Whale Fishery, the pursuit of whales for their oil or whalebone. In the United States the principal whaling ports are New Bedford and Provincetown, Mass., and New London, Conn. The business as now conducted requires a large amount of capital, the sperm whale fishery needing more than that of the right whale. A whale ship once saturated with oil does not rot; and in several of the whaling ports vessels are still in use which were built half a century ago. They seldom measure over 500 tons, and the average of those in the business on Jan. 1, 1876, was 230 tons. The outfit for a whale ship is from four to seven boats of peculiar construction, to each of which is assigned its crew, with casks for oil and apparatus for taking whales and trying them out. The crew is divided into boats' crews of five or seven. Each man, from the captain to the cabin boy, has an interest in the future cargo, called a " lay." With the common sailors this is from 1/125 to 1/170, or if the vessel is large 1/190 of the proceeds of the cargo. The boat steerers receive from 1/95 to 1/125 according to the size of the vessel, and the higher officers more. The voyage of a sperm whaler usually lasts three or four seasons or years; that of a right whaler one or two seasons, and occasionally, if luck is poor, three seasons.
The implements used for the capture of the whale are the harpoon, the lance, and the harpoon gun. The harpoon is a heavy barbed iron, very sharp on the cutting edges, having a shank partly of wood 2½ or 3 ft. in length, and attached to a strong rope carefully coiled in a tub; it is hurled by the boat steerer. The lance is a long spear-like instrument, the head oval, and the blade 5 or 6 in. long and 2½ to 3 in. wide, not very thick, but with keen cutting edges, the shank fitted with a long wooden handle; it is used only when the whale rises, and is thrust if possible into a vital part. The harpoon gun hurls the harpoon by the force of powder instead of muscle; all ships carry bomb guns, from three to ten each. When the ship arrives in the vicinity of a whaling ground, a lookout is stationed at the masthead. As soon as a whale is discovered, the boats are lowered, and each crew exerts its utmost strength to reach the whale first. In the bow sits the boat steerer or harpooner with his tub at his feet.
At the proper moment he seizes the harpoon in his right hand and the coil of rope in his left, and, as the bow of the boat touches or nears the whale, hurls his harpoon with all his force, aiming at a vital point, and crying, "Stern all." The crew instantly back the boat, and the whale in its terror plunges below the surface, and dives with such velocity that water must be constantly poured upon the line to keep it from setting the boat on fire by its friction. The line, often 100 fathoms in length, is soon exhausted, and a second attached, and sometimes a third. The whale stays under water from 20 to 60 minutes, and when it rises the boats hasten to it and again strike it with the harpoons, and it descends again, usually striking as it goes down with its formidable tail in the hope of destroying its foes. It stays below the surface but a short time, and on rising again spouts bloody water or blood alone through its blow-holes. The boats again approach and endeavor to lance it in a vital point. If they are successful, it sometimes turns upon its side or back and dies quietly; oftener its death struggle is terrific, the water being dyed with blood and beaten into foam.
If it dies upon the surface, its body can be secured; but if in its last agonies it again descends, the body sinks, and does not rise perhaps for months, if at all. In this way almost every whale ship loses some of its game. The sole weapon of defence of the right whale is its tail, a blow from which would crush the stoutest boat like an egg shell. But the sperm whale, while its tail is equally formidable, can stave in a ship's side with its snout, or crush a boat in its mouth. Its power of running is also superior, and its ability to remain below the surface greater. The whale when captured is towed to the ship, and made fast to the side by chains. A part of the crew with cutting spades descend to the platform rigged over the ship's side, cut into the blubber and loosen one end of the strip from the whale, while one of their number is lowered to attach to it one of the immense hooks which are fastened to the masthead, and the remainder of the crew hoist it to the deck, the cutters aiding with their spades in severing the skin as broad strips 20 or 30 ft. long are hoisted in. The carcass of the whale is rolled over and over till entirely stripped of blubber.
These masses of blubber on reaching the deck are cut up in square pieces and placed in the blabber room between decks to await the process of trying. Before the right whale is thus stripped, others of the crew are lowered into its mouth and remove the baleen or whalebone, which, if the animal is of average size, weighs nearly a ton. When stripped of its blubber and whalebone, the carcass is cast off, and the flesh is stripped off by the sharks, bears, and vultures. The reservoir of sperm oil and spermaceti in the head of the sperm whale must be secured by cutting off the head, which constitutes one third the length. The men lay bare the vast cistern and fill the buckets, eventually descending into the cavern, where there is often room for two full-grown men in a single compartment, and for eight or ten in all, and scoop up the half liquid mass till the cavity is completely emptied. This is sometimes done before and sometimes after the blubber is stripped off from the remainder of the carcass, which is done as in the case of the right whale. In all whale ships the process of "trying out" the oil is performed on board.
After the first try pot is strained, the scraps or cracknels (the cellular tissue from which the oil has been expressed) serve for fuel, and the process is continued with abundant smoke, soot, and grease, till the whole blubber has been tried, and the casks not filled with oil are ready for the results of another catch. - The whale fishery in the United States has been falling off for the last 20 years. Its decline had commenced earlier in Europe, but the deficiency of the receipts from European whaling ships was made up by imports of oil, bone, and spermaceti from the United States. Among the causes of the decline are the scarcity of whales from their being so constantly hunted; the increasing use of gas and mineral oils, and the production of stearine and paraffine; and the substitution of steel for whalebone in many articles of clothing, umbrellas, parasols, and the like, and of hard rubber or vulcanite in other cases. In 1830 there were 102,000 tons of shipping engaged in the whale fishery from United States ports, of which 62,000 were in the sperm and 40,000 in the right whale fishery. About 8,000 seamen were engaged in it.
