Whaling, Whale Ships, and Whale Boats

Information about the whale ship Daisy here.

Information about the diorama of Daisy here.

Information about the whale boat diorama here

The golden age of American Whaling might be roughly from the mid 1800s until about 1900, and ended in 1921, when the Charles W. Morgan returned to New Bedford, Massachusetts, from her final whaling voyage. There were whaling ships setting out from New England ports before the American Revolution, and they were targets for the British Navy, which pretty much decimated the whaling fleet.

The industry recovered but again was a target of war ships during the Napoleonic Wars (the War of 1812 in the U.S.). The American 12 pounder frigate, Essex, was particularly famous for preying upon the British whaling fleet in the Pacific. It was such a problem, that the British sent a squadron of Royal Navy ships to capture or sink her. They captured her in 1814 and took her into the Royal Navy as HMS Essex, where she served until sold off in 1837. That story of the Essex and the British pursuit of her was the basis for Patric O'Brien's book, The Far Side of the World, in which his frigate Surprise was sent to find and capture or destroy a French vessel preying on the British whalers in the Pacific. That O'Brien book was first published in 1984, when the author was just beginning to find a large American readership for his books, so the nationality of the raider was changed from American to French.

I had earlier build a model of the Essex, so knew of her exploits and end. I was also interested in whaling and had several books on the subject, a couple of which contained many photos of whale ships in the first years of the 20th century, when the industry was in serious decline and many famous ships were at the end of their careers, but interest in documenting the industry and development of photography combined in a splendid record of the last days of whaling. Whaling declined for several reasons, not only the competition from petroleum based products, but also the advent of new techniques, such as factory ships or land based processing plants, explosive harpoons, and ships powered by steam or oil fired engines. Those factors, plus the collapse of the populations of most of the whales being hunted resulted in commercial whaling becoming less and less profitable.

During that golden age of whaling, the sailing ships used for whaling varied in size, rig, and configuration. Mostly, the design, building, equipping, and manning the ships focused on keeping costs low. The ships used as whalers needed few crewmen to operate them. But the old fashioned ways of actually killing the whales required many men. Whale ships carried from three to six whale boats and each whale boat required a crew of six or seven men. So despite improvement in the rigging and equipping of the whale ship, the failure to improve and modernize the capture of the whale itself kept the size of the crew large and costs high.

Although the industry was hugely profitable for the owners of vessels, who rarely set foot on them, it was, for most seamen, a terribly dangerous and unrewarding way to make a living. Men who worked on whale ships were not paid a salary, but received shares in the net profits of a voyage, if any, at the end of their service, after all costs had been deducted. And costs included things like the clothing and other items the crew purchased on credit from the ship's store during the voyage. Voyages when hunting sperm whales in the Pacific were typically two years in duration.

The business of killing and processing whales for the oil extracted from their blubber, the bones of their remarkable baleen filters,and their teeth was brutally inefficient but still resulted in the near extermination of many of the major species hunted by the whalers. The decimation of the whale populations was less about the efficiency of the hunt, unlike today, but more about how many whale ships operated during that period. A typical whaling voyage would be expected to bring home the oil and other products of processing a minimum of fifty whales.

The American whaling industry was huge. Over ten thousand seamen manned whale ships in the early 1800s, including more than 3,000 African American seamen. There were also many other men of African ancestory working in the industry, some of whom had come from the Cape Verde Islands a place with a long history of whale hunting. At first, American whalers concentrated on right whales and humpbacks, which were found near the northern American coast, but as these populations declined and the market for whale products grew, American whalers began hunting sperm whales, which required longer voyages. At first, they hunted further and further out into the South Atlantic, but competition from the British whaling fleet soon resulted in hunting in the Pacific. For such longer and more dangerous voyages, larger whale ships were built and the number of whale boats carried by each increased along with the number of crewmen.

