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Our Whaling Pasts

Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, said it best when he said: “to produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”  There’s no doubt that the history of American whaling is a significant part of our national maritime heritage, for it is a topic that encompasses historic voyages and seafaring traditions set on a global stage.  These voyages had political, economic, and cultural impacts.  Whaling is a complex topic, for we as a nation were intimately tied to the whaling industry in a number of important and complex ways.  It was a successful and yet non-sustainable industry.  Whaling was the economic boon which lit our cities and yet decimated the ocean’s marine mammals.  Historic whaling was a major industrial effort, dirty, dangerous and necessary. 

kelp forest
19th century whaling vessel. (Photo: Library of Congress)
Whaling history stretches far back in time.  British colonists learned from the Native Americans about shore whaling.  (“Nantucit” was originally an Indian word which comes to us from a subgroup of the Algonquin tribe.)  There were killer whale hunts by Neolithic groups in Norway.  Orcas were slain by Caesar’s Praetorian Guards.  Norsemen in the Dark Ages drove whales into fjords, herding them ashore.  The Viking colonies at Iceland and Greenland were whaling stations.  Japanese whaling activities have an equally lengthy past, emerging in the Tokugawa period (the 1600’s) as a major industry employing open sea net drives.  The Makah Indians practice whaling from the coasts of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.  The American period of historic whaling is but one part in the broader tapestry of whales and their complex significance (historical, cultural, etc.) to a number of different seafaring cultures at a number of different times.  

American “Golden Age” of Whaling

The heyday of our historic whaling activities encompassed just the few years between 1840 and 1861, beginning with early American voyages into the Pacific and ending with the outbreak of the Civil War and the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania.  The full development and flowering of the American sperm whale fishery found classic expression in the works of Herman Melville and the novel Moby Dick first published as The Whale in 1851.  In those days America had over 700 whaling vessels, standing out for voyages of up to four years at a time, exploring the ends of the earth.  Whaling made a young nation rich, it brought our commerce to the far corners of the globe; whaling ships brought different cultures into contact and drew connections between distant parts of the seas.  In terms of early seafaring voyages, perhaps nothing can match the range and sheer volume of American whaling during this short period in the 19th century.  And many of these whaling vessels were lost in what are now the protected waters of our marine sanctuaries. 

Whaling Heritage and the National Marine Sanctuaries

For the National Marine Sanctuary Program, the whaling topic is larger than any single wreck site and broader than any one sanctuary.  The sanctuary program is connected to a number of different whaling cultures, a number of different whaling vessel wreck sites, and a number of different significant locations to our shared whaling heritage.  Whaling heritage unites a number of different sites and sanctuaries under a common heritage theme.  A collaborative research and education effort is developing involving the National Marine Sanctuary Program, research institutions such as the Nantucket Historical Association, New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Bernice P. Bishop Museum and the Docklands Museum in London…and several ongoing projects.  

Whale tail
Whale tail. (Photo: Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary)


Maritime Heritage Program staff have begun to collaborate with the HMAP project at the University of New Hampshire.  The “History of Marine Animal Populations” aims to improve our understanding of ecosystem dynamics, specifically with regard to long-term changes in stock abundance, the ecological impact of large-scale harvesting by man, and the role of marine resources in the historical development of human society… HMAP addresses this issue through multidisciplinary studies integrating Marine Ecology, History and Paleo-Ecology. This innovative combination of research methods and analytical perspectives offers a unique approach to testing theories of the effects of both man’s activities and natural environmental changes on our living marine resources… To achieve its goals, HMAP relies on the teamwork of ecologists, marine biologists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, paleo-ecologists and paleo-oceanographers. These integrated research teams analyze data from a variety of unique sources, such as colonial fisheries and monastic records, modern fisheries statistics, ship logs, tax documents, sediment cores and other environmental records, to piece together changes in specific populations throughout history.  Collaboration…“Whaling to Watching” Curriculum Project

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Whaleboat conducts attach, while whaling vessel in background is "trying out" (rendering) blubber into oil. (Photo: Library of Congress)
In 1995 Gray’s Reef NMS and Stellwagen Bank NMS co-authored educational curriculum featuring the Northern Right Whale.  The handbook, video, and poster explore the life history of the world's most endangered large whale and human's history with it from exploitation to conservation. It provides an interesting and timely background and incorporates activities for interested students and teachers. The module with books, video, and poster targets students grades six through eight, but the curriculum has been utilized by students of all ages (including the Georgia and Florida public schools, Florida CLAMS project, some Nova Scotia schools, ship captains/skippers, southeast coast guard pilots, and U.S. Navy seamen.)  Since 1995 this curriculum has been expanded from its original focus to include to all cetacean species found in all of our national marine sanctuaries.  The current web project being developed provides an electronic encyclopedia to whales, whale watching and whaling (past and present) in the national marine sanctuaries that ring our nation, from Stellwagen Bank off the coast of Massachusetts to Hawaii and American Samoa in the Pacific Ocean.  

MHP and Field Research

NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program brings a capacity for field survey and underwater archaeology…and MHP researchers are beginning to come across wreck sites in the remote parts of the world’s oceans that are direct links to our past.  The discovery of a whaling vessel wreck site, its interpretation, and understanding the historical and archaeological data in the context of our maritime past is an exciting task.  It involves the hunt for documentary material on whaling activities and individual whaling vessel losses (newspaper accounts, portions of ship logs, insurance documents, whaling journals, marine art, maps, etc).  And it involves maritime archaeology field work.  The Maritime Heritage Program is currently exploring three whaling wreck sites, tentatively identified as 1) British whaler Pearl lost at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 1822 (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands), 2) British whaler Hermes lost at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 1822, and 3) American whaler Parker lost at Kure Atoll in 1842 (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands).  (See NWHI Projects 2003-2005)  These are rare archaeological windows into our maritime past.  

Whaling Heritage…a Means to an End

archaeologists document whaling shipwreck
Archaeologists document a 19th century whaling shipwreck site at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Photo: Bob Schwemmer, NOAA NMSP)
There are broader questions than those associated with individual site interpretation.  Our whaling wreck sites and whaling information (collectively, our whaling heritage within the NMSP) provide an opportunity for national-level maritime heritage education.  What do we want to learn from the many aspects of our whaling heritage?  What information do our historic and archaeological resources hold?  How do we preserve and protect these special sites?  How do we best present our whaling heritage in support of our goals of preservation and stewardship of ocean resources?  These are some of the interesting questions faced by the Maritime Heritage Program as its research continues into this exciting theme. 

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Revised September 12, 2023 by Sanctuaries Web Team | Contact Us | Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service
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