The Hunt for Whales

From harpooning leviathans to holding them dear.

By Ben Stubenberg

It’s hard to believe that humpback whales, among the largest creatures on the planet, were hunted almost to extinction less than 60 years ago.

“I need everyone’s eyes on the water,” Captain Kell Talbot earnestly tells the guests on the Deep Blue Charters whale watching boat three miles east of Salt Cay. “The front of the boat is twelve o’clock, the back six o’clock. When you see a whale surface, call out your sighting on the clock so we can track it.” All hands on deck peer out in silence over the ripples of a pale blue sea glistening in the morning sun—straining to catch the first glimpse of the giant cetaceans we know are out there, just below the surface, gliding over the shallow banks. The palpable thrill of anticipation bonds perfect strangers in a singular quest. “Look! There! Four o’clock,” a watcher cries out. “Oh my God!” All heads turn to see a dark gray arching back break the surface followed by a spray of vapor and squeals and hollers of jaw-dropping awe. Captain Kell cuts the engine, letting the boat drift. Suddenly, the 50 foot (15 meter) long humpback, nearly twice the size of the boat, majestically rockets straight up, almost completely out of the water. Huge flippers open wide as if to say, “Hello, I see you,” before the massive body splashes down spectacularly before us.

That these magnificent creatures, the largest our planet has ever seen, were hunted almost to extinction less than 60 years ago hardly seems possible. The consuming quest for quick riches from slaughtered whales to fuel the demand for lamp oil, buggy whips, and cheap meat for an industrializing world might well have denied us that shared moment of intense common humanity on the sea—as well as all future generations.
And that should give us pause for what our progeny may say about us 60 years from now. For even today, notwithstanding protections, whales face a future as uncertain and perilous as they did when whalers relentlessly pursued them across every ocean. In a hopeful twist of fate, however, the pristine waters surrounding the Turks & Caicos Islands, that once saw its share of whale hunting, could be a respite from modern perils, a sanctuary where whales thrive and perhaps befriend us.

Early whalers

This Anton Otto Fischer painting depicts the almost-unimaginable work of harpooning a whale.

Humans have hunted whales since prehistoric times, but the story of commercial whaling began in the early 1700s, principally out of the New England fishing town of Nantucket. Here, ships under the power of wind and sails fanned out into the eastern seaboard of North America for what was at first easy pickings. Humpbacks, sperm whales, and right whales abounded and their numbers seemed limitless. Hardy sailors perched in crow’s nests atop masts 100 feet (30 meters) above the deck scanned the sea for the same telltale signs as tourists on whale tours do today.
When the bellowing cry of “There she blows” rang out at the sighting of a whale, the crew below frantically lowered open whale boats over the side and rowed hard, guided by pointing arms from the crow’s nest. Crouched at the prow, the strongest and most agile man of the lot readied his harpoons, essentially modified wooden spears, about 6 feet (2 meters) long, with one or two metal barbs near the tip. A bucket held a long coiled rope fastened tightly to the harpoon shaft, the other end wrapped around a wooden post built into the boat. The harpooneer, as he was called, stood and braced himself as the boat closed in on the prize. The captain signaled for the crew to stop rowing and use their oars to paddle quietly.
Then, just feet from the giant leviathan and when seconds counted, the harpooneer lifted his weapon high above his head and hurled it as straight and deep and true as he could into the thick blubber of the whale’s back so the barbs held fast. If he was quick and lucky, he might get off a second throw. As the wounded whale bolted from the boat using powerful thrusts from its tail, the rope rushed out, so fast the post smoked from the friction. Sometimes the rope entangled the harpooneer, severing his leg or arm or dragging him overboard. Fighting for its own life, the whale would try to dive down, swiftly towing the boat toward the horizon up to 23 mph (37 kph) in what became known as a Nantucket Sleigh Ride. Thrilling as it was terrifying, the crew hung on, hoping the out-of-control boat would not be pulled under. The struggle might go on for 30 minutes or more until the whale, exhausted and near death, surfaced for one last breath of air. In the blood-soaked sea, the whale boat would again pull close, so the captain or first mate could try to finish off the weakened whale by thrusting a trident-tipped lance into its belly.
At that point, the crew had to act quickly to bring the whale back to the mother ship, as whales sink quickly after being killed. Then begin the arduous and equally dangerous task of flensing (butchering) and boiling the blubber for oil. The decks, slick with blood, caused many a whaler to slip and fall overboard into a frenzy of feeding sharks below.
By the mid-1700s, New England whaling ships had reduced the whale populations off their shores, forcing the whalers to expand their searches further south to the Caribbean and off the coast of Brazil. As the whales became scarce there too, whalers sailed around the Horn, entering the vast Pacific where ships could be away from home port for years. Typically, a successful whale ship would catch between 25 and 50 whales. For all the danger the crew faced—almost every hunt produced some injury or death—the rewards depended entirely on the favorable outcome of the voyage, and few got rich. The pay for sailors was only marginally better than crewing on vessels carrying cargo. Still, the able-bodied signed up in droves for the intoxicating adventure and a chance to make a bit more money.
At whale hunting’s peak (1820–1850), whalers numbered 8,000 and killed around 10,000 whales a year. In the second half of the 19th century, the whaling industry began to decline as new and less expensive petroleum products became available. Paradoxically, from 1900–1999, 2.9 million whales were killed, according to Scientific American—four times more than were killed in the previous 400 years. Larger whale ships and the perfection of the explosively charged harpoon that could be mounted and fired from the ship deck—credited to Norwegian inventor Svend Foyn—allowed for many more whales to be taken, though mainly for meat.

