Overview of Whales and Whaling

The history of New England is very closely bound with the whaling industry. The early colonists were very involved with whaling and it was, at one time, one of the best sources of revenue at the Massachusetts Bay. Allegedly, the Mayflower was a whaler before making the famous voyage to Plymouth Bay. In 1620, the Pilgrims witnessed an abundance of whales when they arrived in New England and were eager to pursue them. These whales that frequented the New England shores were “right whales.” The term “right whale” encompasses three species of baleen whales of the genus Eubalaena. The ones the pilgrims were seeing were North Atlantic Right Whales. 


They were a migratory species, appearing in late October with some remaining all winter while others went farther south to the Carolina coast. They would return in the spring, especially in April and May, often with young. Whales were beached often, so for many years in southern Massachusetts there was a “whale viewer” whose job it was to examine the beached whales and decide their ownership. In 1662 in the town of Eastham, it was decided that a portion of the proceeds for all beached whales dead of natural causes would go towards the support of the ministry. The pursuit of these whales continued for about one hundred years until the number of whales frequenting the coast was depleted. One of the articles I got this information from was written in the 1920s, and as of then, the whale population had still not recovered. The pursuit of whales was at first in small boats from the shore, and many of the Cape Cod Indians were employed in the whaling industry and very skilled at their work. Gradually, the colonists began to build vessels for the offshore pursuit of whales. In one of these voyages with the new vessels to the south of Nantucket, sperm whales were encountered. 


Since the population of right whales was depleted and pursuit of those whales was no longer profitable, the colonists built more of these vessels and sent people out on longer voyages looking for the sperm whales. The industry developed rapidly. In 1774, ships from Nantucket first crossed the equator on the hunt for whales. In 1791, the first American whaler rounded Cape Horn into the whaling grounds of the Pacific. Many whalers from Nantucket and New Bedford ventured to many parts of the world.


In the 1800s, it was decided that, from a legal standpoint, a whale was considered a fish in the state of New York. At that time, the state levied a tax on fish oils brought into its territory, and importers of whale oil refused to pay this tax, claiming that a whale was not a fish. A case was tried in court, and the decision reached was that a whale was a fish in the eyes of the law, therefore whale oil was fish oil and subject to tax. 

Whales breathe air like other mammals. Whales usually only have one calf at a time. The calf is about a third of the length of the adult whale, and the mother nurses the calf for several months. Whales are divided into two major categories: toothed whales and baleen whales. The largest species of the toothed whales is the sperm whale, which feed mostly on squid, sometimes giant squids. Orcas are also toothed whales. Baleen whales are filter feeders; they use the plates of whalebone or baleen in their mouth to filter out small crustaceans and mollusks from the water as they swim. Baleen was a valuable product of the whaling industry. Baleen whales include the “right whale” hunted by the colonists and the humpback whale, and the blue whale, which is the largest living mammal, and has been known to reach lengths of almost 100 feet.