Whales and Hunting - New Bedford Whaling Museum

Whales and Hunting

Learn which whales were hunted and why; how they captured and processed them; how technology changed the industry.

Whales and Hunting

Why Hunted?

“Abundantly laden with the riches of the ocean”: Why whales were hunted

Whaling was an exceptionally dangerous business both physically and economically. In the Yankee whale fishery injuries and death were common to almost every voyage.

Many vessels were lost. Few individuals got rich whaling and most of those were owners and agents. The answers to why so many people went whaling are many and varied but the underlying principle is that whale products had a strong commercial value if one knew how to exploit it.

“Success to the old Marcella may she speedily return to her original haven abundantly laden with the riches of the ocean.”

Original verse from the journal of Henry Smith kept aboard the bark Marcella of New Bedford, 1840-1841, Benjamin Ellis, master. (KWM # 742)

In Men and Whales, Richard Ellis writes that, until the beginning of the twentieth-century, whaling was considered an admirable occupation.  “. . . it is only through the lens of hindsight that the whaleman’s job becomes malicious or cruel. . . Oil was needed for light and lubrication; baleen was needed for skirt hoops and corset stays. That whales had to die to provide these things is a fact of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century life. . .

Whale products

The primary products of the Yankee whale fishery were sperm oil, spermaceti, whale oil and whalebone and occasionally ambergris if any were discovered.

Sperm oil

Oil from sperm whale blubber otherwise known as body oil is of a light straw color. It has particular qualities separating it from almost any other type of oil. One in particular is that it retains its lubricating qualities in extreme temperatures making it ideal for light, rapid machinery. Another feature is its superb qualities of illumination. It burns very clearly and brightly and without smoke or odor. Great quantities of sperm oil went into public and private lighting as well as lighthouses. A byproduct of the sperm oil refining process was high quality soap. About half of the crude sperm oil obtained by American vessels at the height of the fishery was exported to other countries.


Unlike any other whale oil apart from sperm whale body oil and the material found in the head of the bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampulatus) spermaceti is a liquid wax. It was known as “head oil” or “head matter” as it was found in the heads of sperm whales where its true anatomical function is still debated. While in the head it is a rose-tinted, semi-transparent liquid that crystallizes upon contact with the air. It was barreled separately from any other oils obtained in the fishery. This material was the most valuable product of the Yankee whaling industry as it has a high melting point and burned cleanly and brightly and without odor. It made the highest quality candles. Their high illuminating power made spermaceti candles the standard for photometric measurements. Before its use in candle making spermaceti was used as a medicinal ointment and as a sizing in wool combing. Although Americans had ceased to hunt sperm whales the commercial uses of spermaceti and sperm oil both lasted well into the 1960’s in a variety of industries including leather tanning, cosmetics, the garment industry and in the manufacture of typewriter ribbons.

Whale oil

Otherwise known as “train oil” the whale oils are varying shades of brown in color, depending upon the age of the blubber from which they were boiled and the general health of the animal from which they were obtained. Whale oils were the first of all oils — animal or mineral — to achieve commercial importance. The principle sources for whale oil in the days of Yankee whaling were right whales, bowhead whales and humpback whales. Yankee whaling merchants sometimes adopted the phrase “brown oil is better than no oil,” in their instructions to their ship captains meaning that rather than return home without having filled the ship with sperm oil, they were to take other whales instead. Whale oil has an ancient history having been used in medieval Europe as an illuminant and a lubricant as well as food. It saw new uses during the 19th century Industrial Revolution both in Europe and America in the tempering of steel, screw cutting and cordage manufacture. It continued to be used as an illuminant particularly in the headlamps of miners. By-products of the whale oil refining process were soap and stearin a material that was added to spermaceti to decrease its brittleness and to make a smoother burning candle.


Instead of teeth, baleen whales have long strips, known as baleen, which hang from the roofs of their mouths, and which they use to strain out krill from sea water. Baleen is made of keratin, the same substance found in human nails, hair, hoofs, and claws. It was used in a variety of nineteenth-century products: * Buggy whips; * Carriage springs; * Corset stays; * Fishing poles; Hoops for women’s skirts; * Umbrella ribs; * Other applications for which plastic or steel would now be used.

