We can’t talk about historical whaling without talking about the the hunt. A whale ship and crew often made a lengthy voyage, searching for whale pods. What happened when they sighted their prey and their fortune?
Today, we’ll explore the chase, battle, and aftermath of whale hunting from a historical, mid-19th Century perspective. We’ll also discover that the whales weren’t always the victims; sometimes, the hunted became the hunter.
“Thar She Blows!”
Whales. Signs of whales. That’s what everyone aboard ships watched for. Experienced whalemen could tell the species of whale from the shape of the animals’ breathing spray when they surfaced for air. A common shout to indicate the spotting of a breathing spray was, “There she blows!” referring to the column rising the from the whale’s blowhole.
At the cry from a crewman, the whaling shipmates moved to their stations, similar to the way navy men moved to their stations before a battle. Typically, the captain and mates (sub-officers to the captain) each commanded a whaleboat which would be lowered from the deck to the water’s surface. The crews – pre-assigned to the smaller boats – took their places, rowing away from the “mother ship.”
Frequently, the whales would be some distance (sometimes a couple miles) from the main ship, and the whales usually didn’t sit around waiting for the hunters. Some fled, most would continue their leisurely course, eating, resting, frolicking, or swimming until alarmed by the approaching boats.
In the whaleboats, the small boat commander stood at the tiller, talking to his crew and keeping cadence for them. The crew faced the commander and didn’t see where they were headed. That commander was responsible for getting the boat alongside a whale and giving the signal to his harpooner.
With the crew still rowing (or ready to row) and facing away from the whale, the harpooner stood up in the bow of the boat. Precision, skill, and courage were needed to hurl the barbed harpoon into the huge beast. A harpoon wasn’t supposed to kill the whale, just attach the mighty animal to the whaleboat.
When the harpoon was thrown and struck the whale, it carried a long line attached to the now-buried metal harpoon head. Sometimes surprised, most definitely pained and angry, the whale reacted violently. The whaleboat often row backward to avoid a smacking fluke or raised tail as the whale prepared to fight.
Different whales fought differently. The sperm whale – one of the preferred types for hunting because of its high quality oil – was known for deep diving, dragging the harpoon head and hundreds of lengths of rope into the salty deep. The line uncoiled rapidly from their resting places in the boat; sometimes new lengths were tied on. In some instances, the whale dove so deep that he’d used all the line and threatened to the pull the boat down with him. Then, the hunters would have to cut the line and let the whale go, free – with a buried harpoon and long, long length of line.
Some whales fought with fast swimming, literally dragging the whale boat and crew for miles. Whalers called this high-speed adventure “the Nantucket sleigh-ride.” This method tired the whale, but it also pulled the boat farther and farther from the mother ship.
Another common whale tactic was attack. After a partial dive, the harpooned whale might breach out of the water, crashing down near or on the lightly built whale-boat. A side-swipe or direct hit to the boat from a fluke or tail could also cause disaster. One some occasions, a whale attacked the small boat or some of the crew, leading to grievous or deadly injuries.
The whale could deal deadly blows to his/her attackers. Whaling was not a “safe” occupation! Burying a harpoon in the largest known animals on earth asked for trouble. Few whales gave up without a fight. More than a few took some of the hunters into the watery grave.
Sometimes a whale escaped. Sometimes the whale wrecked a small whaling boat or chomped on a crew member or two. Usually, though, the whale was the casualty.
When the whale was exhausted, the hunters prepared for their prey’s end. After or while rowing close, the harpooner and the mate changed places in the moving boat. The harpooner moved to the tiller; the mate took his place in the bow, facing forward and grasping his spear. With practiced skill, he jabbed the whale while the boat darted forward and back, trying to avoid the beast’s thrashing. The water turned red, and when blood came from the whale’s blow hole and the whale floated – silent and still – the human attack on a majestic creature was over.
The whale carcass was secured and laboriously towed back to the mother ship.
Whale oil. That was the profit. To obtain the oil, the whalers stripped the blubber from the carcass, chopped it into pieces, and tossed it into cauldrons to melt and boil. The whale’s body remained in the water, and there were practiced steps from the butchery process. (A little more bloody than most readers probably want to read right here, right now.)
Some whales – like male sperm whales – had large oil reserves in their heads. Top quality oil that could be scooped up with a bucket, prepared, and stored in waiting barrels for the markets.
After a day of rowing, panicky excitement, and the misery of towing a whale back the ship, a crew’s work was far from finished. The whale had to be prepared and butchered quickly, before the blubbered started to spoil and before the circling sharks consumed too much of the valuable dead whale.
Far, far from glamorous, whaling was hard work. Endless work. Endless killing, cutting, boiling.
Why? To fill the barrels with oil. The quicker the barrels were filled, the quicker the ship would sail home – returning the surviving crew to their families and the profit to the moguls of the industry.