The sperm whale was not only valued for its blubber, which was boiled to extract oil from it, but also for for spermaceti, a dense waxy substance that burns with an exceedingly bright light that is found in the spermaceti organ, of unknown function even today, located forward and above the skull. The oil from spermaceti was particulary fine and used for the best, brightest oil lamps as well as for fine lubrication, such as lubricating watches.

Whale oil extracted from blubber was essential for illuminating homes and businesses in the 19th century and was the lubricant for the machines of the early Industrial Revolution. The first commercial petroleum wells were drilled in 1859 in Pennsylvania and oil was discovered in California in 1870. The Spindletop oil field in Texas was opened in 1900. It took some years for the refining of petroleum to result in products, such as kerosene, that would displace the use of whale oil for lighting and later, for lubrication.

Baleen, or whalebone, is the name for the long comb-like structure made of keratin strips that hang from the top of the mouth of whales which are filter feeders. These whales included the right whales, humpback whales, blue whales and about a dozen other species. Baleen was also harvested from whales as it had multiple commercial uses, most notably as corset stays in women's undergarments of the day.

Sperm whales are not filter feeders, they are straight forward carnivores believed to feed mostly on squid. Sperm whales have jaws with a set of teeth in the lower jaw, which fit into sockets in the upper jaw. These teeth were also harvested as a form of ivory, commonly used by the crew to decorative scrimshaw carvings or small household implements for family at home. It was also used commercially as ivory in the jewelry industry.

In Massachusetts, Nantucket island and New Bedford were whaling centers.

Nantucket began whaling in 1690. Early on, the islanders went out in row boats to kill the whales and brought them back to shore to process the blubber into oil, a system they continued into the early 1800s. Later, of course, as voyages got longer and ships got larger, Nantucket whalers converted to on-board processing of the whales on the larger vessels.

Nantucket had at first the advantage of being closer to the Atlantic migratory routes of whales, but as whaling moved further off shore and at further distances, the advantage disappeared and New Bedford became the larger whaling center. Then New Bedford gained the advantage when a rail line was extended to it in 1840.

With the New England connection, several reference books on hand already, and my interest in dioramas, a whaling ship model seemed a good next project during the COVID pandemic's second year.

And then I happened upon the book Logbook for Grace, a journal of a two year whaling journey to the Antarctic in 1912-13 written by Robert Cushman Murphy a naturalist on that voyage as a series of letters home to his new wife, Grace. The book was a combination of the romance of the voyage and of the two newly-weds and the brutality and risks of the sailing ship and the whale hunt. It had been published in 1947.

In the book, Murphy talks often of his photography. He took along cameras and made and processed glass plate negatives on the trip to document his findings about the sea birds and other acquatic life in Antarctica. But he also documented life aboard the whaler and details of the whale hunt and of whale processing.

With minimal research I learned that Murphy had written and published a second book, a photo essay about the voyage including many of his photographs titled A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat, published in 1967. Murphy (1887-1973) had gone on to become head of the Ornithology department of the American Museum of Natural History and had a long career as a naturalist, known primarily as an ornithologist.

The Hermaphrodite Brig Whaleship Daisy

Daisy was built in 1872 by Nehemiah Hand and Son in Setauket Harbor, Long Island, New York, for William Swan and Sons (later John Swan and Son) of New York City for the Caribbean fruit trade. She was a profitable merchant ship and known for her speed. In 1907, Daisy was purchased by a consortium of investors in New Bedford, headed by Captain Benjamin Cleveland, for conversion to a whaling ship. During the conversion, Daisy kept her original rig, a hermaphrodite brig, but the crew quarters were enlarged and the various equipment used in whaling added. She carried davits for five whaleboats and wisker-booms at the stern for a spare whaleboat. Her crew increased from perhaps 8 to 10 men to 34 to 38 men. To my knowledge, there are no existing plans for Daisy as a whale ship, although her appearance is partially documented in photographs taken during a 1912-13 voyage to South Georgia Island by Robert Cushman Murphy, who sailed aboard her to document the marine and island birds of the Antarctic on behalf of the American Natural History Museum. It was Murphy's documentation of that voyage and of life aboard an American whaler in the last days of the industry that interested me in Daisy. The slide presentation below gives some additional information on the development of plans for Daisy as well as more information on the ship, Murphy, and Captain Benjamin Cleveland. It also shows construction of the model. If interested in the background for the model and how it was constructed, please scroll through the slides.