If baleen was not carefully cleaned as soon as removed from the whale’s jaw, it developed an unpleasant smell that lowered its value.


The following description is quoted verbatim from Charles H. Stevenson “Aquatic Products in Arts and Industries,” Report of the Commissioner for the Year Ending June 30, 1902, U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Part 28 (Washington, 1904).

“Ambergris is a wax-like substance found at rare intervals, but sometimes in relatively large quantities, in the intestines of the sperm whale. With the exception of choice pearls and coral it is the highest-priced product of the fisheries, selling upward of $40 per ounce. It is now generally conceded that ambergris is generated in either sex of the sperm whale, but far more frequently in the male, and is the result of a diseased state of the animal, caused possibly by a biliary irritation, as the individuals from which it is secured are almost invariably of a sickly appearance and sometimes greatly emaciated. It occurs in rough lumps varying in weight from less than one pound to 150 pounds or more. It generally contains fragments of the beak or mandible of squid or cuttle-fish which constitutes the principle food of the sperm whale. When first removed from the animal it is comparatively soft and emits a repugnant odor, but upon exposure to the air, it grows harder, lighter in color, and assumes the appearance it presents when found floating on the ocean. Its color ranges from black to whitish gray, and is often variegated with light stripes and spots resembling marble somewhat.” Although ambergris was used as an aphrodisiac, incense and medicine in ancient times it came to be used principally in perfume manufacture because it served to impart homogeneity and permanency to different ingredients employed.

The success of a voyage

When the New Bedford whaler, Benjamin Tucker, returned to home port in 1851, she carried: * 73,707 gallons of whale-oil; * 5,348 gallons of sperm oil; * 30, 012 pounds of whalebone (baleen).

How the profits were divided

After expenses, the net profit of the Benjamin Tucker’s voyage was $45,320. The usual share for the owners of a ship was between 60 and 70 percent. In this case, between $13,596 and $18,128 would have been left to be divided among the captain and crew for several years of work.

When the Ship Milton returned to port in 1836, the captain received a lay of 1/17th or $5,882; the first mate 1/22nd or $4,545; the boatsteerer (harpooneer) 1/75 or $1,333; and the blacksmith 1/140th or $714. The best paid seaman earned $800, while the worst paid received $571. On another voyage of the Milton, one of the ordinary seamen earned only $10.10.

The Varieties of Whales

The following descriptions are limited to the species that were most commonly hunted in the American whale-fishery:

Toothed Whales (suborder Odontoceti)

Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

  • Grows to up to 60 feet long, weighs up to 63 tons;
  • Follows its food supply through the world’s oceans – is generally found in colder seas in summer and in temperate and tropical waters in winter;
  • Feeds on small fish, squid, giant squid:
  • Dives to depths of at least 3,300 feet — deeper than any other marine mammal;
  • Holds its breath while submerged for up to 90 minutes;
  • Displays enormous teeth on its lower jaw;
  • Was the principal prey of the nineteenth-century American whale-fishery;
  • Haunted Captain Ahab in the classic American novel, Moby-Dick.

Baleen Whales (suborder Mysticeti)

Baleen whales do not have teeth. Instead, they are distinguished by baleen, which hangs in strips from the roofs of their mouths. Baleen is composed of keratin, a substance found in nails, claws, horns, and hoofs. It looks like hairy, vertical venetian blinds. The whale uses it to strain out krill (masses of small shrimp-like crustacea that float near the water’s surface) from sea water.

Black Whale (North Atlantic right: Eubalaena glacialis; Southern right: Eubalaena australis; North Pacific right: Eubalaena japonica)

Growing up to 60 feet long and weighing up to 100 tons, these animals provided the backbone of the American commercial whale fishery from their early colonial shore-side exploitation until the end of the nineteenth century. Commonly termed “black whales” by American whalers, their hunt was called “right whaling” for their marketable baleen, similar to the great right whale of European commerce, the bowhead whale. These little-understood animals were also called Nordcapers or sletbacks and were seldom hunted by Europeans who considered them commercially inferior to bowheads. They made less oil, had coarser baleen, fought viciously, and frequently sank when killed. With a relatively small population in the North Atlantic, Eubalaena glacialis numbers were quickly reduced by colonial whalers who took advantage of their regular migratory routes. The southern species and the North Pacific species, however, provided sustained commercial advantages through heavy exploitation for many decades. Today, Eubalaena glacialis and Eubalaena japonica are the most threatened great whales on earth. The unreported killing of North Pacific right whales by Soviet commercial whalers in the twentieth century almost completely extirpated the species. Around 400 individuals currently make up the population of North Atlantic right whales which face threats from marine traffic, pollution and entanglement in fishing gear.

Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus)

  • Grows to about 60 feet in length and weighs 100 tons or more;
  • Prized by whalemen for quantity and quality of its blubber and baleen;
  • Carries the thickest blubber of any whale (20-28 inches), an adaptation to the icy Arctic waters in which the species lives;
  • Possesses longest (10- to 14 feet) and largest number (600) of baleen plates.

Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus)

  • Grows to up to 48 feet long, weighs from 25-30 tons;
  • Migrates 12,000 miles roundtrip — longest migration of any whale species – from the frigid waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas, where it summers, to the warm lagoons of Baja California, where it winters;
  • Considered ferocious by whalemen, who called it “devil fish.” Present almost affectionate interaction between whale watching humans and gray

Rorqual Whales

Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

  • Grows to up to 50 feet and weighs up to 50 tons;
  • Does not have a hump but arches its back when it dives, which may account for the name;
  • Displays huge flippers, which are nearly as long as one third of its body;
  • Breaches dramatically, propelling its huge body almost entirely out of the water and diving back in with an enormous splash;
  • Noted for complex, repetitive vocalizations. The Humpback was one of the five species normally hunted by the Yankee whalers, although it was the least desirable since it sank about half the time after being killed and its baleen was useless.

Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

  • Grows to a length of 100 feet and weighs up to 150 tons
  • The biggest creature that ever lived. Because of intensive whaling in the 20th century, the Blue Whale has been left as one of the most endangered species. It was never hunted by the Yankee whaleman because it was considered too fast, too big, and because it invariably sank when killed.

Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

  • Grows from 60 to 85 feet long and weighs up to 80 tons;
  • Considered one of the fastest of marine mammals, swimming at estimated speeds of up to 25 miles per hour;
  • Not hunted by whalers in the age of sail — harpoons became dislodged due to its swimming speed and, like its close relative, the blue whale, it usually sank when killed.

How Whales Were Captured

The long search

The great whales roamed the oceans in search of food:

  • Krill (masses of tiny, shrimp-like organisms that float near the surface of the water);
  • Small fish and squid;
  • Giant squid, often consumed by sperm whales in chunks nearly half the size of a whaleboat.

Crow’s nest or Hoops

Hungry for oil, whaleships kept lookouts at the masthead every day from sunrise to sunset. Each foremast hand took a two-hour turn aloft, his eyes scanning the ocean, hoping to see the spout, a vapor plume caused by the whale’s breath. Two pieces of lumber nailed to the top-gallant mast and a pair of iron hoops at breast- height were the lookout’s only support as he steadied himself 100 feet above the deck.

What kind of whale?

Under ideal conditions, a lookout might spot a whale’s spout as much as eight miles away. Each species of whale has a distinctive spout and it took an experienced hand to know whether he was seeing a prized sperm whale or a fin whale that the captain might not consider worth pursuing.

“There she blows”

When the lookout sang out, a mate or the captain called back questions until he had determined the location of the whale as precisely as possible. Then, captain, mates, and crew thundered across the deck to launch the whaleboats. The shipkeepers, usually the cooper (who made and repaired casks), the blacksmith, the carpenter, the cook, and the steward, were left behind to handle the ship.

The frenzy of the hunt

The business of whaling was filled with long hours of boredom, although the moment when the whaleboats were launched and the chase began was filled with the frenzied excitement of a hunt. The crews raced against each other, struggling to arrive at the whale first. Even as they moved closer to danger, they could not see their prey. They faced the stern (rear) of the boat and the boatheader (a mate or the captain), who steered the boat, urged the men to row harder. He coaxed and commanded them to strain every muscle as they surged forward. For all hands, especially the inexperienced, it was a tense moment as the small, fragile whaleboat drew up to the unpredictable and enormous mammal.

