S. Slevins photograph, by giving the grave backgrounds of whalers and their impact after their interactions with different ocean species. Without this scholar's examination on the way in which whalers had massive negative impacts on the ecosystem we would not be able to as richly understand the photograph of a man holding a harpoon on Hercules the whaling boat. 

 Whaling has much greater impacts on our country than the average American might be aware of, it is greatly embedded in our culture and history and its consequences were never really talked about until recently. The book “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America” sheds light on the massive impacts this commercial industry has on our nation. The author states that “thousands of American ships manned by tens of thousands of men killed hundreds of thousands of whales, which were processed into products and profits that in turn created great fortunes and spurred the formation and growth of the nation” (Dolin, 12). This statement strengthens the hypothesis that Americans looked over every consequence that came from whaling and only forced on the economic benefits that resulted from the killing of thousands of whales.  “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America” gives the photograph of the man holding the harpoon greater importance to its impact on the growth of our country rather than it just being a man holding  a harpoon. This book shows the massive impacts whaling had on our country, specifically the economic boom it gave to America. The author goes on to say that “American whale oil lit the world. It was used in the production of soap, textiles, leather, paints, and varnishes” (Dolin, 12). This explanation of the various uses whales gave to American consumerism and further fed into the capitalistic driven mindsets of Americans during this period. By referencing the massive impacts whales had on American society, it gives greater depth to the snippet in time that the Photograph of Harpoon Gun on the Whaler “Hercules”, photo shows. Not only are Americans swayed by images they see, but images can not always give the full story, thus books like this are great tools to uncover greater parts of history that could not be seen through just a photograph. 

Americans' perspectives on economic industries such as whaling, fishing, recreation and the consequences of these industries has been historically overlooked and has been more focused on the economic values and opportunities that they produce. Since the birth of this nation the inhabitants have had a commercial mindset which has affected every aspect of this country and this includes the ways in which whaling has affected America. The byproducts that whales produced were used in a multitude of different American products and allowed for a consumerism society to run on products produced by whale parts. The  Photograph of Harpoon Gun on the Whaler “Hercules”, captures one small moment in time that has a greater deeper story that involves hunting a species to gravely low numbers and the exploitation of the oceans resources. However the consequences of over hunting these whales was not on the forefront of these business thinking minds, because the economic value of the whales products were too good to pass up. This photo has the potential to greatly influence any American who looks at it and leads them to believe an artificial idea of whale hunting being a historically necessary commercial production rather than the grave depletion of the oceans resources that it truly was. The two works of Tucker and Dolin give greater contextualization to the photograph and allows readers to understand the greater history the photograph encapsulates. Our country was greatly affected by the whaling industry and it has lasting effects on the way Americans perceive pacific beaches, many who do understand the consequences will be more critical of American economics and the others that don't understand will continue to have a fixed mindset driven by capitalistic gains.


Works Cited 

  1. Slevin , L. S. (1919). Photograph of Harpoon Gun on the Whaler “Hercules.” Image / Photograph of Harpoon Gun on the Whaler ""Hercules"". Retrieved 2021, from

  2. Dolin, E. J. (2011). Leviathan: The history of whaling in America. W.W. Norton. 

  3. Jones, Ryan Tucker (2013). “Running into Whales: The History of the North Pacific from below the Waves”. Retrieved 2021.

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