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The Soviet Union once hunted endangered whales to the brink of extinction

Soviet whalers manning mechanized harpoons in 1960.

Enlarge / Soviet whalers manning mechanized harpoons in 1960. (credit: Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Every year, an estimated 13 million people go whale-watching around the world, marveling at the sight of the largest animals ever to inhabit Earth. It’s a dramatic reversal from a century ago, when few people ever saw a living whale. The creatures are still recovering from massive industrial-scale hunting that nearly wiped out several species in the 20th century.

The history of whaling shows how humans have wreaked careless havoc on the ocean, but also how they can change course. In my new book, Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling, I describe how the Soviet Union was central both to this deadly industry and to scientific research that helps us understand whales’ recovery.

A humpback whale breaches in Boston Harbor on August 2, 2022. Whaling greatly reduced humpback whale numbers, but the species is recovering under international protection.

From wood to steel and bad to worse

At the start of the 20th century, it seemed whales might gain a reprieve after years of hunting. The era of whaling from sailboats, depicted in such memorable detail by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, had nearly wiped out slow, fat species like right and bowhead whales and also wreaked substantial harm to sperm whales.

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