The listening prey

It was not simply a matter of rowing fast, reaching the whale, and making a kill. Whales have acute hearing, so it was important to approach quietly. The splash of an oar could “gally” (scare) the beast and make it “sound” (dive) and swim further away from the boats. Whenever there was a favorable wind, the crew attached a rudder and put up mast and sail. If they could not sail, they rowed. Sometimes, as they drew close to the whale, they quietly paddled the boat like a canoe.

The whale iron

As the whaleboat glided closer, the harpooneer picked up his weapon. The harpoon, known to crews as the “whale iron,” was used to fasten the whale to the whaleboat, rather than to kill it. It was designed to penetrate blubber and hold securely, like a hook. A whaleship embarking on a four-year voyage in the mid- nineteenth century usually carried 150-200 harpoons.

The harpoon was a forged iron head mounted to a hardwood shaft five or six feet long. The blunt end of the harpoon was attached to a long coil of line in a bucket. Although blacksmiths and harpooneers experimented with many different barbs, swivels, and toggles in designing harpoon heads, the standard, hand-darted harpoon in the second half of the nineteenth century was the toggle iron designed by an African-American in New Bedford, Lewis Temple.

“Give it to him”

The harpooneer stood at the bow (front), bracing his leg against the thighboard, weapon in hand, poised for action. “Give it to him,” the boatheader shouted when the boat was within a few feet of their prey and the harpooneer plunged his barbed weapon into the whale’s back.

“Stern all! Stern all, for your lives”

At this moment of danger, the crew backed the boat away, as the whale thrashed in pain. The jaws or tail of a 50-ton whale could smash a boat and send the crew tumbling into the water. (In rough seas or fog, losing the whaleboat was a death sentence, if the ship could not find the scattered crew.)

Smoking line

The whale usually dove, taking down with it the embedded harpoon. The crew allowed the line to run out to prevent the boat from being dragged down with the whale. The line was turned around a small post called a loggerhead, to slow it down as it ran out. As the whale pulled the boat, the line often played out so fast that it smoked from the friction. If the line became fouled, the boat could be dragged underwater. A seaman caught in the rushing line could be pulled from the boat.

Fast to the whale

When the whale came up to breathe, it often swam on the surface, at speeds of over twenty miles per hour for a sperm whale. The whaleboat, attached to the prey by harpoon and line, bounced along, showering the men with spray. The danger was very real that the crew might be carried so far from the ship that it could not find them again. The kill: When the whale tired, the crew pulled on the line to draw the boat close to their prey, while boatheader and harpooneer changed places – a hazardous maneuver that led to more than one death. The harpooneer went aft (to the back) to steer, while the boatheader carried a lance forward and plunged it into a vulnerable spot, such as the heart or lungs. With each breath, the whale spouted blood.

The flurry

As the whaleboat backed off again, the crew observed the awesome spectacle of the death of the whale. The great beast swam violently in ever smaller circles, a pattern known as the “flurry.” The end came when the whale beat the water with its tail, shuddered and turned fin out, a whaling term meaning that the whale had expired and turned over on its side..

Towing Leviathan

After hours of tremendous exertion, the whaleboat crew still had work to do. The dead whale, often weighing more than 50 tons, had to be towed back to the ship by a handful of exhausted men, unless the ship could sail to it.

Unsuccessful chases

Not all pursuits ended in the death of the whale. Crews sometimes chased for hours and never got close to their prey. Occasionally, the harpooneer might not make a firm hit and the whale would escape, or the whaleboat would be overturned by a whale or a storm.

More powerful weapons

Throughout the nineteenth century, whalemen sought to improve their methods of capturing whales by perfecting better weapons.

  • From the late 1850s on, harpoon guns supplemented the harpooneer’s strong throwing arm;
  • In 1865, an explosive harpoon was introduced that simultaneously fastened to the whale and hit it with two small explosive projectiles;
  • Bomb lances, which contained a gunpowder charge and time fuse that triggered an explosion deep within the whale’s body, were shot at the whale from a bomb lance gun;
  • Darting guns combined a harpoon and bomb lance at the end of a single pole. As the harpoon was driven into the whale, a rod-like trigger was released and discharged a bomb lance.

