Whales and Whaling in New England
Glover M. Allen
The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 27 ( 4): 340-343. Oct 1928

American Association for the Advancement of Science.

posted June 2006


Whales and Whaling in New England

By Dr. Glover M. Allen

Boston Museum of Natural History

    The early history of New England is very closely bound up with the whale fishery, an industry to which our early colonists applied themselves with such zeal that at one time in Massachusetts Bay it bade fair to be one of their best sources of revenue. The historic Mayflower herself, even before she sailed on the eventful voyage to Plymouth Bay, had apparently been a whaler and in after times was for a number of years engaged in the Greenland whale fishery. When, therefore, in 1620, the Pilgrims found an abundance of whales "playing hard by," many of them were eager to undertake their pursuit, especially as there were among the ship's company a number of men skilled in the Arctic whaling, a much more difficult profession. The whales that frequented our shores in such numbers three hundred years ago were of the kind called "right whales," a peaceable and relatively slow moving species, provided with a thick coating of fat or blubber over its body, and with long narrow blades of whalebone hanging in double rank from the roof of the mouth. These whales were migratory, appearing on our coasts in late October from waters farther east and north. No doubt many remained all winter while others went still farther south, even to the Carolina coast, and returned northward in spring, especially in April and May, often at this season accompanied by their young. In these early years dead whales were so often cast upon shore, that laws and regulations for deciding their ownership were constantly being enacted. For some years, the coast towns of southern Massachusetts regularly appointed a "whale viewer" whose duty it was to examine all such "drift" whales as they were called and to record all marks or wounds upon them, as well as to keep a record of whales reported to have been wounded but lost, so that in the case of their being subsequently cast ashore, the rightful owner might be enabled to claim them. In 1662 it was voted by the town of Eastham that a portion of the proceeds of all such whales as drifted ashore dead from natural causes, be appropriated for the support of the ministry. Subsequently, in 1702, the Reverend John Cotton, of Yarmouth, received no less than £40 from the amounts realized for whales so cast up. The pursuit of whales in small boats from shore continued for over one hundred years until the numbers of those frequenting our coasts were very much depleted and they have never since recovered. Most of the pursuit of whales was at first in small boats from the shore, and in this a good many of the Cape Cod Indians were regularly employed, becoming skilled in this work. Gradually, however, the colonists began to fit out small


vessels for the pursuit of whales off shore, and it was in the course of one of these voyages to the south of Nantucket, that Sperm Whales were encountered in the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream. So that when, about 1750, the pursuit of "right whales" near shore was no longer profitable, there were men and vessels ready to go on longer cruises for the sperm whales. This industry developed rapidly. In 1774 ships from Nantucket first crossed the equator in pursuit of whales, and in 1791 the first American whaler rounded Cape Horn into the untried whaling "grounds" of the Pacific. The many vessels that followed, especially from Nantucket and New Bedford, carried our flag into all parts of the sea and many a Pacific island was first hailed by the daring old masters of these vessels. The whaling industry in New England reached its zenith about 90 to 100 years ago, but with the discovery of kerosene for light, it collapsed almost entirely, though a few vessels have continued to sail from New Bedford almost to the present day, chiefly in pursuit of sperm whales and bowheads, the latter among the floe ice of the Arctic regions.

    Now, however, the whalers are few and little remains but the traditions of a once flourishing business.

Adze and hammer and anvil stroke
Echo not from the shore;
The wharves are old and broken and gray
And the whaleships come no more.

    Most of us now-a-days have seldom seen a whale either dead or alive, and fewer still can tell the different kinds. All sorts of questions are asked—Is a whale a fish? What is the spout? What kind of whale swallowed Jonah? From the standpoint of a zoologist a whale is not a fish, but a mammal that has become adapted to life altogether in the water. Whales are warm-blooded, bring forth their young alive and suckle them. Within a few years fossil whales of great antiquity have been found in the early Tertiary formations of Egypt that give us certain of the links between the more typical whales and land mammals, and indicate that the group sprang from one of the older stocks of flesh-eating mammals. As a result of their aquatic habits, whales have developed the tail as a swimming organ, have lost their original coat of hair except for a few bristles in some species and have entirely done away with hind legs. The place of a hairy covering is taken by a thick layer of fat or blubber. Nevertheless, from a legal standpoint, it was decided over 100 years ago that in the State of New York a whale is a fish. It seems that in those times the State levied a tax on fish oils brought into its territory. Importers of whale oil, however, refused to pay a tax on this product on the ground that a whale was not a fish, and the law therefore did not apply. The case was tried at length in court, and a decision reached that for the purposes of the law a whale was a fish and its oil was therefore fish oil subject to tax. Whales breath air like other mammals. How then to account for the spout, rising like a jet of steam when the animal comes to the surface? This spout is merely the condensing moisture of the breath, which, expelled with great force, expands rapidly and thereby is momentarily cooled below the temperature of the surrounding air causing the vapor to condense and become visible.

