In years past, cultures all over the world hunted whales, and nearly every part of the whale was put to use. The fashion, engineering, cosmetics, and candle- and soap-making industries had interest in various parts of whales. Today, traditional uses of whale parts have been replaced with modern-day synthetics, and whaling today is done primarily for food. However, several societies still carry on traditional uses of whale components.
Today, whales are primarily hunted for food. Whale meat is considered a delicacy in several countries, including Japan, as well as some Inuit and Greenlandic coastal cultures. The meat is often served raw, as a sashimi. It tastes like beef, so it is also often sliced into steaks, seasoned just as are regular beef steaks, and grilled or seared.
Blubber is a thick layer of fat below a whale's skin that helps keep the whale warm when it swims through cold ocean waters. Blubber is usually taken from right whales. The blubber is cooked until rendered into oil, known as whale oil, that can be used for soap, and as a component in makeup that contributes a glossy shine. Blubber is also turned into fuel for lamps, wax for candles and grease for machinery. Sperm whale oil is favored for lamps, because it burns slowly and does not emit bad odors as it burns. The same cultures that commonly eat whale meat also eat blubber.
Whale bones are boiled down into glue. They are also ground down to make fertilizer. The bones and teeth are made into tools. For example, large whale bones are shaped into flat boards called smoothing boards that act as ironing boards. Most commonly, whale bones are shaped into special hooks that the Inuit use to make fishing nets. Whale-teeth pendants, called rei puta, are worn by members of the Maori culture, in which the teeth were once valued as money. However, the fashion of wearing whale-teeth pendants has largely gone out of style.
Ambergris comes from sperm whales' digestive tracts. It is thought to protect the whale's stomach from sharp objects that the whale eats, such as the beaks of large squid. Ambergris is then expelled into the ocean as waste. Ambergris has an earthy, almost sweet smell. Perfume makers use this whale by-product as a fixative in their perfumes. Fixatives help reduce the rate of evaporation, ultimately making the perfume last longer. Ambergris is desirable because of its attractive scent, but because it is so rare, ambergris is also very expensive. Usually found while floating in the ocean or after it has washed ashore, ambergris takes on its desirable qualities only after it has been exposed to the ocean's elements for at least several months. While synthetic substances have largely replaced ambergris in perfume manufacturing, some manufacturers of expensive perfumes still use ambergris.
Several whaling companies, especially those located in Japan, conduct what they describe as scientific research on whales to see if whaling can be done sustainably. Because whale populations have decreased so dramatically, in large part because of the whaling industry, many countries disapprove of commercial whaling.