- Historic Sites
Being Eliza Williams’s own journal of her thirty-eight-month voyage with her husband, master of the ship Florida, from New Bedford to Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk in pursuit of the great whales
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
It must be quite an art, as well as a good deal of work to cut in the whale. He is all the time lying on the surface of the water as they work at him. He is made secure in the position they want him, at first, lying close alongside of the Ship. A Man goes right down on his back, and hooks a large stout hook into a rope that is made fast to his jaw. This is made fast up aloft by means of ropes and tackles. They have two stagings let down at the side of the Ship. The Men go down and stand on these, with their long spades, and cut. They seem to know exactly where to cut. They begin to cut a great strip. The hook is put through a hole that is cut in the end of this piece by the boarding knife. Then it is drawn up by the tackle as they cut. They do not stop till the piece goes clear around. Then it comes clear up and is let down into the blubber room where it is afterwards cut in pieces suitable for the mincing machine. They keep cutting in that way till it is all off; even the flukes and fins have a good deal of fat on them. The head they cut off and take on board in the same way that the rest is. It was singular to me to see how well they could part the head from the body and find the joint so nicely. When it came on deck, it was such a large head, it swung against the side of the Ship till it seemed to me to shake with the weight of it.
It was all done and I was glad for the Men, for it seemed to me that they must be very tired, and such a bad place for them to work. It made me tremble to see them stand there on that narrow staging, with a rope passed around their bodies and made fast to the Ship to keep them from going over, while they leaned forward to cut. Every Man was at work, from the foremast hand to the Captain. The sharks were around the Ship and I saw one fellow, more bold than the rest, I suppose, venture almost to the whale to get a bite. The huge carcass floated away, and they had it all to themselves.
November 9th. A fine morning, with a gentle breeze. My Husband has kept the Ship off through the night, thinking there might be a school of sperm whales about here, and it happened quite lucky that he did, for about 9 o’clock there was a cry of sperm whales. Three boats lowered for them, did not succeed in taking any before noon, but kept track of them. After dinner the third Mate lowered his boat, for about that time there was a great number seen in another direction. There were 4 boats off chasing those whales. I watched them through the glass all the afternoon. Some of the time I could not see the boats with the naked eye. Those that had sails up I could see distinctly, but when they get fast to the whale, they take the sail down and row. We knew from that that two of the boats were fast. Though they were a good way off, we could tell when the iron was thrown, for the whale spouted blood and we could see it plain. In a short time [whales] seemed to be all around [the boats]. We could see them spouting all around. I should think there were more than a hundred. It was quite an exciting scene to me and mixed with a good deal of fear for the safety of those Men. It seemed to me that they were under the boats and every plunge would dash them in pieces. The Men on the Ship seemed to enjoy the fun, for they would shout and laugh; every time the whale spouted near the boat, they thought they were fast to one, and indeed it was difficult to tell when they did get fast, the whales were so thick around spouting and they were so far off. When they do get fast to one, if it doesn’t die immediately, it takes the boat along with great rapidity.
Presently the first Mate came alongside with one, a cow whale. They are not as large as the males. This one, the Mate told me, had a very small calf. I must say I was sorry to hear it. The poor little thing could not keep up with the rest, the mother would not leave it and lost her life. He says they exhibit the most affection for their young of any dumb animal he ever saw.…
The boat had quite a hole stove in it near the top, by the whale. It did not render her unmanageable. It knocked the iron out of its place, and the Mate had to dodge the blow. The iron that holds the oar, I think it was. There were two boats away then, and it was fast getting night, but in a short time my Husband’s returned. They had also taken one. They were made fast to the Ship, and two boats sent to the assistance of the other two that were now so far off that I could not see them. It was getting quite duskish, too. One of them, the Men knew, had got a whale, but the other one they did not know anything about. It got dark and they had no lanterns in their boats. The Men built a fire on the try works, of bits of tarred rope and scraps, which made a nice blaze. They also hung lanterns in the rigging. They holloaed to them and got the horn and blew. My Husband told me that he was not alarmed about them, for it was calm and they could keep track of the Ship, as she would not go out of the way. If they did not come till morning, they would be all right. All anxiety was at an end in a short time, by the little boats answering to the call of the Ship. Soon they came back, all of them, and the two that were away had each of them a large whale. I was glad when they came, for I was fearful of their safety, and the quiet of the Ship, before, with the fire and the occasional holloaing and blowing of the horn, made it appear an awful, solemn time to me, not being acquainted with such scenes.…