- Historic Sites
So the lookout’s cry resounded while Yankee whalers roamed the seas. Their perilous, arduous trade spanned three centuries
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
These early colonists were farmers rather than fishermen or mariners, and for a time they stuck to the dry land. But the possibilities of whaling were thrust upon their attention. Now and then a whale would get cast ashore, and its blubber could be reduced to oil even by landsmen. Also, venturesome Indians now and then would take one of the right whales that migrated up and down the New England coast, and the colonists began to get the idea. As early as 1645 whaling became an organized industry, from the eastern tip of Long Island all the way up the coast to the Bay of Fundy, with men going out in open boats to harpoon the blackfish and the larger right whales and bring them ashore where the blubber could be “tried out” for oil.
In the year 1712, however, came a change. Captain Christopher Hussey of Nantucket, carried out to sea in foul weather, encountered, harpooned, killed, and towed ashore a sperm whale. It was immediately noticed that this whale gave a very superior kind of oil, plus the valuable spermaceti, and was altogether a much more profitable beast to hunt. The colonists lost no time in building larger vessels and going out to sea in earnest.
High-seas whaling had for some time been an established industry in England and Holland, with ships going first to Spitzbergen and later to the waters around Greenland. The creatures hunted were usually the black and later the Greenland right whales, each with a cavernous mouth that had long curtains of flexible baleen in place of teeth. This sort of whale gets its food by swimming on the surface, mouth agape, engulfing vast quantities of tiny crustaceans and using the baleen as a strainer to retain the food when the water is drained oft. The right whale had a tiny throat, not large enough to swallow anything bigger than a herring, and this fact was a great comfort to the village atheist: the right whale could never under any circumstances have swallowed Jonah or any other mortal. This whale was powerful, and a blow from its tail could smash a small boat, but it was fairly placid, and it had no weapon but its tail. Taking it presented no especial problems.
But the sperm whale was different. It had teeth, a double row of conical affairs of ivory mounted in a lower jaw that could be twelve or fifteen feet long, and it tended to be pugnacious. Not only could it knock a boat to pieces with its flukes, it could smash a boat or mangle a sailor with this lower jaw, it was likely to fight back when attacked, and the old-timers tended to leave it entirely alone, partly because taking it was altogether too risky, and partly because they did not quite know where to find it. But Captain Hussey had demonstrated that the trick could be done, and he had also shown that by venturing farther afield sperm whales could be found; and sperm oil was of much higher grade than the ordinary oil obtained from less formidable whales. There was also the spermaceti, and in some sperm whales a substance called ambergris could sometimes be taken lrom the intestines. Ambergris is a waxy, aromatic substance, formed by a bacterium infesting peptic ulcers caused by the bony beaks and sucker rings of the squids that make up the sperm whale’s food. Jt was highly prized by, of all people, the makers of perfume, who would pay many dollars a pound lor it. All in all, the sperm whale was the one to hunt, and the New Englanders set out to hunt it.
The sperm whale can measure sixty feet long, or possibly more. It has a huge throat—it could have swallowed Jonah without any trouble—and its principal food is the deep-sea squid, including the fabled kraken, which can be fifty feet long and may weigh as much as six tons. These creatures live in the ocean depths, and the sperm whale goes down for them, it goes down to prodigious depths, sometimes: in 1932 a dead sperm whale, entangled in a submarine cable, was brought up from a depth of more than hall a mile oft the coast of South America.
The head of the sperm whale measures almost a third of the animal’s length; its massive forehead contains the tank which has the spermaceti—apparently a hydrostatic organ of some sort, employed in a way still not entirely clear to aid the whale in diving and surfacing. The sperm whale’s !uppers are almost rectangular and are comparatively small, and in place of a fin on mid-back the creature has a series of low bumps. As with all whales, the tail dukes are set horizontally, and are very powerful instruments of propulsion.
Normally, sperm whales cruise on the surface at a rate of four knots or thereabouts, although they can put on spurts of twenty knots and, in Might, can keep up a steady fifteen. On the offshore feeding grounds a sperm whale will dive deep io catch as prey, surfacing after half an hour or so to breathe, staying up each time for four or five minutes before going down tor more food. These whales also spend a good deal of time basking on the surface, when their gargantuan belches and stomach rumblings can be heard for miles on a still day from a sailing vessel. Although they arc warm-weather, deep-sea animals, sperm whales perform vast annual migrations, the females going to southern latitudes and then slowly coming north to mingle with the males, cruising in big circles in equatorial latitudes. At times sperm whales form huge aggregations called gams, but for the most part they go about in small parties. The female will be savagely protective toward her call, but bull whales are notorious lor abandoning other whales when trouble arises. They get aggressive streaks, however, and have been known to charge and sink, by ramming, full-rigged ships.