Search the Site

Episode Transcript

Stephen DUBNER: How many times have you read Moby-Dick

Hester BLUM: Fifty is probably reasonable. I’m 50 years old. I read Moby-Dick for the first time at the age of 17. 

DUBNER: What was your impression on your first reading, at 17 years old? 

BLUM: Well, that was the launch event of, really, my whole life.

DUBNER: Your life — not just your academic career, your life?

BLUM: It’s pretty central to my life. I mean, I have a tattoo of a historic harpoon on my arm. It’s been pretty formative. Part of that was out of the kind of perversity of the kid who wanted to love the book that all of my classmates were groaning about having to read. I could not believe the book. If it were not for Moby-Dick, whaling would be one of a series of interests, but because Moby-Dick has loomed so large — 

DUBNER: You went all in on whaling then, huh?

BLUM: Yeah, it’s impossible to escape.

Hester Blum is a professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University. Her specialty is oceanic and polar literature, including the writings of arctic explorers. But she reserves her fiercest attention for Herman Melville. 

BLUM: Melville was descended from relatively well-off and well-named families on both sides. But his father failed in business when Herman was young, and he had to go to work. And so he had worked as a schoolteacher. He worked in a bank for a while. And like many young men in the Middle Atlantic or in New England, he went to sea. He spent about three or four years total on whaling ships, although he continually deserted them.

Melville spent the rest of his life writing poems, stories, and novels. In 1851, he published a novel called The Whale, later retitled Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. At some point, you may have read Moby-Dick — or pretended to. It’s about a ship captain named Ahab who leads his crew on an ill-fated hunt for a white whale called Moby-Dick, a whale which had grievously wronged Captain Ahab on a previous voyage. Ahab’s crew, Melville tells us, was made up of the “meanest mariners … renegades and castaways.” Much of the novel is about what it’s like to work on a 19th-century whaling ship. But, as much as I’d like to say that Moby-Dick is a book about whaling — I mean, we’ve been doing this three-part series on the history and economics of whaling — Moby-Dick isn’t really about whaling.

BLUM: My students are always surprised at how funny and silly and weird it is. And how incredibly relevant to whatever’s happening in the world, doesn’t matter what it is. Like “Oh, that describes perfectly the headline of the day.” There’s a headline early in the novel that says, “Bloody Battle in Afghanistan.” “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.” My students read it today and they’re like, “Oh, this is about an oil industry, resource extraction that is not sustainable and is destroying people and the earth.”

As we’ve learned over the past couple episodes, whale oil was for many years the central commodity that drove a massive industry. In the U.S., this industry peaked in the 19th century, but it grew much larger over the next century in places like Norway. Millions of whales were killed, some species nearly driven extinct. But with the rise of the environmental movement — and with new substitutes for whale oil — the whale transitioned nicely from utilitarian energy source to perhaps the most iconic emblem of the natural world. It’s been quite a voyage! So today, in the third and final episode of the series we’re calling “Everything You Never Knew About Whaling,” we’re going to follow the spirit of Hester Blum. We’re going to find out if the ancient practice of whaling can answer some of the thorniest questions about today’s world. For instance: do some environmental improvements have unintended consequences for whales?

Kate O’CONNELL: It’s definitely a concern that we’ve had all these whales being found floating dead. 

We ask what whales can do for the environment:

Joseph ROMAN: When they come to the surface, they release these enormous fecal plumes. 

We also ask: what can the records from 19th-century whaling ships teach us about 21st-century workplaces?

Eric HILT: What are these guys saying? Are they cooking up some kind of conspiracy?

And best yet, we get on board a very old whaling ship.

BLUM: There’s 24 bunks here, and all of the men could be locked up in this room in the rare cases of mutiny or violence.

Mutiny, violence, and fecal plumes. Everything you never knew about whales, part 3.

*      *      *

There is a phenomenon called the frequency illusion, also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. That’s when you are tricked into thinking that a given thing is more popular than it is only because you have started recognizing it. Imagine you just bought your first car — let’s say, a Subaru. Suddenly, you’re like: “Oh my God, there are Subarus everywhere!” But the number of Subarus hasn’t increased; it’s just that your brain has started registering them, and our brains love to seek out patterns. That’s the way it’s felt around Freakonomics Radio headquarters lately — but with us, it isn’t Subarus; it is news stories about whales. They are everywhere! There’s the one about killer whales that seem to be deliberately smashing into yachts off the coast of Spain. (If you own a yacht, you might want to watch out for that.) There’s the story about a Beluga whale near Sweden that some people suspect was trained by a Russian spy agency. But the worst stories we’ve been seeing are the ones about dead whales.