If you wish a copy of the full set of plans, the detail drawings of furniture, equipment, rigging and so forth, and the builders' notebook, these are available as a set from Taubman Plans, now a part of the Loyalhanna Boatyard. Most of the available plans are on-line, but for Daisy plans, you will need to email them directly to ask about availability and price.

Slide presentation on building the Daisy whale ship model

Whale Hunting and Harvesting on the Daisy

The following photos are of the completed model/diorama. One goal of building the model as a diorama was, in part, to document the processes involved in the whale hunt. In simplest terms, the work of producing whale oil, after arriving on the hunting grounds and before sailing home, happened in three stages.

Whale hunting was the first stage, during which whales were located and killed by the crews of the whale boats, 6 men each in four whaleboats, in Daisy's case leaving 10 men aboard for ship-handling. If five boats were deployed, the total crew was larger - up to 38 men - to crew the five boats and leave eight on the mother ship to crew her. During the 1912-13 voyage, when Murphy was carried, one set of whaleboat davits carried Murphy's little dory, which he used to explore islands or on the open water when documenting the marine and shore birds on the trip. The diorama is of that voyage, so Murphy's dory (and Murphy) are included.

If the hunt was successful, the dead whales were towed back from the killing field and brought alongside the whale ship by the whaleboats and were secured by chains to the larger ship for before starting the second stage.

Cutting in was the second stage, when one whale at a time was brought along the starboard side of the whale ship and secured by a chain around its tail, just forward of the flukes. The chain passed through metal lined hawse pipes onto the main deck, just aft of the break of the forecastle, and secured to large bitts forward of the foremast. This allowed the whale carcass to rotate or spin as it was stripped of its blubber layer by removing it in a continuous spiral strip. Removing the blubber is described in more detail below.

The third stage was called trying out and was the cooking or boiling of blubber pieces to release the oil in them. The oil was then cooled in tanks on deck and later transferred to large wooden casks stowed below for the return voyage.

These three stages generally occurred on different, subsequent, days. Sometimes a day or so elapsed between on step and the next, and sometimes one stage took several days, as when there were many whales to process. Daisy, in her career, processed as many as seven whales at one time. While awaiting the cuttting in, the additional whales to be processed were towed along the port side, chained together in a line. Under these circumstances, they made a feast for the many sharks that accompanied the ship and the sea around the vessel became a roiling bloody mess.

I modeled the Daisy during cutting in as a diorama, and built the model in 1:64 scale. I had just finished a separate diorama of the whale hunt incorporating a model of a Daisy whaleboat in 1:16 scale from the Eric Ronnberg Model Shipways kit and it had been a great source of additional information about the boats and equipment used in the hunt. The diorama showed the harpooning of a sperm whale, actually the placing of a second, back up harpoon, into the whale before the crew frantically rowed to a safe distance. Photos of that model are here.

Following is a discription on how the cutting in was done on an American whale ship of that era. American whaling practices did not change much during the time that the industry operated in this country. By the time of the Daisy's 1912 voyage, other nations had moved ahead adopting more modern methods of hunting, killing, and processing whales, including on-shore processing of whales hunted and killed by specialized, faster, small ships using harpoon guns and explosive harpoons. But not the Americans.