The explosive weapons were intended to slow the whale down and weaken its ability to struggle against its captors. Explosive devices were particularly popular in the Arctic fishery, where it was important to prevent the whale from diving under the ice. As weapons were improved, the whale’s chances of escaping declined dramatically.

How Whales Were Processed

An awesome sight

The whaleman’s work did not end when the whale died. If the wind was favorable, the whaleship sailed to where the carcass floated in the sea. Frequently, however, the boatheader of the capturing boat attached a line to the whale’s tail through a hole made with a cutting spade and the tired crew rowed slowly back to the ship, towing the dead whale behind them.

Cutting In
It was important to process the whale quickly to prevent sharks from feasting on too much of the valuable carcass. The crew, divided into two watches, worked six-hour shifts, day and night, until the job was done. The process could take from several hours to several days, depending on the size of the whale, the skill of the crew, and the weather.

The whale was made fast to the starboard (right) side of the ship with heavy chains. The crew erected the cutting stage (plank platform) above the carcass and:

  • Stripped off the blubber, a thick layer of fat, with cutting spades set in 15-foot long poles. The process was very much like peeling skin from an orange.
  • Cut the long strips into “blanket pieces,” weighing about a ton each.
  • After hauling the blanket pieces up on deck, divided them into smaller “horse pieces” and “Bible leaves,” so-called because they resembled books.

Trying Out
Although trying out, or “boiling” (extracting oil from blubber) was carried out on shore in the early days of whaling, by the mid-nineteenth century, whaleships carried “tryworks” – big iron pots set in a brick stove.

  • A fire was set in the stove beneath the pots;
  • “Bible leaves” were tossed into the pots and cooked until the oil was rendered (extracted) from the blubber;
  • The oil was cooled, placed in casks of varying sizes, and stored in the hold of the ship (the cargo space at the bottom of the ship near the water line). Onshore, it would be strained and bleached, then sold, primarily as lamp oil. The standard unit of measure, the barrel, contained 31 1/2 gallons.

The precious head
The head of the sperm whale was very valuable. It was separated into three parts:

  • The “case,” at the top of the whale’s head. Tons of the purest oil was scooped from the case with buckets. This oil, known as spermaceti, hardened into a white waxy substance that was worth three to five times more than other whale-oil. Up to 500 gallons of the liquid wax might be scooped from the head of a large sperm whale.
  • The “junk” or lower half of the forehead, which contained more oil, was cut into horse pieces and tried out separately. Although oil from the junk was not as valuable as the spermaceti from the case, it was considered superior to the rest of the whale’s blubber.
  • The jaw and teeth were saved for scrimshaw carving by the crew.

Unlike sperm whales, all baleen whales, such as bowhead and right whales, do not have teeth. Instead, they use long vertical strips in their mouths, called baleen, to strain ocean water for krill, masses of shrimp-like organisms that float near the surface. Baleen is made of keratin, a substance found in nails, horns, hoofs, and hair. It was used for:

  • Buggy whips;
  • Carriage springs;
  • Corset stays;
  • Fishing rods;
  • Frames for traveling bags, trunks, and women’s hats;
  • Hoops for women’s skirts;
  • Umbrella and parasol ribs.

Dangerous even in death
Processing a whale was nearly as dangerous as hunting one. The deck became so slick with blood and oil that a man could slip overboard to the sharks below. Others were crushed by the enormous weight of strips of blubber or wounded by cutting tools. As the blubber was being rendered in the tryworks, a wave sometimes rocked the ship and splashed scalding oil onto the crew. On rare occasions, the fire in the tryworks spread and devastated the ship. And throughout the days and nights of work, an unforgettable stench clung to the men and their ship.

The big cleanup
After the last cask was stowed in the hold, the crew scrubbed and polished until the ship was once again as clean as it could be, considering that the inescapable odor of smoked blubber could never be eradicated. It was said that a ship downwind could smell a whaleship coming.

And begin again: As the cleanup ended, lookouts were sent up to the mastheads to watch for whales. Eventually, the cry of “There she blows” would ring out over the ship and the hunt would begin again.