O’CONNELL: There have been high numbers of whales being discovered dead all along the East Coast of the United States.

That is Kate O’Connell. She’s a policy advisor with the Animal Welfare Institute. And what’s causing all these whale deaths? O’Connell says there are a number of possible causes.

O’CONNELL: Our habitat is their habitat. Most of the world is an ocean planet. And what we’re finding out now, with issues such as plastic pollution, we’re finding sperm whales coming up on shore, and when they open them up to study what caused them to die, they’re literally weighted down with tons of plastic inside of them. It’s hard to really understand how many whales are being killed in ship strikes or through interactions where they’ve ingested plastic and they’ve died. Not all of them will strand on a beach for us to study.  

There’s also the commercial fishing industry to worry about.

O’CONNELL: If we look at interactions of Cetaceans — which is the wider whales, dolphins, and porpoises — something along the lines of 300,000 Cetaceans die each year due to entanglement in fishing gear.

That is a lot of dead whales. In our last episode, we heard about the handful of countries where whales are still hunted for their meat, like Norway and Japan. But those numbers are relatively tiny: only about 1,000 whales are killed globally every year by hunting. So if you’re a whale, you are much more likely to die in some other way. The good news here is that many once-endangered species of whale are no longer in danger — the humpback, for instance, came off the list in 2022. The bad news is that scientists keep discovering new threats to whales. For instance: the University of Calgary economists M. Scott Taylor and Fruzsina Mayer set out to learn why some populations of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest have been disappearing. “The cause of this decline,” they write, “is hotly debated.” Their argument is that a major culprit is noise pollution, from international shipping channels. Ship noise can mess up how whales navigate and communicate; Taylor and Mayer’s analysis finds that shipping noise causes not only a rise in whale mortality but also a drop in whale fertility. And shipping isn’t the only source of ocean noise. Here’s Kate O’Connell again.

O’CONNELL: There are concerns about seismic testing and also pile-driving related to wind farms. I do think we need to be extremely careful about wind-farm placement. 

No causal link has been found between the construction of offshore wind farms and whale deaths. But O’Connell is concerned.

O’CONNELL: When you look at where they will be developed or in the process of being developed off the East Coast, a lot of them are coinciding with habitat of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.  

We went looking for a second opinion on whether offshore wind farms pose a significant danger to whales.

ROMAN: My colleagues and I don’t see the evidence for that case. That is not dismissing it. That’s just saying I don’t see the evidence that that is the reason for these increased mortality events. 

That is Joseph Roman.

ROMAN: And I’m a conservation biologist based at the University of Vermont. 

And what does a conservation biologist do?

ROMAN: In a way, conservation biologists are like the medical doctors of the planet, in that what our goal, my goal, is to increase biodiversity, to protect species, and also try to control some of the risks that the planet is currently under.

Roman is working on a book called Eat, Poop, Die: How Animals Make Our World. He says that if you want to understand what whales contribute to our ecosystem, especially to the health and productivity of the oceans, you have to understand their poop, or what he calls their “fecal plumes.”

ROMAN: They have to come to the surface every 10 or 20 minutes, and when they come to the surface, they breathe, they rest, they digest, and often they release these enormous fecal plumes. And really, that’s been what I’ve been dedicating maybe the last ten years of my life, is to see how ecologically important these plumes are. And it turns out they’re enormously effective in increasing productivity in areas where whales feed. 

Roman’s research has shown that whale poop increases ocean productivity because whale poop is packed with nitrogen.

ROMAN: If you add it up, all the feeding whales in an area like the Gulf of Maine, the amount of nitrogen that they release is comparable to all the rivers combined. So, an enormous amount of nitrogen coming to the surface, especially in the summertime, which is when these nutrients become limited. And also, whales can bring these nutrients hundreds, thousands of miles across the globe when they go to breed in the wintertime. 

Many whales migrate regularly, much like New Yorkers have historically migrated to Florida: they travel to warmer waters in the winter and cooler water in summer. Researchers have discovered a global network of whale superhighways, north-to-south routes that are thick with those nitrogen-rich fecal plumes.