    Whales have usually but a single young one at a time, born alive at the surface of the sea. The young whale is about one third the length of the adult at birth and is suckled by the mother for several months.

    Whales are readily divided into two chief groups, the first comprising those with teeth, the second those in which the teeth have been lost and from whose palates hang the whalebone plates in two lengthwise series. Of the first group the Sperm Whale is the largest species, but


it is rare in New England waters. The lower jaw only has functional teeth that fit into sockets in the upper lip. Sperm whales feed largely on squid, at times attacking and eating the giant squids, portions of whose huge tentacles are sometimes found as leavings from a Sperm whale's meal.

    To this same group of toothed whales belong the various smaller species of dolphins and porpoises, including the so-called blackfish familiar to Cape Cod folk, a species that occurs at times in summer in large schools, which may be driven ashore and stranded.

    The second group is called the whalebone whales, and includes six species within our limits. Of these the right whale is the one formerly so much hunted on these coasts, a stout chunky slow-moving whale, attaining a length of some fifty feet, with the upper jaw much bowed upward to accommodate the long whalebone plates which in the middle of the series have a length of about seven feet. The use of the whalebone is to strain out the minute crustaceans and small free swimming mollusks on which the whale feeds. Great masses of water are taken into the whale's mouth and by the closing of the mouth are forced out through the matted hair-like threads at the free ends of these whalebone plates, leaving the food behind to be swallowed. The much larger Arctic whale or bowhead has the upper jaw even more arched than in the right whale to accommodate its 15-foot plates of whalebone. This species is confined to the Arctic Seas. Of the other five whalebone whales on our coasts, one, the humpback, has an enormous fore flipper, equalling about one third of the mammal's length—some 45 feet. This whale is a particularly agile species, often performing many strange antics, thrusting one fin out of the water or lashing its tail violently, again rising almost straight up in the air, to fall over on one side with a resounding splash. The four other large species are long and slender in form, the throat as in the humpback is thrown into lengthwise pleatings or folds which allow of a considerable expansion as the whale opens its mouth to feed. The common finback, attaining a length of 65 feet or more, with a high fin on the lower part of the back, is the one most often seen, for it frequently comes into Massachusetts Bay especially in summer to feed on the shoals of herring or the quantities of small shrimps found near the surface. A similar but smaller species, the northern fin whale, is rare with us but may at once be distinguished by its whalebone, which is black, fraying out into fine white threads. Still a third is the small grampus whale, easily told by the large white bar across the fore limb and by its short pale-yellowish whalebone. Last of all is the great blue whale whose appearance in our waters is not satisfactorily known, though it occurs commonly off Newfoundland and has been cast ashore as far south at least as New Jersey. In this species the whalebone as well as its frayed ends is black. It has been known to reach a length of slightly over 100 feet, the largest living mammal.

    All five of these finwhales are quicker in movements than the right whale, so that the larger kinds can not easily be killed with simple harpoons and lances, for so swift are they that they would very soon drag a boat under or overset it. They are killed, however, by means of heavy harpoons with an explosive charge, shot from a gun. The fat of the Blue Whale contains a large percentage of glycerine, used during the war in making explosives.

    Concerning the movements and occurrence of the whales mentioned we know relatively little, hence those persons living on the shore who have a chance to see whales might help in the securing of valuable information by sending their observations to the Boston Society of Natural History, taking especial notice,


where possible, of the size, color of whalebone and its frayed ends, the presence of folds on the throat, the number
of teeth or other points. The accumulation of such facts may in time be of much scientific importance.