Film chronicles story of whaling and its impact on the world

Ric Burns told his audience at Connecticut College that whaling was the first global industry and shaped the world of today.
Ric Burns told his audience at Connecticut College that whaling was the first global industry and shaped the world of today.

New London - Hundreds of eager people filled Palmer Auditorium at Connecticut College Sunday to catch the first glimpse of filmmaker Ric Burns' newest documentary, "Into the Deep: America, Whaling & The World."

The documentary, which took close to four years to produce, provides a look into the perilous world of the whaling industry and the thousands of brave men who stepped onto the ships and sailed out to sea. Many of them sailed out of New London while the world's last surviving wooden whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, is on display at Mystic Seaport.

"It's an amazing story. The whaling industry is totally dead. Something like that will never happen again," Burns said.

The film, which airs May 10 at 9 p.m. on PBS, focuses on three centuries of American whalers who would stop at nothing to pull the whale's coveted blubber off its back and melt the fat into the prized oil. They also obtained spermaceti from an organ in the head of a sperm whale, which was used in various ointments, cosmetic creams, candles, pomades and machinery.

During the 1840s, also known as the Golden Age of Whaling, it is estimated that 20,000 men a year were shipping out on whaling ships. They killed an estimated 250,000 sperm whales and created a multi-million-dollar industry.

Burns' film highlights the Essex, the famous whaling ship sunk by a charging whale in 1820. The crew of 20 men dwindled to five who survived in makeshift boats for 95 days before being picked up off the coast of Chile.

"There was an amazing use of primary source material in this film," audience member Libby Friedman of Waterford said Sunday afternoon.

"It captured the history of whaling and brought it to life. It's hard to imagine how anyone survived 95 days at sea in those conditions," she said.

Whaling's global impact would not have been remotely close to what it was if it weren't for the ships that carried crews across the seven seas.

"Whaling was the first global industry. It was the first time we had an impact on the global world we live in now," Burns said.

Burns says that one can't truly understand what whaling was unless they step upon a ship.

"They were essentially whale factories, killers," Burns said. "They were home to 30 men for three to four years at a time. It was amazing what those ships could do."

Audience member Andrew Landi said he has toured the Morgan and brought his 15-year-old son, Michael, to the premiere Sunday afternoon.

"Seeing the documentary reminded me of Apollo 13," Landi said. "The whaleships were their modern-day spaceships. They went to uncharted territory thousands of miles away in the middle of the sea. They had a 113-foot piece of wood to call home for years."

After the premiere, a question and answer session was held for audience members.

On the panel was Matthew Stackpole, a member of the team at Mystic Seaport restoring the Morgan.

"History has things we need to remember. If we forget these stories, we have wasted an aspect of American character," he said.


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