ROMAN: And we’ve tested: do the phytoplankton, do these algae or plants, pick up this nitrogen? And indeed they do, and they grow faster when the whales are there. So the whales are creating this pump or this positive feedback loop, that they’re releasing nutrients into the ecosystem just as it’s needed. 

These tiny organisms in turn release oxygen — which is rather useful for the planet — and they absorb a significant share of carbon emissions. This is one big reason to celebrate the comeback of the whale, and the end of industrial whale hunting, which peaked in the 1960s.

ROMAN: The cool thing is, as we watch whale populations increase, we see new patterns all the time. We see large super-pods of whales feeding, which no one alive had seen, hundreds of whales feeding together. And we’re starting to see killer whales, or orcas, feed on humpback calves or blue whale calves, starting to do what we believe were their historical patterns. So that’s the great thing about conservation is, when it works every year can be a surprise. 

So whales are plainly a big contributor to a healthy ecosystem. But so are offshore wind farms, if they’re able to generate cleaner electricity. We asked Roman how he thinks about wind and whales.

ROMAN: We do need to make good decisions on where we’re going to place these turbines, and when we’re going to install them. You don’t want to put them in when whales are abundant in that area, or you don’t want to put them in areas where whales are actively using those areas. There are going to be tradeoffs here, and shifting to renewables is essential if we’re going to try and conserve whales in the future. So what we do know is that extraction of fossil fuels can be very dangerous, both directly for these whales and indirectly, through climate. For example, in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Deepwater Horizon spill caused the death of one in five Gulf of Mexico whales in that area. Keep in mind there are only about 50 of them. So we lost a fifth of the population due to that one spill alone. And a fifth of females underwent reproductive failure, and there were other diseases that were caused there. The great news is, we’ve shown that we can redeem ourselves, and actually turn these things around. The Gulf of Mexico has been a place where we’ve been extracting oil for decades. In a few decades, that will no longer be the case. So if we can get these whales through this, that’s good news for the oceans as well as for everyone else, including ourselves. 

Okay, so we’ve answered some environmental questions about whales. What was it like to work on a 19th-century whaling ship?

*      *      *

Every year, thousands of economists from all over the world gather for a conference hosted by the American Economic Association. It’s always held in early January. I’ve been told that’s because economists are cheap, and early January is the cheapest time to book a convention center. Every day, starting at 8 a.m., there are hundreds of presentations, 50 or 60 sessions in every time slot, so you have to be really selective about what you’ll attend. There are a few high-profile sessions, where a prominent economist — maybe even the sitting Treasury Secretary — will give a talk about inflation or globalization. That might attract 1,000 people. But most sessions draw just a couple dozen people, many of them colleagues of the economists who are presenting their papers. And some sessions have just a handful of attendees. It was in one such room that we found this man:

Michele BAGGIO: So my name is Michele Baggio, and I’m an associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Connecticut. 

Baggio was presenting a paper that he had co-authored with Metin Cosgel called “Racial Diversity and Team Productivity: Evidence from the American Offshore Whaling Industry.” Baggio is an environmental economist.

BAGGIO: I focus most on renewable resources, like fish stocks, but I also talk about the impact of climate change on the oceans, and how that reflects to human well-being. 

So how did Baggio wind up writing a paper about racial diversity among 19th-century whalers?

BAGGIO: I stumbled upon this amazing dataset. I found this website — basically, this website was set up by a consortium of museums that had some of the researchers digitizing the historical documents like shipping lists and crew lists.

What was this website, with all these shipping lists and crew lists?

BAGGIO: It was the Whaling History project, I think it was. It’s mostly the Mystic Seaport Museum and the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I started looking through the data, and I found it fascinating. And then I thought, okay, what could I do with this?

The data set covered nearly every major American whaling voyage between 1807 and 1912 — that’s around 15,000 voyages. For every voyage, Baggio could see the type and size of the ship, the hunting grounds they sailed to, how many barrels of whale oil they harvested. And even better, there was a significant amount of demographic data on the crew members.

BAGGIO: The data sets about the crew members are about 120,000 people.

In this crew data, Baggio noticed something surprising: whaling ships were incredibly diverse workplaces, much more diverse than the typical 19th-century industry. Here, again, is Hester Blum, the Melville scholar.