“Modern” Whaling,1861-1987– An Overview

Beginning in the 1860s, the Norwegian sealing captain-entrepreneur Svend Foyn pioneered revolutionary methods for hunting and processing whales.

Instead of the rickety, old fashioned sail- and oar-powered whaleboats favored by traditional Yankee whalers, Foyn introduced mechanized, steam-powered catcher boats equipped with bow-chaser deck cannons and heavy-caliber harpoons that exploded on impact. These increased efficiency and volume, enabling the harvest not only of all of the species that had been hunted for centuries (notably, Northern and Southern right whales, sperm whales, Arctic bowheads, humpbacks, and gray whales), but also blue whales and finbacks–the largest species, which, by reason of their speed in the water, had eluded all previous hunting technologies.

The Norwegians first exploited their own coastal waters. Later, between 1904 and 1940, they established shore-whaling stations on six continents (including on the American Northwest Coast) and pioneered pelagic factory-ship expeditions to the vast, hitherto unexploited grounds of Antarctica, employing entire fleets or a dozen or more vessels for months-long voyages to high South Latitudes. Many technological innovations followed, including stern slipways on factory-ships for hauling entire carcasses aboard, integrated fleets of vessels with specialized tasks of catching, towing, processing, and bunkering, spotter aircraft and radio communications to track migrating whales, and remarkable advances in ordnance, food chemistry, and processing machinery. Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, China, Korea, Argentina, and Japan followed Norway into pelagic factory-ship whaling; two factory-ships partly owned in the United States and technically registered at Wilmington, Delaware (which had also briefly been a conventional whaling port in the 1840s), were also sent whaling in Antarctica in the 1930s.

It was this relentlessly efficient technology, and the failure of the whaling nations to adhere to protective quotas regulating the catch, that in the decades following World War II devastated several species to the point of extinction. International treaties were negotiated in the 1930s to regulate the hunt, and the International Whaling Commission was established in 1949, with an expert Scientific Committee to monitor population and abundance. However, lack of enforcement authority, inherent administrative flaws, and persistent international disputes, combined with clandestine over-fishing and under-reporting of the catch (notably by the Soviet Union), fatally weakened IWC effectiveness. In 1972 the United Nations called for a cessation of whaling and the United States Congress passed an Endangered Species Act; whale sanctuaries were declared in the 1970s and ’80s, and a general moratorium on commercial whaling, adopted by the IWC in 1982, took effect in 1987–measures intended to protect whales from ultimate annihilation. Nevertheless, some nations have resumed limited whaling outside the jurisdiction of the IWC (taking species that are not generally considered to be critically endangered).  The condition of several species – the North Atlantic right whale, the Arctic bowhead, and the Pacific blue whale – remains critical.


Ash, Christopher. Whaler’s Eye. New York: Macmillan, 1962; London: George Allen & Unwin, 1964. Modern whaling narrative of the British floating-factory whaleship Balaena.

Elliott, Sir Gerald. Whaling 1937-1967: The International Control of Whale Stocks. Kendall Monograph #10. Sharon, Massachusetts, 1997

Tønnessen, J.N.; and A.O. Johnsen. The History of Modern Whaling. Translated by R.I. Christophersen. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1982.

Arctic Whaling

Going north for whales
Since the 1790s, American whaleships had “rounded the Horn” (the southernmost tip of South America) and pursued whales in the Pacific Ocean. As sperm whales became scarcer, whaleships sailed further north in the Pacific. When Thomas Welcome Roys, master of the Sag Harbor, New York, ship Superior sailed into the Bering Sea in 1848, he discovered a large population of bowhead whales and launched the era of Arctic whaling.

Hungry for baleen
Baleen (strips made of keratin that are found in the mouths of baleen whales instead of teeth) was used for:

  • Carriage springs;
  • Corset stays;
  • Fishing rods;
  • Frames for traveling bags, trunks, and women’s hats;
  • Hoops for women’s dresses;
  • Buggy whips; and
  • Umbrella and parasol ribs. After the Civil War (1861-1865), demand for baleen increased and kept the whaling industry alive. An increasing number of Yankee whalers made San Francisco their home base for journeys to the Arctic.