Whale attacks
Sometimes the whales fought back. The most famous fictional account, of course, is the story of the great white whale Moby Dick by Hermann Melville. He based his epic treasure of American literature on the true story of the attack on the Nantucket whaling ship Essex in November 1820 in the South Pacific, more than 1,000 miles off the coast of Peru. (The story has since made into a major motion picture, “In the Heart of the Sea”, directed by Ron Howard.) In fact, there have been at least six other recorded incidents of cetaceans using their massive heads (mainly sperm whales) to ram whaling ships in apparent acts of fury: The Pusie Hall in 1835, the Lydia and the Two Generals in 1836, the Pocahontas in 1850, the Ann Alexander in 1851, and the Kathleen in 1902. All these wooden ships came out of New England ports, and all but the Pusie and the Pocahontas sank.
In the case of the Essex, first mate Owen Chase spotted a huge sperm whale lying quietly in the distance, the head facing the ship. After two or three spouts, the colossal animal made straight for the Essex, ramming its head into the side of the ship, “with an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw all of us on our faces.” The whale passed under the ship and then surfaced, allowing the first mate to see him “smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” and then disappeared. Shortly thereafter, a crew member cried out, “Here he is making for us again.” Head half out of the water, the whale bore down once more on the ship, this time striking the bow. Water rushed in through the busted planks and the Essex began sinking, so fast that Chase and the crew barely had enough time to escape in their whale boat.
The Essex captain, George Pollard, who had been out with another whale boat pursuing and harpooning whales, returned stunned to see his ship floundering before disappearing under the waves. Bobbing on the sea in open 20 foot boats with hardly any food or water, the whalers contemplated what to do next. The captain, just 28 years old, wanted to head south to the nearest land in Marquesa Islands and Tahiti, but Chase and others talked him out of it because they believed cannibals lived there. So they steered the longer way east to South America, perhaps the most ironic decision in maritime history. In the weeks at sea that followed, the crew quickly ran out of what few provisions they had and began eating anyone who died, becoming cannibals themselves. On Pollard’s boat, when no one had died for a few days, they drew lots of who would be killed and eaten. Only eight of the original twenty survived the harrowing ordeal at sea, including Pollard and Chase, to tell their stories.
Notably, the gigantic bull sperm whale that rammed the Essex had not, in fact, been harpooned himself, but may have reacted to seeing and hearing members of his pod being attacked. While whales are social creatures and normally not aggressive, they can be when challenged or feel the whale family is threatened.
The attack on the Ann Alexander took place in the same area as the Essex 31 years later on August 20, 1851 (the same year Melville’s book was published) with its own astounding scenario. The ship had launched two whale boats, one of which harpooned a sperm whale. After a Nantucket Sleigh Ride, the whale circled back, and with its huge jaws snapped the whale boat in half, throwing all six whalers in the water. A second whale boat nearby rescued them. Meanwhile, a third boat was launched from the Ann Alexander and headed out to assist. But rather than return to the ship, the remaining two boats continued to chase and harpoon the angry whale. Once more, the whale circled back and crushed the third boat with its jaws, tossing the whole crew in the water. Again, they were rescued by the remaining whale boat, now quite crowded, and finally returned to the ship.
Rather than call it a day, the crew continued to harpoon the whale from the ship when it swam close, managing to lodge a harpoon in its head. The whale disappeared below the surface, but then surfaced to smash its head into the hull below the waterline, creating a gaping hole. As water rushed in, the crew re-launched the one remaining whale boat, barely getting away, but now even more vulnerable on the open sea with a raging whale. The whale swam off, however, and two days later another whaling ship spotted and rescued the whalers.

TCI whale hunts

Taylor Hill on Salt Cay was once a whaling station look-out. The limestone ruins and field walls can still be seen. It is still a good place to watch whales pass by during the winter months.

The first recorded Turks & Caicos Islands whale catch took place on February 4, 1846 off Grand Turk amid great rejoicing of the people, according to the Handbook of the Turks and Caicos Islands by J. Henry Pusey, published in 1897. Pusey writes:
“This gave rise to well-organized whale-fishing companies at Grand Turk and Salt Cay. Whales were thus captured every year, a single whale of ordinary size being sufficient for the entire population to share in the delicacy of its flesh. Large quantities of train (or common) oil were obtained from this most remarkable of the cetaceous order of animals.”

Rather than big whaling ships, the Grand Turk Whaling Company, succeeded later by the Salt Cay Whaling Company, relied largely on native Turks & Caicos Islanders using rowboats launched from shore. The whaling company even placed an ad in the Turks Islands Gazette and Commercial Reporter on January 3, 1849 calling for “Headers, Steersmen (harpooneers) and Oarsmen for the Whale Company’s boats for the approaching season. Those who have pratice (sic) would be preferred.”
For decades, the local population directly benefited from whales caught and killed that could supplement their meager diets, likely alleviating hunger in view of the poverty at the time. On February 11, 1871, the Royal Standard carried a news article telling of a whale capture and what it meant to the Islands:
“With much pleasure we give place to the Report, from a correspondent on Salt Cay of the capture of a whale by the boats of that place. We wish the financial condition of the colony was more flourishing, so that a bounty may be given for each whale killed and brought to shore, as no one, but those who have witnessed it, knows what a godsend the flesh of a whale is to a poor community.”

The article not only effusively commends the harpooneer as Mr. John Vose Lightbourn, but goes on to articulate the pressing need for food.
“What a gift this mass of meat is to the laboring portion of and the poor and destitute of our Island, who in consequent of the scarcity and high prices of provisions have for a long time been deprived of a meal, and are at present able to put by a good supply of strong and wholesome food.”

Giving us a glimpse into the tenor of the times, Mr. Pusey recounts the harpooning of a whale calf off Grand Turk on April 17, 1872.
“The old mother-whale kept so closely during the capture to her wounded young, that with proper materials (perhaps indicating need for an additional harpoon) and cautious management, she also would have been caught.”

Whalers would often harpoon a calf and keep it alive to attract the mother and other whales, so they too could be harpooned.

Whalers often harpooned a calf and kept it alive to attract the mother and other whales, so they too could be harpooned. At this late date in the season, most of the family of humpbacks had probably begun the 1,500 mile (2,400 kilometer) journey north back to the feeding waters off Newfoundland and Greenland, leaving the mother and calf alone. Perhaps the mother lingered just a few more weeks so they could get stronger before making the strenuous trek. Yet his matter-of-fact observation, important enough to include on the now-crumbling, yellowed pages of Pusey’s book, echoes across the ages from their time to ours. And 147 years later, we feel the torment of that mother-whale desperately staying with her mortally wounded calf to the end.
Along with food, the local whaling companies extracted whale oil that could be barreled and sold. Pusey tells us that in the month of February 1883, a whale was caught at Salt Cay that produced 900 gallons of oil. He also notes that in the same year the head of a sperm whale was found at Bambarra (Middle Caicos), yielding “several hundred gallons of sperm oil.”
The Salt Cay Whaling Company closed in 1888, but whaling in TCI apparently did not stop, and may possibly have continued as late as 1920. According to Salt Cay native and boat captain Oscar Talbot, based on stories he had heard from his father and grandfather, “Local Turks Islanders regularly set out on their own to hunt whales to supply Salt Cay and Grand Turk with meat, which was considered the delicacy of the day.” Tim Dunn, another Salt Cay native and whale expert, noted that Taylor Hill, the highest point in Salt Cay at 74 feet (23 meters), functioned as a look-out for spotting whales.
Once harpooned, Mr. Talbot said, “The whale would run for miles and miles pulling the boat along,” thus experiencing a Nantucket Sleigh Ride in TCI style. Mr. Talbot recalled hearing how one whaler got his foot cut off after becoming entangled in the outgoing rope, leaving no doubt that TCI whalers faced the same dangers as other whalers back in the day.
Typically, the whales would be hauled to “Whale Island,” a spit of land barely above sea level about 200 feet (70 meters) from the shore of Salt Cay’s northeast windward side. There, the whalers cut up and dispersed meat to the people who would preserve it by first soaking it in salt water and then leaving it out to dry—necessary in the absence of refrigeration. “In the late 1800s,” Mr. Dunn said, “Salt Cay had a population of almost 1,000 people and imported nearly all of its food. So hauling in a massive whale could feed everyone for months.” One can easily imagine a festive scene of the whole island gathering to watch the spectacle and anticipating the meal they would soon enjoy. Only ruins remain of a stone house where this took place, leaving just enough to step back to the days when Salt Cay celebrated its intrepid whalers.
Perhaps the most intriguing connection to whales, however, is the story of Salt Cay islanders dipping their infant children in the blood of a whale in the belief that the child would be infused with the strength of the whale. The ritual was first reported in the 2001/2002 Winter issue of Times of the Islands, in the story, “Whale Watching” by Marsha Pardee Woodring, and sourced to long time Salt Cay resident and TCI historian Josiah Marvel.
While TCI whaling has long gone, the wonderment for whales never ceased, and neither did the encounters. Mr. Talbot recalled some 40 years ago when he captained a sloop from Grand Turk to Salt Cay. Along the way, a whale unexpectedly headed straight for the boat in a scene right out of Moby Dick and the Essex. Seeing the aggressive approach, Mr. Talbot managed to tack the boat away from the on-coming whale, thereby minimizing the impact. He then sailed toward a shallow reef where the whale could not follow, and got away unscathed.
Schoolchildren on Grand Turk and Salt Cay have grown up with the lore of the whales. When the whales breach just offshore—especially from Salt Cay where the school is just 300 feet (90 meters) from the beach—teachers let students out to witness this gift of nature bequeathed to them, a childhood memory of astonishment remembered well into adulthood.

Whaling today
Islands of the Eastern Caribbean—Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada—have all hunted whales at some time. Of these, the small island of Bequia, the northernmost island of the Grenadines, held on tightest to the tradition—from 1875 right up to the present. For most of the second half of the 20th century, whaler Athneal Ollivierre dominated the hunt, plunging hand harpoons into the whales just like they did in the 1800s. To help guide him, Islanders would run along a ridge flashing mirrors to signal the direction the whale was swimming. As once happened in Grand Turk and Salt Cay, the captured whale is even today brought to the shore and divided up among the community to great rejoicing.
Aboriginal peoples in Greenland, Siberia, and Alaska also hunt whales throwing hand-held harpoons as their ancestors did one or two thousand years ago, though now most use grenades on the harpoons to hasten the death. But these small whaling communities take very few whales and hardly threaten the population. Hence, the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) allowance for aboriginal whalers, that includes, interestingly, the whalers of Bequia (though not without skeptics questioning how “aboriginal” has been applied).
Far more important for the IWC is the protection of whales from larger scale whaling. Established in 1946, the IWC develops policies and agreements for whale conservation, but leaves for individual countries to adopt and enforce them, such as the US through the Endangered Species Act. Those efforts, however, are challenged and undercut by Japan, Norway, and Iceland who claim sustainable whaling as a cultural heritage. Recently, these nations increased the catch of minke whales once the IWC took them off the endangered list. Japan, in particular, has succeeded in getting an IWC exception to kill whales for “scientific” research and sell the meat for consumption.
To bolster its position, Japan has provided significant development aid to some Eastern Caribbean countries. The unstated quid-pro-quo? Become IWC members and vote in favor of Japanese government initiatives to allow limited whaling. For hard-pressed Caribbean island nations, including St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the choice between whales and a people sinking further into poverty becomes evident.
The sentiment to protect whales and the proclivity to kill them clashed openly in 2017, pitting well-heeled First World people against the hunters. After docking in St. Vincent, passengers from a Thompson Cruises ship signed up for a whale watching excursion off the coast. To their initial delight, they came across a pod of four orcas (also known as killer whales). As the whale watching boat approached, a fishing boat arrived and began harpooning and killing two of the whales in front of the horrified tourists who, along with their captain, screamed for them to stop, but to no avail.
Although the incident may put pressure on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, local pride and defiance of outsiders who try to tell them what to do may well prevail, at least for now. Proponents of limited whaling pose a provocative question: Why should whales, if not endangered, receive more protection from slaughter than other animals butchered on an industrial scale with hardly more humaneness? More to the point: Why do big brainy, anthropomorphic animals get spared, while the less attractive, dumb ones that don’t beguile us with wonder end up on our dinner plate without a second thought? Is this not cultural bigotry, they ask, by nations that once profited mightily from whales they hunted to the brink of extinction?

A place for whales
The debate over killing whales may soon become moot. As chemical pollutants in the ocean such as mercury, PCB and DDT “biomagnify” up the food chain to whales, these toxins get stored first in the fleshy whale blubber. Then, in times of stress when food is scarce, the blubber breaks down to provide an energy supply that in turn releases the toxins into the rest of the body, causing even greater toxic concentrations. When whale cows give birth, a significant portion of the toxins are passed on to the calf that can severely impact growth and development. According to OceanCare, an international organization dedicated to protecting marine wildlife, the mercury, PCB, and DDT levels exceed thresholds of safe consumption up to 5,000 times, making whale meat unsuitable for humans. Hunting whales for food, thus, becomes pointless.
Meanwhile, other elements of the modern world threaten whale populations globally. Drift nets entangle and kill whales along with other forms of marine life. Large ship engines disorient whales, whose hearing is their primary way of navigating the seas and communicating with other whales, thus interfering with their migration patterns. More ships on the high seas moving at greater speeds means more collisions that kill and maim whales in their path. Sonar testing by the US and other navies to improve detection of enemy submarines further exacerbates noise pollution with bursts up to 235 decibels that can cause whales to beach themselves. The US Navy has recently placed restrictions on time and place to test anti-submarine sonar, and Navy warships now broadcast messages to commercial ships with locations of whale sightings to reduce collisions. This reduces the killing but doesn’t stop it.
There is some good news amidst the despair. Humpback whales appear to be recovering in the Turks & Caicos Islands. The slight increase in numbers of humpbacks suggests that TCI continues to be a sought-after and viable habitat where whales can return year after year to calve and mate during the winter months.
Neither the humpback recovery nor TCI as a “destination” for these whales can be taken for granted, however. More cruise ship passengers and other tourists anxious for the “chance of a lifetime” to see and perhaps swim with these leviathans has resulted in a corresponding jump in whale watching boaters without proper training to approach whales. Too many boats up close put enormous stress on the humpbacks, particularly mother whales who have just given birth and need rest to conserve energy for the trek north.
The time has come for TCI to formally create a National Whale Sanctuary that protects and nurtures these astonishing humpbacks. Drawing on the experience of responsible whale watching operators and marine biologists, a sanctuary can become an unspoiled space where humans and cetaceans meet ever so gently. Not incidentally, limited, upscale whale tourism of this kind also produces substantial revenue. Few places on the planet can match TCI for the experience of being with whales who fill us with reverence and awe, as happened on Captain Kell’s boat, but only if we hold dear this fragile treasure that frequents our waters.

Ben Stubenberg (ben@caicunaniki.com) is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands with a passion for TCI history. An avid ocean man, he is the co-founder of the sports and adventure company Caicu Naniki and the annual Turks & Caicos “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim.

Special thanks to the Turks & Caicos National Museum Foundation, Oscar Talbot, and Tim Dunn for providing essential materials for this article.

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