A whale ship had several special features peculiar to the work of the vessel. On the starboard side, in the waist, a whale ship had a special removable section of bulwark which gave access to a cutting staging. The cutting stage was fastened with hinges to the side of the vessel and lowered to just above the waterline so the men standing on the stage were just above the carcass of the whale to be harvested. Whale ships also has additional hawse holes through which passed the chains securing whales aong side. Some ships had two hawse holes forward and one aft on the starboard side and some had additional hawse holes on the port side to secure additional whales awaiting cutting in. Photos of the Daisy show only hawse holes forward on the starboard side. For the cutting in, the whale carcass was chained by the tail flukes and positioned so that the head of the animal was just below the cutting stage.

The crew on the stage first used sharp spades to cut through the whale skin and blubber layer, down to the muscle layer. Then they cut one or two holes in the blubber and skin and fastened hooks and toggles on chains through the holes and passed the chains up to a massive, specialized tackle which hung on a huge and long pendant from the top of the main mast, at the doubling. The falls from the blubber tackles (there were two) passed through large blocks on port and starboard side near the foremast to each side of the windlass at the forecastle. Crew working the windlass used the tackle to raise the blubber up as the crew on the stage used their spades to cut it free.

The blubber hook and toggle inserted into the blubber being stripped away from the whale.

cutting tackle hook and toggle

Once the tackle had reached the limits of its travel upwards, an officer used a boarding knife to cut two new holes in the strip of blubber so the crew could secure the second tackle's blubber hook and toggle to it. Then the office used the boarding knife to slice the blubber strip free, just above the new tackle location. The blubber strip, weighing thousands of pounds, swung free and was lowered to the deck by the first tackle (starboard windlass) while the second tackle (port windlass) resumed the removal of the blubber from the whale's body.

Pictures below show the massive blocks of the cutting tackle and the hauling end of the tackle passing to each side of the foremast through large viol blocks to the separate sides of the windlass. This arrangement allowed each of the two cutting tackles with the attached chains, hooks, and toggles, to be operated independently as described above.

the cutting tackle

tackle hauling lines through blocks to windlass

These huge pieces of blubber were called blanket pieces and once on deck the crew used spades to cut a blanket piece into smaller pieces for stowing below deck in the blubber parlor of the main hold.

When the carcass was flensed completely and all blubber removed, the head of the whale was removed. In the case of right whales, the whale bone or baleen was removed and cleaned and transported back to port with the oil. Whale bone corset stays were, for example, made from the fine bones of the baleen (filter) the whales used to feed. In the case of sperm whales, the jaw was removed to recover the teeth, also in demand for such things as scrimshaw or other uses for the ivory. In addition, the entire head of the sperm whale was harvested. The crew cut away the upper forward part of the head to get to the spermaceti, a waxy substance encased deep in the head, which yielded a particularly high quality oil and was processed separately from the blubber. This oil, for example, was used in watches. If the dead sperm whale was a small one, the head was brought on board with the blubber tackle and harvested there. If the whale was large, the head would be harvested by men working on the stage as the head was too heavy to bring aboard. The head of a sperm whale was about one third the total length its body.

Once the blubber and head had been harvested, the carcass of the whale was simply unfastened and allowed to drift free, food for the sharks and scavengers of the deep.

Later, usually the next day, after all the blubber was on board and the try works set up the boiling began. Blubber on deck or retrieved from the blubber parlor was further cut up into pieces 1 – 2 feet square. These pieces were then sliced part way through, leaving skin intact, by crew using special knives, working on makeshift tables set up on barrels. This cutting of the blubber into thin slices exposed more of it and facilitated the cooking out of the oil in the blubber. These pieces were called bibles for their resemblance to a large, open book with many pages. The bibles then went into the large iron cauldrons over the fireboxes and boiled free of their oil.

When the bibles had given up their oil, they were fished out of the oil and set aside to be used as fuel for the fireboxes heating the cauldrons. This burning of the spent bible pieces generated the dense black smoke for which whalers were known and by which they were recognized. There is a scene in the movie Master and Commander in which the HMS Surprise lures the French raider to her by masquerading as a whaler, attracting the enemy ship by generating dense black smoke as if trying out a whale. Crews generally rigged a smoke sail over the chimneys of the tryworks to deflect the greasy black smoke from the ships sails and other equipment.