A new enemy
Although the Arctic bowhead did not fight as fiercely as the sperm whale, whalemen had to cope with a savage environment. Good timing was critical. Whaleships reached the Arctic in mid-summer when the ice had melted enough to permit passage and had to sail out in late summer to avoid getting trapped in the ice.

Ice disasters
In 1871, thirty-three whaleships were lost as ice closed in around them before they could sail south at summer’s end. They were valued at more than $1,600,000 (approximately $13,000,000 in 1982 dollars). Twenty-two of the ships were from New Bedford and represented a loss of $1,000,000. By 1876, as whales were becoming harder to find, the Arctic fleet had only twenty vessels. Twelve ships were lost that year, and there were other, smaller losses to ice in later years. The names of the vessels lost in 1871 were:

Bark Roman of New Bedford
Bark Concordia of New Bedford
Ship Gay Head of New Bedford
Bark George of New Bedford
Ship John Wells of New Bedford
Bark Massachusetts of New Bedford
Bark J.D. Thompson of New London, CT
Ship Contest of New Bedford
Bark Emily Morgan of New Bedford
Ship Champion of Edgartown, MA
Bark Henry Taber of New Bedford
Bark Elizabeth Swift of New Bedford
Ship Florida of New Bedford
Bark Oliver Crocker of New Bedford
Bark Navy of New Bedford
Ship Reindeer of New Bedford
Bark Seneca of New Bedford
Bark George Howland of New Bedford
Bark Fanny of New Bedford
Bark Carlotta of San Francisco, CA
Bark Paiea of Honolulu
Bark Monticello of New London, CT
Brig Kohola of Honolulu
Bark Eugenia of New Bedford
Ship Julian of Honolulu
Bark Awashonks of New Bedford
Bark Thomas Dickason of New Bedford
Bark Minerva of New Bedford
Ship William Rotch of New Bedford
Brig Victoria of San Francisco, CA
Ship Mary of Edgartown
Brig Comet of Honolulu

Steaming to the Arctic
The first American steam whaler, the Mary and Helen, sailed from New Bedford in 1879. As the price of baleen rose during the 1880s, an increasing number of auxiliary steam-powered whaleships joined the traditional fleet in hunting for bowheads. These new whalers could enter dangerous waters and get out again, unlike their sail-powered cousins. They were not invulnerable, however, and the North Star was crushed in ice on its maiden voyage.

Wintering in the Arctic
The usual pattern was to “lay up” Arctic whaleships in San Francisco after they returned from the north in the autumn. Often, a ship was left with only a shipkeeper aboard until it was overhauled in spring for departure directly to the Arctic. However, by 1890 a number of whaleships were wintering in the Arctic.

Preparing for a rigorous journey
A ship had to be in top-notch condition to winter in the Arctic. The entire journey would take two and a half years, so the ship was loaded with tons of supplies, food, and equipment. After sailing from San Francisco in March, the first stop was usually in the Aleutian Islands (an archipelago extending southwest from the Alaska Peninsula), where the ship took on coal and water, then set off on a spring cruise along the Siberian shore, trading for reindeer parkas and sealskin coats, and signing on Eskimos as “ship’s natives.”

Herschel Island
Around 1888, whalemen had discovered that Herschel Island in the Arctic had a good harbor and that whales were plentiful in the area. The island was a hub of whaling activity from 1890 to 1908.

Men, women, children, dogs
A whaleship that planned to spend the winter at Herschel Island in the Arctic might carry an unusual crew:

  • More than 40 whalemen;
  • At least fifteen natives to serve as hunters and seamstresses;
  • As many as 50 huskies to pull dog sleds;
  • The wife and children of the captain. The winter of 1894-95 was the first season when families overwintered with the fleet. A captain had to pay the shipowners $1,000 for the privilege.

Settling down for winter: After leaving supplies at Herschel around mid- August; ships sailed west for a few weeks of hunting whales. As whaling tapered off, the ships headed for Pauline Cove by the beginning of October to prepare for the freeze. The crew covered the ship’s decks with sod blocks and built sod houses for the ship’s natives.

