“Final Voyage: A Story of Arctic Disaster and One Fateful Whaling Season” tells the story of an industry that found its first success in Nantucket and expanded to make New Bedford, Mass., into what Peter Nichols refers to as “the Saudi Arabia of its day.”

The pivot point for Nichols’ book is one of the major events to mark the demise of the whaling industry. In August of 1871, as they pursued the last major populations of oil producing whales into the Arctic Sea north of the Bering Strait, 32 ships, mostly owned by New Bedford Quaker industrialists, became trapped between the icepack and the shore.

Aboard those ships were captains and seamen, wives and children. Several among them kept journals and logs, and it is from these primary sources that Nichols has gathered many of the quotations and stories that bring his story to life.

Long before the icepack closed in on that ill-fated group of ships, the enormous industrial bounty of whaling had begun to diminish.

Nichols’ book reaches deeply into the history and culture of whaling, telling how the pacifist Quakers of Nantucket, politically neutral in the American Revolution, saw the destruction of the whales as a contract with the Almighty. In 1789, while Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams were hammering out the details of the Constitution, a man from Nantucket was becoming the first white man to harpoon a whale. About half a century later, whaling was so unprofitable in the Atlantic that the ever increasing fleets had moved to the Pacific in pursuit of the lubricant that was smoothing the way for a less political upheaval, the Industrial Revolution.

“The Industrial Revolution was greased by whale oil,” Nichols writes.

Beyond his thorough research and well-constructed use of primary source material, Nichols’ great skill lies in his ability to make life aboard a whaling ship visible and real. These were the first factory ships, with brick furnaces, called tryworks, heating steaming iron vats of melting blubber and competing for deck space with the normal and necessary operations of a ship under sail.

As it is now, fishing was at that time the most dangerous job for an American. In 2005, Nichols reminds the reader, the fatality rate among fishermen was 30 times that of the average worker, with 118.4 out of 100,000 in that trade dying on the job.

“Whalers died far from home, in places most people had never heard of — though to New Bedforders in the mid-19th century, the sea of Okhotsk (in the Western Arctic) was as familiar a name as Baghdad in our own time,” Nichols writes. “Men fell in uncountable numbers from the masts, yardarms, and the cat’s cradle of rigging that wheeled, arced, lurched across the sky.”

By the beginning of the 19th century, successful Quakers were searching for ways to enjoy their great wealth while maintaining their pious plainness. Worldliness came to New Bedford in part through the immigration of many who served the industry, but Nichols attributes far more of the decadence of that culture to the magnates’ exposure to cities such as New York. Schisms formed in the former Quaker strongholds of Nantucket and New Bedford, with many of the sharpest lines being drawn between generations.

The “New Lights” were open to a variety of religious beliefs or even none at all, while the so-called “Old Lights” believed that their past success at whaling was due to, and their future wealth assured by, their piety and adherence to biblical creed, what Nichols refers to as “the Dodo principle.” By blindly assuming that their religious belief guaranteed them a place among the privileged, the whaling aristocracy was in fact ensuring their ultimate failure.

The pivotal details of the disaster of 1871 are told in the words of a number of sailors, captains and family members who were aboard some of the 32 ships that were abandoned that late summer.

As drama was unfolding in the Arctic, what Nichols calls a “Paradigm Shift” was taking place in the markets of the industrial northern United States. In 1859, as supplies of whale oil were reaching their peak, a man named George Bissell was beginning the first successful petroleum, or “rock oil,” drilling effort in Pennsylvania.

Within 15 years a new source of fuel and lubricants for the burgeoning Industrial Revolution was in production. In its first six years, petroleum produced more oil than whaling did in the 90 years between 1816 and 1905. Before the transition was accomplished, many species of the creature the Quaker captains called Leviathan were brought to the edge of extinction. From the time Capt. Thomas Welcome Roys brought the first New Bedford ship, the Superior, through the Bering Strait in 1848, it took only 50 years for 20,000 bowhead whales — hunted only after the far more productive sperm whales had become too difficult to find — to meet their end.

Even as prices plummeted in the aftermath of the 1871 losses, many of the heads of New Bedford’s whaling empire refused to accept the end of their source of wealth and power. The publication “The Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript” of February 1872 is quoted by Nichols as saying, “We don’t believe in the dying of whaling.” The Boston Post called the disaster an aberration.

“Such an event would probably not occur again in a lifetime,” the Post stated in November 1871, failing to anticipate a similar event that would take place in 1876, when 12 ships were trapped in Arctic ice. Eventually, the whaling industry was forced to accept the truth; it was no longer remotely profitable to harvest oil from the ocean’s living creatures.

“By the 1890s,” Nichols writes, “New Bedford had turned away from the sea.”

“Final Voyage” is a complex and layered history, made accessible and vivid through Nichols’ clear writing and the aliveness of its primary source material. The parallels the author draws to current energy supply challenges are worth consideration, as is his assessment of the blind faith that is given to economic systems and those who prosper by them. As fishery harvests reach and possibly surpass maximum sustainable levels, this look at the overconfident errors of the past provides an important view of the ways in which prosperity and growth drive and are driven by the righteous mandates of religious zeal.

“Final Voyage: A Story of Arctic Disaster and One Fateful Whaling Season” was written by Peter Nichols, and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 375 Hudson Street, New York, N.Y.