Plenty more information about the processing of whales can be found in the sources cited in the presentation.

Here are the pictures of the Daisy diorama:

The model is about 33 inches long overall, with the hull being 22 inches long, 6 inches wide, and about 33 inches tall, from the surface of the water to the top of the main mast.

On the starboard side the cutting stage is shown lowered, the bulwark section removed, and the cutting tackle is pulling up the third piece of blubber being removed from a small (fifty feet long) sperm whale alongside the vessel. You can see the men on the stage using their spades to help free the blubber strip being hoisted up by the tackle.

On the deck, other crew men are cutting the large piece of blubber into smaller pieces that can be handled easier and sliding the smaller pieces into the main hatch.

the cutting stage

The whaleboat diorama based on the photograph

Another photo, from the port side, showing crew, in the waist of the ship using spades to cut up the previous blanket piece. on deck into pieces small enough to be man-handled Others are uing blubber forks to slide the smaller pieces through the main hatch to the blubber parlor where several other men are cutting it further and stowing it until it is time to try it out. The deck at this stage was a slippery, oily, wet and bloody mess.

cutting the blanket piece on deck

At the same time, the cooper is busy on the quarterdeck sharpening more spades, several crewmen are finishing up unloading the equipment from the whaleboats, just returned from the hunt, and stowed on their davits. The first picture below shows an overview of the quarterdeck. The wheel is lashed. The whaleboats are on their davits and being emptied of equipment. Whaleboats were remarkably sturdy for being so lightly constructed as they were placed into and hauled out of the water with the crew and all equipment aboard.

In the first picture also, the cooper and his assistant are sharpening spades. The lid of the spade box had been removed and stowed temporarily on the cabin roof. The spade box was mounted on deck on the starboard side of the quarterdeck and stored many cutting spades with handles of differing length depending on how they were to be used. The length varied from about five feet to nearly twenty feet. The shorter lengths were used on the whaleboats and for cutting blubber on deck and the longer lengths used on the cutting stage.

Murphy is also on the quarterdeck, taking pictures with his Graflex camera. His dory is stowed on the forward starboard whaleboat davits, just forward the cutting stage.

The last two pictures in this group show a whale boat and its equipment and a shot of the boat equipment being unloaded and placed atop the cabin roof. Ready for the next hunt. For the model, I made five whaleboats with full sets of equipment. Four were mounted on the davits and one spare on the whisker booms.

view of quarterdeck and cooper

Murphy's dory on davits

Murphy with camera

Murphy with camera

one of the four whale boats with equipment

The quarterdeck cabin with boat equipment on the roof

While on the t'gallant forecastle, other crew are working the rocker to drive the windlass, and others are holding tension on the hauling end, starboard, as the blubber rises. Blubber is a very complex structure, and very tough. It is not the simple layer of fat in popular understanding, but dense connective and vascular tissue with tendons and ligaments and is securely attached to the deeper musculature layer. The fatty tissue is encapsulated by the connective tissue. A whale ship needed to be careful when pulling free the blubber, as it would be possible to exert so much force trying to tear away the blubber that it was possible to drive the base of the main mast through the keel or to otherwise damage the hull by springing open the seams of the planking without the blubber tearing or giving way. Blubber is that strong.

crew on forecastle working the winch

crew on forecastle

Some final shots of the overall model diorama.

portside view

port side boats

starboard side

starboard side overview

Daisy from astern

Daisy transom homeward bound

Whaleboat Diorama

As part of modeling the whaling brig Daisy, I built a related model of a whaleboat. This model is the only one I have built from a kit in many years. The kit is of a New Bedford whaleboat by Model Shipways, in 1:16 scale. It has been in my storage for perhaps a decade and as part of downsizing, I decided to use it for my whaling series instead of giving it away.