BLUM: Sailors on whale ships were, by some estimates, 25 to 40 percent Black American sailors in the 19th century. Many sailors would also come from the Cape Verdean Islands, as well as from other islands throughout the Atlantic world. So a naval operation would have, for example, Black sailors, often in the form of cooks, which was one of the positions that Black sailors could commonly secure on ships more generally. But in the whaling industry, Black sailors were not just cooks or not just serving in some of the support roles, but were central to that industry. And that’s a testament to the industry’s relative lack of desirability for white men. They were butchering massive animals in ways that were deeply gross, and dirty, and visceral, and messy, and were also dangerous. But it was also one of the places where mobility was possible for Black Americans at this time. And famously, Frederick Douglass was a sailor, and he used his sailing knowledge in securing his freedom. 

In addition to Black workers, there were Native American whalers and a great variety of foreign crew members that an American ship might pick up mid-voyage. These ships were often gone for two or three years, sailing to the far reaches of both the Atlantic and the Pacific. And since crew members were often hired somewhat randomly, there was a lot of variation in the ethnicity of crews. If you are an economist wanting to use this data for a study, that randomness is helpful:

BAGGIO: This whaling industry is like a nice natural experiment.

Michele Baggio realized that this whaling data could help him get at a question that many modern firms are trying to answer: what are the economic effects of having a more diverse workforce?  So that’s where he and his coauthor Metin Cosgel focused their attention.

BAGGIO: We focus on racial diversity. And there are costs and benefits associated to diversity in general, defined in different ways. So in the literature, it has been defined as ethnic diversity, country of origin, linguistic diversity. 

DUBNER: Did the data include let’s say, the journals of crew members, that could give you additional information? 

BAGGIO: Yes, there’s some comments on, if the worker was ill and if the worker had to leave or was forced to leave the voyage, or if deserted or if an accident happened, and for instance, the crew member died.

Baggio and Cosgel looked to see how desertions and deaths and other negative events were influenced by racial diversity.

BAGGIO: We are able to see that, basically, as the crew becomes more diverse, you have an increase in the number of these events.

So: more diversity leads to more conflict, essentially. Baggio attributes this to what economists call “taste-based discrimination.”

BAGGIO: You know, you don’t like the new guy coming in because he looks different from you, and so you don’t collaborate.

DUBNER: And then do you maybe try to push him overboard at night? 

BAGGIO: There is some evidence of that in our data, yes.

DUBNER: And then maybe those guys who are sick of getting abused would also desert the ship at some point if they could? 

BAGGIO: Exactly. That’s exactly what we find. 

Okay: that’s the relationship between diversity and conflict. But what about the relationship between diversity and productivity, the actual performance of the whale-hunters? Baggio could measure that relationship by looking at the revenue from each ship.

BAGGIO: We find that the relationship between racial diversity and performance measured by revenue has a U-shape. So that means that very homogeneous teams, they perform well. The revenue is high. As diversity increases, the revenue decreases, so there’s a cost to diversity until it’s just a minimum. And then a higher level of diversity, the performance increases again, and basically overweights the initial costs. 

Okay, let’s sort this out. Imagine one whaling ship leaves New Bedford, Massachusetts, with a 20-man crew made up exclusively of white New Englanders. And another whaling ship leaves New Bedford, same size crew, but some of them are from Hawaii, or the Cape Verde islands, or maybe they’re indigenous New Zealanders. Which of the two ships would generate more revenue? What Baggio’s analysis shows is that, on average, when a ship adds only a small number of non-white crew members, whaling productivity goes down — probably because of those conflicts he talked about earlier. In that case, the all-white ship would perform better. But if there’s more than just a couple of non-white crew members, productivity starts rising again. And a whaling ship with a significantly diverse crew is more productive than a ship with an all-white crew.

BAGGIO: You have these benefits that arise from having new people coming in with different skills, with different backgrounds, so they had different abilities. Time also plays an important role. We find that on voyages that last for less than a year, you see mostly negative effects due to diversity. And on longer voyages — so over two years — you see just positive effects. The way I interpret this is that they set aside their conflicts and because they are working towards a common goal in a way, that is maximizing revenue so they can get the largest share for their income, they set aside their conflicts, and this allows for these benefits related to diversity to arise. 