The products of the fishery for that year were 106,800 bbls. of sperm oil, 115,000 bbls. of whale oil, and 120,000 lbs. of whalebone; and 2,500,000 lbs. of sperm candles were made. In 1840 the tonnage employed had increased to 137,000. In 1850 it was 171,484. The number and tonnage of vessels were greatest in 1854, viz.: 602 ships and barks, 28 brigs, and 38 schooners, with a total tonnage of 208,399. On Jan. 1, 1860, there were 569 vessels, tonnage 176,842; on Jan. 1, 1865, 276 vessels, tonnage 79,690; on Jan. 1, 1870, 321 vessels, tonnage 73,137; on Jan. 1, 1875, 163 vessels, tonnage 37,733. The number and tonnage of vessels engaged in whaling on Jan. 1, 1876, with the ports to which they belonged, were as follows:
Ships and barks.
New Bedford, Mass....
Fairhaven, " ....
Dartmouth, " ....
Edgartown, " .....
Provincetown, " ....
Boston, " ....
New London, Conn.....
New York, N. Y.......
San Francisco, Cal
Of these 169 vessels, 137 were at sea. The products of the fishery imported at different periods have been as follows:
Sperm oil, barrels.
Whale oil, barrels.
The imports of whale oil attained their maximum in 1851, and those of sperm oil and whalebone in 1853. The value of the products of the national whale fishery imported during the year ending June 30, 1875, was $2,841,002. The distribution of the whaling fleet for 1876 is estimated as follows: N. and S. Atlantic, 77 vessels; Indian ocean and New Holland, 15; New Zealand, 13; Pacific coast and off-shore ground, 23; N. Pacific, 18; Cumberland inlet, 4. - The whale fishery in Great Britain, once of considerable magnitude, has of late years been almost entirely abandoned. In 1833 there were 129 ships engaged in it, and the value of the products received was £437,283. In 1842 the number of ships was 75, and the value of products £364,680. There are now 10 or 15 steamers from Dundee and a few from two or three other ports employed in the Greenland seas in the prosecution of the seal and whale fisheries, chiefly the former. France in 1837 had 44 ships engaged in the whaling business, measuring 19,128 tons, and with crews numbering 1,615 men. In 1868 she had only three ships. Holland, which was once largely interested in this fishery, has entirely abandoned it.
Whales have recently been pursued in steamers from a small island in the Varangar fiord on the coast of Norway. They are struck with harpoons discharged from a cannon, and when secured are towed back to the island. According to the latest returns, 9 vessels of 2,220 tons were employed in whaling from New South Wales, and 16 of 4,088 tons from Tasmania. - The whale fishery has been prosecuted for more than 600 years. The bay of Biscay in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries swarmed with one of the smaller species of whale, probably either the beluga or gldbicepJialus, and the Biscayans became adepts in their capture. After the discovery of America, the voyages of English and Dutch explorers to the northern seas led to the discovery of the northern haunts of the balama or great " right" whale, and the Dutch entered largely into the whale fishery. Great numbers were found in the vicinity of the island of Spitzbergen, and the Dutch erected a considerable village, which they named Smeerenberg (smeeren, to melt), on the coast of that island as a resort for their ships for boiling the blubber. After some years the whales abandoned the shores of Spitzbergen and were found on the Greenland coasts, and the Dutch ships brought the blubber home.
In 1680 they had 260 ships and about 14,000 sailors engaged in this fishery; but from that time their traffic in oil began gradually to decline. England attempted to take the place which Holland had occupied in the fishery, but with slight success. In 1815, when the fishery was at its height, there were only 164 ships engaged in it. The New England colonies embarked in this fishery at an early period. In 1690 and for 50 years later it was prosecuted in boats from the shore, the whale being a frequent visitor of the coasts and bays of New England. In 1740, the whales having abandoned the coast, the fishermen followed them in larger vessels and to the arctic and antarctic coasts. In 1758, and for several years subsequently, Massachusetts alone employed 304 vessels, measuring about 28,000 tons, in the northern and southern whale fisheries. At first the whalers' attention was turned to the capture of the right whale, but in 1712 Christopher Hussey of Nantucket, being driven off shore, fell in with and killed a sperm whale, and within a few years the Nantucket fishermen were equally ready to capture one as the other.
That island, Martha's Vineyard, and Cape Cod monopolized the business till shortly before the revolution, when New Bedford, now the largest whaling port in the world, began sending out whale ships. Nantucket long held the supremacy as a whaling port, but the business there has now entirely ceased. - See "Etchings of a Whaling Cruise," by J. Ross Browne (New York, 1846); "The Whale and his Captors," by H. T. Cheever (1850); "Moby Dick, or the White Whale," by Herman Melville (1855); "The Whale Fishery" (1855); and "Whaling and Fishing," by Charles Nordhoff (Cincinnati, 1857).