When Melville wrote Moby-Dick, the steam-powered catcher boat and harpoon cannon had yet to be invented. Aboard the Pequod, harpoons are thrown by hand—think of the brawny sharpshooters of the crew, Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo—but in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Norwegian whalers introduced cannons, grenades and shoulder guns that used explosives to fire harpoons. With the advent of steam-powered ships, commercial whalers were also able to pursue faster species of whales and venture into hunting grounds previously inaccessible to sailing vessels.
When Melville contemplated the future of whale species, he could not have imagined how these inventions would modernize commercial whaling and lead to the hunting of whales in unprecedented numbers. In a chapter entitled “Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish—Will He Perish,” Ishmael declares that the relatively inefficient nature of whale hunting (in four years, he observes, a whaling crew would be lucky to kill 40 whales) will save the animals from “graduation extinction.” Comparing whales to the bison decimated on the American Plains, Ishmael argues that the “far different nature of the whale-hunt peremptorily forbids so inglorious an end to the Leviathan.”
In one sense, Ishmael’s conclusion that hunting could never threaten whale populations sounds naive, but, in another sense, his very concern with extinction reflects his era’s growing environmental awareness. The dwindling populations of North American species, particularly the once abundant passenger pigeon which was eventually hunted to extinction, inspired America’s early conservation efforts, and in the 20th century the whale would become a focus of environmental movements worldwide. When Ishmael wonders whether whale species will perish, he acknowledges that natural resources might be limited.