The “common goal” that Baggio is talking about is basically catching as many whales as possible. Whaling was one of the few industries at the time where the bulk of the pay was performance-based: the more productive the ship was, the more everyone got paid, all the way down to the lowest-ranked workers. So there were strong financial incentives here. But there were other incentives that may have complicated things for the non-white crew members.

HILT: One of the factors that probably contributed to productivity onboard a whaling vessel was the prospect of future advancement. 

That’s Eric Hilt, an economic historian at Wellesley College. He is an elder statesman in the field of whaling economics, and we’ve been hearing from him throughout this series. Hilt is a fan of the Baggio and Cosgel research, but he says that racial conflict may not be the only thing that could lead to lower productivity.

HILT: So a sailor might have an incentive to do his job well, not only because he wants to be successful, and earn more money from the voyage, but also because he wants to be recognized as a good candidate to become an officer one day, or get promoted to higher ranks. So in a world of strict racial hierarchies, African-American crew members, Portuguese crew members, Hawaiian crew members, they probably recognized that they were unlikely to be promoted. And so, that probably affected their incentives. 

In other words: in a more diverse whaling crew, it may be that not all workers have equally strong incentives to work as hard as they can.

HILT: What you’d really like to know is what’s life on board the vessel like when you have people from diverse places relative to a case where there’s less diversity. If you read journals of members of the crew who are describing what life is like, you do hear cases where there’s anger and frustration at the fact that a lot of Portuguese is being spoken. You know, “What are these guys saying? Are they cooking up some kind of conspiracy?” Similar in spirit to the comment you hear today about wanting everyone to speak English or something like that. So it’s entirely plausible that productivity was lower in cases like that when there might have been a lot of tension among the different members of the crew.

I went back to Michele Baggio to ask whether his analysis of diversity on whaling ships has anything to say about diversity in labor markets today.

BAGGIO: Extrapolating from our work to current times is tough. It depends on the industry. It depends on the type of the production process itself. Because if you have a labor force or tasks that do not require high skills, then you would expect, at least the literature tells us, that you will mostly see costs associated with diversity. 

DUBNER: Unpack that a little bit for me. Let’s say I’m talking about fast-food restaurant workers. What economists call low-skill, relatively low pay. You’re saying in that kind of setting, diversity is expected to have more of a cost because taste-based discrimination is more likely to flourish in that environment? 

BAGGIO: Based on the literature, yes. But there’s this component of adaptation, right? So as you spend more time with people that are different from you, you adapt and you don’t see the conflicts anymore. So that might go away. You know, the best answer in economics, is always “it depends,” right? It depends on the context. It depends on the industry. 

What was life like on board the Pequod, the whaling ship in Moby-Dick?

*      *      *

Mystic, Connecticut — population 5,000 — was a major shipbuilding center in the 19th century. And it was convenient to the major whaling centers that needed some of those ships, like New London, Connecticut; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Sag Harbor, New York. All this history is now preserved in Mystic Seaport, the biggest maritime museum in the U.S. Maria Petrillo is a director of interpretation at the museum.

Maria PETRILLO: So in the 1920s, the last shipyards along the Mystic River were closing, and the founders were looking at the artifacts and industry that was being lost, and they were making a concerted effort to preserve it. And then in 1941 is when the Charles W. Morgan came here, and the museum started to form around the Morgan as its centerpiece. 

The Charles W. Morgan is a whaling ship, that would have sailed with around 35 crew members. It was actually built in New Bedford, not Mystic; its maiden voyage was in 1841, and it survived 37 whaling voyages. It’s the oldest American commercial ship still afloat. In 2014, after many years of renovations at Mystic Seaport, the Morgan set sail on its thirty-eighth voyage. In the old days, it would have sailed deep into the Atlantic or the Pacific, and it might have been gone for three years. This voyage was just three months, up the New England coast to revisit some of the places where the whale used to rule. The Morgan is considered a sister ship to one of the whaling ships that Herman Melville sailed on, also out of New Bedford. And that is how Hester Blum, the Melville scholar from Penn State, got to sail on one leg of the Morgan’s 38th voyage.

BLUM: I did. The National Endowment for the Humanities helped fund a number of us to serve as cultural interpreters of America’s maritime history. So I applied for that and was so glad to be selected. I spent only about 18 hours on that ship. They took very cautious, short legs up the New England coast to try to not take any risks with this immensely important vessel. 

DUBNER: How far offshore did you get? 

