Printer Friendly

Whale hunters: Men risked their lives for the chance of adventure. (American history).

"On the seventh day from our departure from the Japan coast at 2:00 p.m.," wrote Reuben Delano, a sailor in the 1840s, "a whale was seen from the masthead, and the cheering cry of 'there she blows' resounded through the ship."

Whaling crews lived for that sound. The thrill of catching whales was a break from the monotony of ship life. It also meant the possibility of riches. And the sooner the ship was filled with casks of whale oil, the sooner sailors could return to families they had not seen for months--perhaps years.

Whaling was big business in the 1800s. Whale oil provided fuel for lamps. The bones and cartilage were used in products such as women's corsets. Spermaceti, from the whale's head, was used in making candles. Even more valuable was ambergris, a waxy substance from the intestines that was used in expensive perfumes.

Early Days

People had long hunted whales for their meat and fat. But it was the North American Indians who taught white settlers how to catch whales. Soon, colonists in places like Sag Harbor, New York; and Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, began whale hunting. "There," said one Nantucket resident in 1690, pointing out to sea, "is a pasture where our children's grandchildren will go for bread."

At first, whaling ships stayed close to shore. But in 1712, sea captain Christopher Hussey's ship was blown out to sea in a huge storm, and was surrounded by sperm whales. Hussey and his crew caught one and brought it back to Nantucket. Soon, other whaling ships also sailed out to catch the larger whales.

Before long, ships carried try-pots on board. These were large pots for boiling whale blubber into oil. That freed whalers from the need to return to shore. Soon, American whaling ships were sailing all over the world.

Risky Work

When a whale was spotted, sailors lowered small boats into the water and rowed close to the whale. Then, a sailor would hurl a heavy harpoon (barbed spear) at it.

Next, sailors held on tight as the wounded whale struggled to 'free itself from the painful harpoon. The maddened whale would usually swim away from the boat, dragging the crew behind it on what came to be called a "Nantucket sleigh ride."

Hours later, when the whale had lost too much blood to keep swimming, the crew would row close to the whale and shove a lance into the whale's side to kill it.

Catching a whale was risky work. A sailor named Henry Cheever wrote, "Sometimes the mammoth brute comes up from the depths right under the boat, and takes it, with all on board into his huge mouth, that can be opened 16 and 20 feet. To be sure, the monster does not swallow [the boat], but he crushes it to pieces as if it were an eggshell, and, not unfrequently, some of its crew at the same time."

After the crew towed the whale back to the main ship, they attached it to the side of the ship with chains. Then they made long horizontal slices in the whale's sides, cut the blubber (fat) into smaller pieces, and tossed them into try-pots to boil into oil.

The oil was poured into huge casks and stored. This dangerous, filthy work, done on a slippery deck in rolling seas, could take three or four days.

Sailor Henry Bullen said that the most dangerous part of the job was filling and shifting the giant casks of oil. "Some of these were of enormous size," he noted, "containing 350 gallons when full, and the work of moving then about the greasy deck of a rolling ship was attended with a terrible amount of risk."

A Whaler's Life

Many first-time sailors signed on whaling ships expecting wonderful adventures on tropical islands. But sailing life was dirty and dangerous.

The ships were filthy and smelly. The food was disgusting. A typical dish was lobscouse--a stew of rancid pork fat, crumbled hardtack (hard, dry biscuit), and molasses.

Sailors slept on hard bunks or in hammocks in a dark, cramped cabin shared with rats and roaches. The work was hard and the pay was poor.

Still, many enjoyed the excitement of whaling. Henry Cheever wrote, "I like the eagerness and activity and can very well put up with the smell and dirt which having dead whales alongside makes in a whale ship."

Sailors faced the possibilities of storms, disease, and other dangers. One notorious journey was that of the whaleship Essex. On November 19, 1819, the ship was in the South Seas when a sperm whale suddenly rammed it. "The ship was brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock, and trembled for a few seconds like a leaf," wrote Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex. "We looked at each other with perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech." The ship soon sank. "All that remained," said Chase, "to conduct these 20 beings through the stormy terrors of the ocean, perhaps many thousand miles, were three open light boats."

The crew of the Essex drifted 2,500 miles for two-and-a-half months before they were spotted. By that time, only five men were left-and they had survived by cannibalizing (eating) the others.

Whaling's Legacy

In the 1850s, the new petroleum industry began to overtake whaling in importance. Furthermore, the seas were being emptied of whales. By the end of the 1920s, the whaling industry in the U.S. had pretty much died out.

Whaling left an important legacy, however. It had helped to populate the coastal areas of the Northeast and develop the country financially.

The whalers made important discoveries. They were the first to notice the Gulf Stream. And they mapped much of the South Pacific Ocean and other parts of the world, helping trade to grow and flourish.

As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, a novel published in 1851, "I freely assert that the [city dweller] cannot, for his life, point out one single peaceful influence, which within the last 60 years has operated more potentially upon the whole broad world ... than the high and mighty business of whaling."
Your Turn

Word Match

__1. harpoon A. whale fat
__2. blubber B. soaked
__3. saturated C. eat human flesh
__4. cannibalize D. dry biscuit
__5. hardtack E. barbed spear

Think About it

Should native peoples be allowed to hunt whales? Should commercial
whaling be allowed? Explain.


1. E

2. A

3. B

4. C

5. D

Stop All Whaling?

The U.S. and most other Western countries no longer allow whale hunting. But a few countries, including Japan and Norway, still permit it. Some native peoples are allowed to hunt because eating whale meat is part of their tradition.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a moratorium (ban) on whaling in 1986. Only whale hunting for scientific and other limited purposes is allowed. Japan, for example, kills about 500 minke whales a year. Japanese scientists test the animals and insist that the hunt meets IWC standards. But the meat ends up on Japanese tables.

Cutting back on whale hunting has allowed, many whale populations to recover. According to the IWC, there are between 500,000, and 1 million minke whales alive today. But some whale species remain endagered --such as the blue whale (the world's largest). There are only about 3,500 blue whales left.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hanson-Harding, Alexandra
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 12, 2001
Previous Article:Leaving St. Paul Island: Modern life might accomplish what the fierce bering sea never could--break up the culture of alaska's aleuts. (USA).
Next Article:Alexander the Great: He conquered half of the known world when he was barely out of his teens. (World history).

Related Articles
Whale watching while you surf [the web].
Human impact on the ocean environment: Find the whales.
Great Hunter 'Spiritual Prey' called Predator. (Poetry).
The old crowd: minke whales have long thrived in Antarctic seas.
Decades of dinner: underwater community begins with the remains of a whale.
Whale falls: it's not just a carcass, it's dinner.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters