Twenty Percent of Your Adult Life Pursuing Whales: Voyage Lengths During the Golden Age of Whaling

Boston Harbor, Sunset, Fitz Henry Lane
Boston Harbor, Sunset, by Fitz Henry Lane

The Golden Age of Whaling attracts my interest because it was such a dramatic and absurd undertaking.  During its peak years, the industry had a few hundred sailing ships searching vast areas of open ocean for the earth’s largest living creatures so they could kill them and process their carcasses at sea to obtain valuable oil or baleen. After a voyage that could last several years, the ship would finally return to port with a hold full of products to be used in homes and industry.  To be sure, today’s supply chain for gasoline or diesel fuel is also pretty dramatic and absurd, requiring far flung enterprises that explore for oil, transport it to refineries, extract the desired fuels, and so forth. A whaling agent from 1850 might call that absurd. But I think what is so different about whaling is its personal scale. Nearly all operations were people-powered, catching the whale, harvesting the blubber, operating the ship, to name a few.

Longer and Longer Voyages

As demand for whale products increased and the stocks in the Atlantic Ocean were depleted, whalers began to sail farther and farther from their home port, requiring more significant time commitments from the crew.  For American ships, the vast majority sailed from New England, and so if they were whaling in the Pacific or Indian Ocean, they sailed south to the Cape of Good Hope, took a right turn, then sailed up to the whaling grounds.  With this part of the voyage taking many months, it didn’t make sense to hunt for a few months and turn around. Even a hugely successful first few months would often result in the ship dropping its cargo at the nearest port for pickup by a cargo specialist.   And so, as the Golden years wore on, competition increased, and whales became scarcer, voyages became longer and longer.

The Alice Knowles - Plate 189 - Section V, The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States from Hathi Trust 640
Cross section of a whaleship (explanation on this page at Hathi Trust)

The chart below shows the average voyage length for vessels leaving from New Bedford, MA for three different whaling grounds and two categories of sailing vessels (the main difference between ship and bark is how the sails are rigged*).  Naturally, for a New England-based ship, the Atlantic voyages were the shortest and did not see much of an increase during the century until its end. The expansion into the far away Pacific and Indian Ocean grounds, however, led to a major lengthening of voyages, with averages passing three years and in the latter decades nearing a four year duration — years of days that alternated between boredom and incredibly intense and dangerous work, years out of communication with loved ones (there were letter drops at ports and ships sometimes brought letters, but that was hardly reliable or speedy), years stuck with the same crew and in cramped quarters.

To put a three or four year voyage in some context, consider what that would have meant in the mid-19th century.  At that time, the life expectancy for a white male at age 20 was about 40-44 years (estimate from Hacker), so a 4 year voyage that starting at age 20 would constitute about one-fifth of the man’s remaining life.  To bring this to today, for a 20 year old with a 70 year life expectancy, a voyage lasting one-fifth of his remaining life would be roughly 10 years.

A Wider and Wider Hunting Range

As demand for whale products increased, whaling ships expanded their hunting range. An amazing research project analyzed historical whaling logs from American whaleships to identify where ships sailed, where they spotted whales and what kinds of whales they saw. The authors used three sources of data which they claim account for about 10% of American whaling voyages between 1780 and 1920. The data were then plotted on maps to provide an estimate of the historical range of whale populations. (Smith et al., 2012)Two maps from the article give a sense of the evolution of whaling between 1780 and 1849**.  The first figure (A) shows the early days of industrial whaling (1780-1824). Light blue markings represent days in the logbooks with no whale sightings.  Violet marks are locations of home ports and frequently used supply ports. The other colors each represent a different type of whale (the most prominent are blue for sperm whales and red for right whales).   There is a right whale hot spot off the coast of South America (red) and some sperm whale activity in the Pacific (blue), but ships have not spent much time in the Pacific or Indian Oceans.  Note the loop in the mid-Atlantic Ocean between eastern North America and western Africa, which corresponds to the prevailing current and winds, something that was quite important in the age of sail.

Fig 16 A in Spatial and Seasonal Distribution of American Whaling and Whales in the Age of Sail.g016 1780–1824 (A)
Daily locations and whale sightings, 1780–1824. Extracted from Figure 16 in Smith et al., PLoS ONE

The second figure (B) covers 1825 through 1849, the years of major increases in the industry’s output (in terms of dollars, the peak was 1851-1855, as one of my old posts shows). This increase was the result of technological improvements and longer voyages that allowed ships to span the oceans from continent to continent and around the southern rim of the planet.  By the middle of the 19th century, whaleships had explored the vast oceans, identifying the best hunting grounds, as the blue and red bands in the figure illustrate.

Fig 16B in Spatial and Seasonal Distribution of American Whaling and Whales in the Age of Sail.g016 1825–1849 (B)
Daily locations and whale sightings, 1825-1849. Extracted from Figure 16 in Smith et al., PLoS ONE

* Chapter 7 of In Pursuit has some details about how the differences between a ship and a bark impacted whaling operations:

One change (it is not clear whether it should be called a design or a rigging change) affected the whaling fleet far more than it did the merchant marine. That technical breakthrough was the innovation of the bark — square rigged on the fore- and mainmasts and fore-and-aft rigged on the mizzenmast…
First, it could move nimbly among the ice floes of the Arctic, and escape when the ocean froze at the end of the hunting season. (Twice the Arctic fleet was caught and crushed because the ocean froze so rapidly.) Second, the bark was more easily handled by the few men left aboard when the whaleboats were manned and most of the crew had joined the hunt. Since the mizzen was normally already raised, the shipkeepers did not have to raise it while the hunt was on. Third, and least important, the rig structure gave more clearance for the operation of the two boats near the stern.

Wikipedia has additional details, of course (ship and bark/barque/barc)

** The datasets could make an amazing animation to show the evolution of whaling over the studied period.  An interactive 3-D chart would also be interesting since there are many zones with many overlapping points that obscure the density of whale sightings.
Davis, Lance E., Gallman, Robert E., and Gleiter, Karin. In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906. National Bureau of Economic Research. Published in January 1997 by University of Chicago Press. Full text available at NBER.

Hacker, J. David, Hist Methods author manuscript on PubMed Central; available in PMC 2011 Apr 1. Published in final edited form as: Hist Methods. 2010 Apr; 43(2): 45–79. doi: 10.1080/01615441003720449

Smith, T.D., Reeves, R.R., Josephson, E.A., Lund, J.N. (2012) Spatial and Seasonal Distribution of American Whaling and Whales in the Age of Sail. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34905. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034905 (open access article)

Image Credits
First image:  Fitz Henry Lane, Boston Harbor, Sunset, 1850-1855. Downloaded from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Image Library, part of the public domain collection (higher resolution is available at LACMA).  I don’t know what kinds of ships these are, but whatever the case, the painting is beautiful, a fineP example of luminism.

Second image: Cross section of whaleship Alice Knowles, plate 189 in History and Methods of the Fisheries: Section V, The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, George Brown Goode and a staff of associates, United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Government Printing Office (Washington, D.C.), 1884-1887. Public domain. Full text at Hathi Trust and Google Books.

Maps are from  Smith et al., an open-access article covered by a Creative Commons Attribution License

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