BLUM: I don’t know that we were out of sight of shore, although one of the legs was out in the middle of Cape Cod, and was joined by a pod of humpback whales. My leg sailed from New Bedford, which I appreciated because that was the departure point for so much of what I study. It was such a heady experience to be on that ship. And we had the chance to sleep in the forecastle — which is spelled “forecastle,” but pronounced “focsle.” And so you heard every snore, every movement. The sounds and the creaks of the ship were remarkable. And you can see the various plug holes in the wood, that have been plugged up with tar, and the density and the heaviness of the ropes and how many of them there are, and what it would mean to work sail and having to identify those different ropes. Just the tactility of it is incredible.

DUBNER: Now, had you been on the Cape Cod leg, and you’d seen that pod of whales, do you think instinct and historical and literary fervor would have overtaken you and you would have found a harpoon and gotten to hunting them? 

BLUM: No, no, I would have wept. I wept alone just watching the video footage of it. 

DUBNER: So you’re a lover, not a hunter? 

BLUM: No, certainly not. Although I do think hunting has its place in some settings, in some communities. But I’m not an advocate for industrial-scale slaughter by any imagination. 

On the day we visited the ship recently, Hester Blum made the trip up from Pennsylvania to join us.

BLUM: I love the wooden plugs in the boards so much.

We were joined by Maria Petrillo and Mary K. Bercaw-Edwards, who’s both a museum staffer and a Melville scholar, at the University of Connecticut.

BERCAW-EDWARDS: It’s a completely average whale ship. And I’ve always been really happy that the only surviving whale ship in the whole world is completely average, because this is what most whale ships looked like. 

PETRILLO: It’s 113 feet length on deck and it’s about 315 registered tons. It’s kind of an odd measurement to conceptualize, but if you think about it, a bull sperm whale could be 80 feet long. You know, 20 or 30 feet shorter than the length of the ship itself.

Towards the middle of the ship is the tryworks — two big vats, heated by a brick furnace, where the workers would toss in huge chunks of whale blubber to melt down into the valuable oil. Some of that oil was then used to fuel the tryworks fire itself.

BLUM: And as you can imagine, Melville had a lot of things to say about the self-consuming artifact that is the whale. 

PETRILLO: And you can only imagine the smell. 

Rendering the oil from the blubber is like rendering the fat from bacon when you cook it in a pan.

BLUM: Except that you imagine that you were cooking that bacon in your moving car while you’re driving it. And it was incredibly dirty and hot and messy. And then as soon as the process was over, they had to clean the entire ship. But then again, it would repeat — the process would repeat itself. So it was a constant labor. 

And who were the workers engaged in this constant labor? We asked Michele Baggio about that; the massive data set he used to analyze whaling-crew diversity included records for the Charles W.  Morgan.

BAGGIO: So, the voyages for which we have data for the Morgan go from 1856 to 1908. 

DUBNER: And what size crew would it have had? 

BAGGIO: On average on these voyages, we have data for 11 voyages, the average size was 33.

DUBNER: And then what can you tell us about the diversity of its crew over those several decades? 

BAGGIO: Yes, so there was a large share, obviously, of white crewmembers, but it was lower than the average for the data set we have. On average, we have 77 percent of the crew was white. For the Morgan, it was 66 percent. There was more than 30 percent Black whalemen on board, and 2 percent Native Americans. 

DUBNER: Were there any women among these whalers? 

BAGGIO: Sometimes, on certain voyages, the wife of the captain was on board. 

You can find evidence of this today on the deck of the Morgan: there’s what looks like a small wooden outhouse; and inside, there’s a cot, a chair, some knick-knacks.

PETRILLO: We’re standing next to what we call Mrs. Tinkham’s Cabin. So this is a cabin that was built for the second woman who sailed on the Charles W. Morgan, Mrs. Tinkham. And this was her private space. 

BLUM: Some owners and captains liked the idea that they were religious captains, and that their sailors would keep the Sabbath, and keep a certain degree of religious observation while at sea. To my reading, most sailors were not necessarily crazy about that, and a captain’s wife would often mean more of a Christian civilizing presence that could be good for morale, it could be good for treatment, but for the sailors who were less devout, that presence was a disruption to their lives.

BERCAW-EDWARDS: There was one captain, his wife, who had a little daughter on board. I think she was three. The daughter, had a little pram, and the mother had the daughter fill the pram with Bibles and go up into the forecastle to give to the sailors. And she writes about it as if it’s this sweet, cute, wonderful thing. But the sailors were quite resentful because the forecastle is, like, their only place to get away, that’s their space. And the fact that it was invaded by this child and this woman, they resented that.

Down below deck, in the forecastle, the wooden bunk beds are packed close together. Here’s Hester Blum.

BLUM: Culturally speaking, the ship community would be a tight one. There would certainly be conflict.  

DUBNER: What did they do for fun, for social interaction or for human betterment? Especially during the many, many, many long hours and days when they’re not actually hunting whales? 

BLUM: Sailors would tell stories to each other. They would read, they would lounge, they would make repairs to their clothing. Most of them are expert sewers. They would carve souvenirs for family members or for themselves out of whalebone.

DUBNER: Did they put on shows? 

BLUM: Many ships would do theatricals. That was less common in whale ships in part because, I speculate, the ships were smaller and weren’t carrying costume trunks in the same way that British naval ships did, where people were building sets and fully costumed. And the crews of whaling ships are in some ways very different than the crews of other maritime trades, and certainly the crews of naval ships, which were more elite, relatively speaking. Whaling crews were different and strange, for all of these reasons. 

DUBNER: And what about the language barrier, or lack thereof, on a typical whaling ship? 

BLUM: The sailors had a lingua franca, which centered on English and Spanish and Portuguese. Whale ships in the American whaling industry are so concentrated out of New England that English tended to be the lingua franca, although there were many Cape Verdean sailors who would largely be speaking Portuguese. And so it would be helpful for sailors to have Portuguese or Spanish. But in general the whaling lingua franca is English. 

DUBNER: And how about the crew in Moby-Dick, the book you love more than anything? Describe for me the diversity of the crew on the Pequod

BLUM: The crew of Moby-Dick is more diverse probably than any historic whaling ship was. We have the three harpooneers all represent certain kind of racial typologies in ways that are cartoonish and cliched in many ways. We have Tashtego, who is a Gay Head Indian from Nantucket, an indigenous Nantucketer. Daggoo, who is represented as the African, standing in for a continent. And Queequeg, the Polynesian sailor, all three of whom are the harpooneers or the boat steerers, which are positions that are not usually held by non-white men. Melville made a very specific choice to make the harpooneers these three racial archetypes. He refers to the crew of the Pequod as “the meanest mariners, renegades and castaways,” that he’s going to elevate for the world. The choice to make the Pequod’s crew the most diverse possible is part of that kind of mission, to shed light, and to elevate them to the level of other working men.   

DUBNER: So how atypical was the Pequod crew, then? Right now, you’re saying it was very much so, that was idealized in a way. But also, at least in terms of statistical diversity, it doesn’t seem wildly out of sync with the norm.

BLUM: It’s out of sync only in the sense that — I think of this sometimes, like the scene of the U.N. in Austin Powers, where everyone at the U.N. is wearing their most cartoonish national costume imaginable. And the Pequod has basically one man from each of 30 different countries.

DUBNER: It’s like Noah’s Ark for whalers. 

BLUM: Precisely. And so everybody is performing their ethnicity. That’s the part that’s anomalous. So while it’s not unusual to have Parsis or Lascar sailors from the Philippines on a whale ship, it’s not a given that every whale ship would have one. From my reading of historical narratives, the more diverse a crew is, the more of a sense of shared purpose there might be in constituting a community.  

DUBNER: Is part of the shared mission, would that include a common enemy, or not necessarily? Does the crew get tighter in opposition to, in some cases, the captain? Or maybe it’s the whales who are the common enemy, I’m not sure. 

BLUM: I’m laughing especially because one of the very funny discourses on Twitter about Moby-Dick — because there’s a whole kind of subset of Moby-Dick-obsessed Twitter — and one of the jokes is about what it means to hate a specific animal. Because sailors don’t hate whales. It’s their job. And so part of what makes Moby-Dick funny in some ways is that there’s a hatred for a specific animal. 

DUBNER: Can you describe in just a few words what Moby-Dick Twitter is like? 

BLUM: There’s a lot of memes. You remember Successories, that used to be in the SkyMall catalog, those inspirational business posters? 

DUBNER: Not really, but — 

BLUM: Well, so a lot of it is taking lines from Moby-Dick, and translating them into popular memes. And so that’s always amusing. 

