Marine Science Chapters


American Whaling

Native Americans living along the coasts were known to have used whales in a variety of ways. Food was a primary use of the whale, but tribal rituals also became part of the coastal culture.

In the 1600s the American colonists hunted right whales off New England for their oil and baleen. The baleen was made into corsets, umbrella ribs, and buggy whips. The right whales were brought back to the shore for processing where the blubber was boiled for the precious oil. But by 1700 the number of coastal right whales was dramatically declining.

The first sperm whale kill was documented in 1712 by a ship that had been blown off course in a storm. The whale was far from land but yielded a superb quality of oil. Although lacking baleen (sperm whales are part of the toothed whale group) the sperm whale became the target of American whalers for the next century and a half. Nantucket Island and New Bedford, Massachusetts became the primary whaling ports of American whaling in the 1700s.

American whaling centered on the sperm whale with long voyages using a new type of ship. American whaling ships were outfitted with ‘try pots’ where the blubber was cooked on board ship, yielding the coveted oil. The oil was stored in barrels and, unlike fresh blubber, would not spoil because it had been cooked for a long time. Whaling voyages became longer and longer (up to five years) as the sperm whales in the Atlantic declined. By the late 1700s most voyages were all the way to the South Pacific (sometimes by way of the dreaded Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, and sometimes by the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope, at the tip of South Africa).

Spermaceti Wax, Candle, and Oil
Spermaceti wax, candle and oil - made from sperm whale spermaceti. (GA image)

Sperm oil, spermaceti, and ambergris were the primary products from sperm whales. The sperm oil resulted from the ‘trying out’ of the blubber (cooking the blubber in the try pots on the whaling ships) and was used in lamps and as a lubricant. The spermaceti came directly from the head of the sperm whale (other whale species do not have this) and was removed by a bucket from the dead whale. Just a quick warming was required for the spermaceti to keep it from spoiling. Its primary use was in making candles – a process that squeezed the spermaceti for up to two years. These candles burned brighter than oil lamps of that time (and our candles of today) and were smokeless. Ambergris was the most valuable product, found in the intestines, but only a few whales would have this. Ambergris was used in expensive perfumes.

The height of American whaling was from 1820 to 1850 – killing around 10,000 whales each year, sailing over 700 ships and employing over 70,000 people. The original techniques of the Basques (small open boats with a harpooner and long rope on the harpoon) prevailed as the primary killing mechanism. The long ride that many of these whale boats got after harpooning a whale became known as the “Nantucket sleigh ride.”

Scrimshaw on a sperm whale tooth. (GA image)

During the long voyages many of the whalemen spent their idle time carving on the sperm whale teeth or bones. Some made usable items for their families, like pastry cutters and knitting needles, while others carved intricate scenes into the teeth and bones, rubbing their carvings with ink or soot. This carving became known as scrimshaw and it was the American whalers that produced some of the finest scrimshaw pieces.

The California gold rush of 1849 and the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) started the decline of American whaling. Whalemen deserted the whaling ships in favor of the lure or gold in California. The Civil War caused the sinking of many whale boats (owned primarily by northerners, the southerners attacked all whaling vessels). After the Civil War petroleum products began replacing the sperm oil in lamps and spermaceti in candles. Not much of the American whaling industry remained after 1925.

The <i>Charles Morgan</i> whaling ship
The Charles Morgan American whaling ship. (GA image)

The Charles Morgan is the only surviving American whaling ship. It is kept for public display at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Mystic Seaport is committed to keep this ship repaired and in use for public education. Daily tours take people through the ship and recount the history of American whaling.

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(Revised 29 November 2004)
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