Saturday, September 8, 2012
Nantucket is out in the Atlantic with Cape Cod to the North and the island of Martha's Vineyard to the West. Looking at the geography of the area one notices the strange shapes of the land masses; this had never really struck me before. The explanation is that these land masses were formed from material deposited by terminal moraines of glaciers receding after the last ice age, depositing sand and rocks picked up hundreds of miles away in Canada. As a result the surrounding sea is very shallow and the coast is subject to rapid erosion and change. In 1659 the island was purchased from its original owner for 30 pounds and two beaver hats; the intention was to farm but the soil is not good enough due to geographic origin. The settlers struck upon an opportunity caused by new markets from the industrial revolution and the desire for artificial light. Yes, it was the first oil rush.
The largest toothed animal on the planet is the sperm whale and it feeds on large squid by echolocation. The science of its complex biology is not fully known but its head contains, unfortunately for it, a large reservoir of a very pure oil called spermaceti particularly valuable in the 18th and 19th centuries for making smokeless and odorless candles and for lubricating machinery. Nantucket residents turned to hunting sperm whales around the world, particularly in the Pacific. The whaling ships had a brick refinery on board to boil down blubber and carry out a first process on the whale oil; voyages would last for up to 4 years until the hold was full of barrels of oil for the world market. Today the oil is found under the ground rather than inside a whale head, and other people are getting rich.
Posted by David