DUBNER: Do you have a favorite or two? I’m guessing there are a billion plays on “Call me Ishmael,” for instance?

BLUM: That’s a big one. The distracted-boyfriend meme is a common one, where the original girlfriend is something like “the plot of the novel” and the girl that is distracting the boyfriend — the boyfriend is Melville — the girl who’s distracting him can be something like “minute details about whaling taxonomy.”  So that’s a common meme. Many of us like to share the dick joke of the day from the novel, because the novel is filled with dick jokes.

DUBNER: Yeah, it really is. Why is that? And how much of an outlier was it among literature of the time? 

BLUM: It’s an outlier only in the sense that it remains widely read today. In part, that’s because by naming the whale Moby-Dick — I mean, there’s so many ways, Melville’s, like, a deeply queer writer. All of his texts have scenes of mutual masturbation or various other queer subtext. Moby-Dick is in some ways the most obvious, in part because “dick” meant the same thing in 1851 as it does today. But also, sperm whales got their name, spermaceti whales, because their oil can resemble ejaculate. Also, before it was understood to be the oil that it is, there was a theory that it was in fact ejaculate. So that’s where sperm whales got their name. 

DUBNER: Which was hard to imagine how it got in their head, I always thought.

BLUM: Well, anatomically, if you look at the ancient maps of the sea that are filled with sea monsters, they have a lot of strange shapes. So where the appendages go is unclear. The challenge of reading Moby-Dick is a having a comfort in not knowing, and being someone who can sit with dissatisfaction or sit with inconclusiveness, sit with discomfort, sit with the idea that things will not be resolved necessarily in the time frame or the way that you want them to. And I don’t think everybody’s comfortable with that. 

DUBNER: So if you could go back to your 17-year-old self and maybe when you first read it and fell in love with it, but then tack on to your 17-year-old self, your current self, with your deeper understanding of the book, how would you describe to your classmates who were not interested in reading Moby-Dick, or maybe to the millions of people today, the billions of people today, who remain not interested in reading Moby-Dick — how would you describe to them the virtues that a 17-year-old would appreciate? 

BLUM: Moby-Dick is deeply weird and funny, and what it especially does for me, both the 17-year-old me and to the 18- or 20-year-olds to whom I teach it now — and to my 50-year-old self, who still reads it at least once a year — Moby-Dick takes any sense that you might have that there is some transcendent, great, perfect work of genius or truth in the world, and turns it into a mess. And a mess that does not breed despair, but a mess that invites you into that process of trying to figure out why greatness or transcendence is not only not achievable, but not desirable. And this is part of my own journey in literature, of seeking truths or greatness or transcendence, which I had been trained to do — whether it was some kind of elitism, or a sense of what literature can do — to realizing that what literature does instead is show you the world as it is, which is really lacking in a lot of those qualities, but not despairing of them. The idea that things can be messy, and that’s part of the form of Moby-Dick’s own messiness. Melville writes again and again in his works, that no grand cathedrals can ever be finished in the lifetime of their architect, that they always have some future realization, but it’s always through others. And so I see that as a real invitation to readers to be part of that process of continuing to work on refining the shape of that world, that building, that cathedral, whatever it might be. 

I’d like to think that Hester Blum is right — well, really, that Herman Melville was right. That we’ve all got a lot of work to do refining the shape of the world, the cathedrals that remain unfinished. Where does your cathedral lie? That’s not for me (or anyone else) to say; that’s for you. But the odds are, you’ll have to seek it out. As Melville writes, in Moby-Dick, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston. We had recording help in Mystic from Lucy Little. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Daria Klenert, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Jasmin Klinger, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, and Sarah Lilley. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.

Read full Transcript


  • Michele Baggio, professor of economics at the University of Connecticut.
  • Mary K. Bercaw-Edwards, professor of maritime English at the University of Connecticut and lead foreman at the Mystic Seaport Museum.
  • Hester Blum, professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University.
  • Eric Hilt, professor of economics at Wellesley College.
  • Kate O’Connell, senior policy consultant for the marine life program at the Animal Welfare Institute.
  • Maria Petrillo, director of interpretation at the Mystic Seaport Museum.
  • Joe Roman, fellow and writer-in-residence at the Gund Institute for Environment, University of Vermont.



Episode Video