Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Whaling: Not for the Faint of Heart

Before the time of petroleum and other natural fuel sources, whale blubber was the go-to source for such things. It could be collected and then boiled down in vats, which then turned into oil. This oil wasn’t just used for lanterns. It was also used to lubricate machinery, even sewing machines, and was an ingredient in soaps, paint, and varnish. A special type of oil came from spermaceti, aptly named from the sperm whale. Even though scientists are still not sure of its purpose for the sperm whale itself, spermaceti oil revolutionized candle-making, rendering it nearly odorless, which is ironic since it has been recorded that whale ships were so smelly, they could be detected by another ship even when they were beyond the horizon. Baleen from the whale was also found to be useful for such things as women’s combs, skirt hoops, and corsets, umbrella stays, fishing rods, tools, and other knickknacks of almost every kind, ranging from food choppers/mincers to decorative pieces like clocks and jewelry. Whale teeth were used as a way for whalers to pass the time while waiting for a whale to appear. They would scrub the tooth down to a smooth finish and then carve pictures, usually from templates, into the teeth. These pieces are known as scrimshaw. Some of these, like the ones shown in this screenshot I took from the Nantucket Whaling Museum website sponsored by the Nantucket Historical Association, have survived to this day and are on display. In rare cases, collectible pieces may still be sold, but buyers and sellers need to check that their local laws allow for such transactions.

The pursuit of whales for commercial gain in America began in earnest in the late 1700s. Nantucket Island and New Bedford, Massachusetts became the major whaling centers as whaling ships worked the Atlantic in hopes of capturing the prized sperm whales. By the 1850s, however, the Atlantic had been so thoroughly ravaged that these whales almost became extinct. Consequently, the whaling industry turned to the waters in the Pacific to capture their prey. The warmer waters were a good breeding place for other kinds of whales like the Southern right and humpback whales. Islands in the Pacific, including the Marquess and Sandwich Islands, Tahiti, and New Zealand were popular places for whaling ships to pull into port. While there, whalers found entertainment in the form of women and cultural rituals. Oftentimes, however, whalers who were suffering from sicknesses onboard brought those infirmities to the natives.

Whaling was a dangerous profession. Some whalers signed up to work on the whaling ships as a way to avoid imprisonment for crimes they had committed on land, but most were usually men simply seeking adventure on the high seas. They definitely got what they wished for. Most whalers didn’t know how to swim. One wrong move on a slippery deck or while trying to outlast an angry whale could make them plummet to their deaths.

Abraham Storck painting, 1690

Unfortunately, 1870-80 was a disastrous decade for the whaling industry. Arctic waters near Alaska were abundant with bowhead and beluga whales. Two disasters that I referenced in my last Belles of Wyoming book, The Trouble with Lucy, occurred near the Bering Strait by northern Alaska. The first occurred in 1871. A fleet of 33 American whaling ships became surrounded by ice there and had to be completely abandoned. The good news is that all 1,219 men from that fleet survived the ordeal even though the ships were all lost. However, in the next go-around, which happened in 1876 in almost the exact same location, all but one ship was lost, and several crewmen died. Whaling as a commercial industry was in its decline at that time, anyway, due to the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859.

In The Trouble with Lucy, I decided to build my hero, Joel Turnpike’s, backstory around the commercial whaling industry. When Lucy spurned his initial attempt to court and woo her, he left Belle, Wyoming and became a whaler. Like the real-life author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville, who had many adventures on the high seas, Joel would later write a fictional account of his nautical adventures and become a famous author. But when his twin brother, John, needs him to come back to Belle and help him out of a rough spot, Joel does exactly that—and reunites with Lucy while pretending to be John. Joel now hopes he can show Lucy, whose heart has softened toward him, just how much he loves her with a piece of scrimshaw he has carved a picture into just for her. But will his declaration of love come in time and will it be enough to convince Lucy?

If you haven’t had a chance to read the book that concludes The Belles of Wyoming series, I hope you’ll take this opportunity now. Readers have been waiting to learn more about Lucy Mae Jackson. For a strong-minded heroine like her, she needs just the right man. I personally love how Lucy and Joel’s love story plays out, along with the way they balance each other, and I think you will, too!


  1. You've obviously done a lot of research for this book. It sounds intriguing. Don't we learn the most interesting things while researching our books? Very interesting post.

  2. Thanks! I agree that research is so intriguing, and it makes me want to visit more places around the world in person. Every time my husband hears me say, "Oh, we need to take a trip!" he knows I've been researching, LOL.

  3. An interesting post, thank you. Good luck with Lucy's story.


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