Sailors are more likely to encounter whales in our oceans today than for many decades previously. Dick Durham takes a look at the brutal history of whaling and the new threats these magnificent mammals face.

Warning. Please be aware this article contains graphic accounts of whaling and its history. 

The storm had been blowing for days, but the crew of the full-rigged  American ship Cachalot, were loath to jettison the sperm whale shackled along her leeward side. All they could do was tend sail, batten down deck gear, and try to fend off the rolling carcass from smashing the bulwarks.


The tiny 400-ton ship had a crew of 37 such was the labour involved in cutting up whales for their oil and body parts. They had been sailing for weeks – for without a catch there would be no pay – and had ended up in the Southern Ocean south of New Zealand, when they finally snared their prize.

But the crew had to tend the ship in the storm and could not start on the butchering of the dead whale, a bloated carcass which, one of her crew, English sailor, Frank Bullen, described as ‘towering above the deck like a mountain.’

As the storm raged on, Bullen noted: ‘Hour after hour went by without any change whatsoever, except in the whale, which, like some gradually-filling balloon, rose higher and higher, till at nightfall its bulk was appalling.’

Shocked by the strange spectacle, Bullen and his shipmates watched in anticipation until suddenly ‘with a roar like the bursting of a dam, the pent-up gases tore their furious way out of the distended carcass, hurling the entrails in one horrible entanglement widespread over the sea.’

Bullen’s crestfallen captain now had 17 metres of worthless blubber threatening to tear his ship apart and ordered for it to be cut adrift. The crew were left penniless and fighting the gale for a further five days while breathing an ‘unutterable rancid smell,’ which ‘wrought its poisonous way…permeating every nook of the ship with its filthy vapour until the stoutest stomach there protested in unmistakable terms against such vile treatment.’

In the 19th century the leading sea-ports were Nantucket and New Bedford on the eastern seaboard of the US. Whale blubber was rendered onboard the ship to extract oil for use in street lamps. Spermaceti was used for candles, ambergris in perfumes and whalebone in women’s corsets, whale skin was used as ‘leather’ for many items, most popularly, gloves. In 1845 American whalers landed the equivalent of £1,420,447 worth of whale product for an industry that employed 18,000 seamen.

Way before whaling reached its peak, many countries had already been chasing them across oceans for centuries. The Norwegians and the Scots found them inshore back in the 9th century. In the 13th century Alexander II allocated half the blubber catch for the altar candles of Dunfermline Abbey. By the 16th century the Basques were chasing them across Biscay, with competition from Dutchmen from Amsterdam and Englishmen from Hull.

The hunt for the great sea beasts produced one of the world’s greatest novels, Moby Dick, by Herman Melville who interviewed a survivor of the whaleship, Essex, which was rammed and sunk by an apparently enraged sperm whale in 1820.

There are many other less well-known incidents of whales taking on their hunters. One such is the story of Captain Albert Wood, of Nantucket, Massachusetts, who was mate of Ploughboy, who, in 1849 while chasing a sperm whale near Tahiti in the Pacific, managed to spear it with a lance before it capsized his longboat.

‘The next thing I knew he had swung his jaw between my legs and I found myself sitting astraddle of his jaw under water with his jaw holding me tight. While I was in that position, he brought his fluke down across the stern of the boat killing the boat-steerer.’ 

As that happened Wood broke free and was later rescued. He was taken to Tahiti with serious wounds but survived.

As sail gave way to steam the processing of whales became far less hazardous: gone were the days of cutting the catch up alongside and boiling the blubber in deck-installed infernos, a method which saw many men washed overboard. Instead, by the early 20th century ships used sea-planes to hunt the schools, then, having killed them with automatically fired harpoons, filled them up with air and left them floating while going for another kill. Eventually a whole catch would be towed into sheltered waters to be dealt with. Factory ships also hauled them up inside their hulls over a specially designed ramp aft, before cutting them up.

But now further uses were found for the meat and oil of whales. Whale meat was eaten by the Japanese and also used as cattle feed. In Norway it provided food for silver foxes, bred for their fur. The oils were used in face creams, soap, margarine and explosives.

Long before the founding of the International Whaling Commission which sought to regulate the killing of whales, scientists had noticed their numbers were falling. Also, that many species appeared to be migrating to the, briefly, safer waters of Antarctica.

Mankind began to ask itself if the leviathans of the deep were blessed with an intelligence not before noted. Certainly, Captain Wood and the crew of the Essex would not have disagreed.

And in another fascinating account of 19th century whaling, harpooner, Nelson Cole Haley, in a voyage from New Bedford to the Indian Ocean aboard the whaleship, Charles W. Morgan, between 1849-1853, describes a sperm whale close-up:

‘The eye of a 100-barrel whale is about the size of that of an ox, but it must be very powerful, for at times, when alarmed, he has the power to detect danger from long distances. The ear perhaps is the more wonderful organ of the two, as many instances have occurred in my experience when whales have become alarmed from sounds two or three miles away.’

In contemporary times many yachtsmen have experienced the strange phenomenon of orcas ramming their boats along the Portuguese and Spanish coast (as covered in an earlier edition of Ocean Sailor magazine) with some environmentalists expressing the view that lack of food might be causing ‘resentment’ among this hungry school of mammals.

While welcome, the success of conservation measures to bring back whale species to healthy numbers, means that sailors need to be able to trust the build of their boats. Kraken Yachts’ chairman, Dick Beaumont, had a brush with a whale in the South Atlantic while delivering his 66ft Kraken, White Dragon from Hong Kong to the Mediterranean. The brush-off left his boat with nothing more than a twisted skeg shoe, but the skid-marks down the underside of the hull reinforced Dick’s mantra in heavy lay-up, as well as his tried and tested recipe of integral keel and skeg-hung rudder. 

Kate Wilson of the Cambridge-based International Whaling Commission, told Ocean Sailor, that the battle to get whaling stopped was long and arduous.

‘The process of adopting the moratorium on commercial whaling was quite complex (although typical for an Intergovernmental Organisation). The proposed moratorium was discussed for some years.

‘In order to be adopted it required a ¾ majority vote. The vote took place at the 1982 meeting of the IWC and the moratorium was introduced in the 1985/86 pelagic whaling season. The moratorium set all commercial whaling quotas to zero and this remains in place today.

‘The moratorium has allowed many populations to begin to recover. Some populations are estimated to have reached their pre-whaling size but recovery is not universal and today whales face a wide range of other anthropogenic threats: bycatch in fishing gear, collision with ships, ocean noise, debris, and chemical pollution.’

Where we stand

Ocean Sailor Magazine is against the killing of all whales and dolphins in the whaling industry, we believe the sea and her wildlife should be preserved in all its glory. To join the fight against whaling please sign the petition:

Click here to sign the petition.

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