Social life in an isolated place
As the ice closed in, everyone on the ships faced boredom and loneliness from October until the following May – eight long months. With five hundred men housed in close quarters, problems were inevitable. There were reports of drinking, desertion, and fighting, although the men also played baseball and soccer, skied on the ice, and put on plays and minstrel shows.

A soothing presence
The presence of women and children seemed to reduce tensions. The wives organized card parties, dances, birthday and holiday celebrations. The cabins were often decorated with lanterns and colored lights. At one gathering, a three-piece band played and ice cream, cake, beer, and cigars were served.

Preparing to sail again
During the spring, crews prepared their ships for whaling. The ice began to break up in Pauline Cove in the middle of June and by early July, the ships could begin another voyage.

A holiday interlude
The celebration of the Fourth of July on Herschel Island began with dressing the ships in all their flags and firing salutes to begin a day of tug-of- war, races, baseball, and shooting contests for whalemen and native people. After months in the ice, ships usually began their hunt for whales around July 10th.

The end of an era
Arctic whaling represented the last hurrah of the American industry. As the demand for baleen diminished, the industry was doomed. The last American vessel to use whaleboats, the Motor Ship Patterson, made final port in San Francisco in 1928.

Whaling Technology

Yankee whaling methods in the early 19th century were fundamentally unchanged from those employed by the medieval Norse Vikings, with later improvements by Spanish and French Basques.

The Vikings hunted right whales along shore and devised an arsenal of harpoons, lances, and butchering techniques, with rigorous laws to regulate the fishery. These were adopted by the Basques, who were the first to make long, pelagic whaling voyages offshore: Basque may have been whaling on the Canadian coast even before Columbus reached the New World, and by the 16th century they had set up shore stations on Labrador to process blubber and “whalebone” (baleen). In the 17th century, to facilitate processing blubber on the open sea, the Basques were experimenting with onboard tryworks (oil cookeries). Basque hirelings passed along their time-tested methods to Dutch, British, and other European Arctic whalers in the early 17th century, and it was these same methods that were brought to the American colonies by Dutch and English settlers.

Even at the height of New Bedford’s whaling prowess in the mid 19th century, the basic procedure remained essentially unchanged: ships were sent to the various whaling grounds with foreknowledge of the seasons when whales could be expected to be present; lookouts were posted aloft; when whales were spotted boats were lowered in pursuit; barbed harpoons were used to fasten to the whale; the harpooned whale dragged the boat through the water until it tired out, whence it was dispatched with a lance. The carcass was towed to the mother ship, where it was cut in (butchered), the blubber tried out (rendered into oil), and the whalebone (baleen) cleaned and stowed; after which the hunt would resume.

Any improvements in the 19th century tended to be refinements of this basic technology, rather than true innovations. However, refinements were many and significant. The ships, barks, and schooners used in Yankee whaling were highly adapted to their special functions, the result of centuries of refinement. Harpoons benefited from improvements in the steel itself and from advances in design–notably the toggling grommet harpoon, introduced circa 1835, and especially the revolutionary Temple toggle harpoon, invented by African-American shipsmith Lewis Temple of New Bedford in 1848, which dramatically increased efficiency and minimized losses. Poison darts, explosive grenades, and heavy ordnance added to the whalers’ arsenal of killing methods. Rocket guns, adapted from military use –long tubes that rested on the shoulder for firing, not unlike the antitank bazookas of the 20th century–were introduced to whaling around 1820. Experimental guns to shoot harpoons, rather than wield them by hand, appeared in England as early as 1731, but it was not until 1837 that British gunsmith William W. Greener produced a truly effective bow-mounted, swiveling harpoon cannon: his Greener gun earned tenacious popularity with British and American whalers throughout the remainder of the 19th century. Competitive devices were invented in New England: shoulder guns, which look like conventional heavy-gauge rifles and fired an exploding bomb lance (New Bedford, 1846); a bow-mounted swivel gun with improved mounting and recoil properties (Norwich, Connecticut, 1882); a combination harpoon, lance, and bomb lance called a darting gun (New Bedford, 1865); and brass and bronze shoulder guns that were characteristically more durable in Arctic cold than their iron and steel precursors.