sperm oil

sperm oil

sperm oil, liquid wax obtained from the sperm whale, or cachalot, and related marine mammals. It flows readily, is clear, and varies in color from pale yellow to brownish yellow. Chemically it is not a true oil. It is secured from the blubber and from a huge cavity in the whale's head (this oil cavity helps the whale keep part of his head above water for breathing). A solid wax, spermaceti, is extracted from the oil by filtration and treatment with potassium hydroxide. The oil is an excellent lubricant, especially for watches and other delicate instruments, and is used as a dressing for leather, to protect plants from insects, in tempering steel, and in making soap.

Whale oil is the oil obtained from the blubber of various species of whales, particularly the three species of Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica, E. glacialis, and E. australis) and the Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysicetus) prior to the modern era, as well as several other species of baleen whale. Train oil proper is right whale oil, but this term has been applied to all blubber oils, and in Germany, to all marine animal oils: fish oils, liver oils, and blubber oils. The most important whale oil was sperm or spermaceti oil, yielded by Sperm Whales.

Whale oil is chemically a liquid wax and not a true oil. It flows readily, is clear, and varies in colour from a bright honey yellow to a dark brown, according to the condition of the blubber from which it has been extracted. Stearin and spermaceti may be separated from whale oil at low temperatures; at under 0°C these constituents may be almost completely crystallized and filtered out. When removed and pressed, this deposit is known as whale tallow, and the oil from which it is removed is known as pressed whale oil; yet is sometimes passed as sperm oil.

The first principal use of whale oil was as an illuminant in lamps and as candle wax. It was a major food of the aboriginal peoples of the Pacific northwest, such as the Nootka. Whale oil later came to be used in oiling wools for combing and other uses. It was the first of any animal or mineral oil to achieve commercial viability. It was used to make margarine.

However, with the 1986 International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling, whale oil has all but ceased to be viable, as substitutes have been found for most of its uses, notably jojoba oil.

In literature and memoirs

The pursuit and use of whale oil, along with many other aspects of whaling, are discussed in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. John R. Jewitt, an Englishman who wrote a memoir about his years as a captive of the Nootka people on the Pacific Northwest Coast in 1802-1805, describes how what he calls train oil was used as a condiment with every dish, even strawberries.

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