The kit was built pretty much out of the box, with some modifications based on photographs of the actual Daisy whaleboats from the 1912-13 voyage, and hand-fabrication of most of the metal work instead of using the metal supplied. I also made up some rope to use for the whale-line and other smaller ropes for the boat instead of using the materials supplied.

Once the model was together, I made a six-member crew for it out of polymer clay and modeled them, and the boat, at the time the harpooner was planting a second, back up, harpoon into a small sperm whale, with the first harpoon already in place.

Harpoons were planted rather than thrown. A harpooner expected his boat crew to run the boat right up upon the back of a sleeping whale so he could drive the harpoon straight down through the skin into the dense blubber or even the musculature so it would be securely anchored. Whenever possible, the harpooner also quickly planted a second harpoon secured to the same heavy line as the first. If one harpoon worked loose, the second would hold, or so the thinking went.

The diorama has a plywood base 24 inches x 34 inches edged with two inch wide pine stock. The whale was built using plank-on-bulkhead method of cardboard formers and papier Mache strips. I used waterproof glue and once the basic shape was dry, I coated it with some slow-drying patching plaster, detailed that a bit more, and when dry, painted and varnished it so it looked wet. The finished whale was then positioned close to one edge and glued to the base.

The plywood base is painted with matt finish acrylic paints in shades of dark gray, black, and multiple shades of green and blue to represent the colors of deeper water.

One eighth inch thick acrylic sheet topped the base with cut outs for the whale, the boat, and individual oars.

Once I got the boat positioned to my satisfaction I used quick setting epoxy adhesive to secure the boat to the acrylic and the acrylic to the whale. Once the acrylic sheet was screwed down to the top of the edges of the base, the surface of the acrylic sheet was textured to resemble white water and small wavelets. I used multiple layers of epoxy adhesive and pouring epoxy and clear kitchen plastic wrap to make wavelets and white water. The goal was to make the water appear as it might when the boat was operating in the midst of a pod of surfacing whales, when the harpooned whale is starting wake to the danger and will soon sound, and the oarsmen are backing water to make a quick exit to avoid the flukes of the sounding whale.

First is a photo of the book used as a reference for the model showing a whale boat returning to the mother ship, towing a whale, which was the inspiration for the diorama, then a photo of the model diorama.

cover of A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat

The whaleboat diorama based on the photograph

Following are some photos of the finished diorama, then some of the figures made from polymer clay, before painting, and a shot of the whale line as supplied and the tighter twisted rope I made up and used, made from 100% cotton.

The boatsteerer was the boss of the boat crew, with the exception that, after he had brought the boat up on the back of a whale, the harpooner, who also was the first oarsman, was in charge until the harpoons were set. As mentioned above, a harpooner did not throw a harpoon, but set it with a vigorous downward thrust leaning directly over the whale. Once the animal was harpooned, the boatsteerer was again in charge and the harpooner returned to his rowing position as the boat frantically tried to get out of the way of the flukes of the whale as the animal dove to deeper water. The harpooned whale often swam long distances at great speed and the whale boat crew let out great distances of the line connected to the harpoon. Each boat carried 500 fathoms of line and the line passed around a log like bitt at the stern of the boat which added drag to the line through friction. The crew used a bailing tool to pour water on the line which sometimes would smoke from the friction. This line passed forward from the stern bitt between the crew members to a sheave in the stem of the boat. The boat would be towed along by the fleeing whale in what was called a Nantucket Sleigh Ride.

the whaleboat

The boatsteerer / captain

As mentioned earlier, in this diorama, the harpooner, in the red cap, is planting the second or back up harpoon. Since the planting of the first harpoon would have awakened the sleeping whale who would be expected to dive immediately, the harpooner needed to move quickly to get two harpoons into the animal before the dive. On many occasions, only one harpoon was planted. In some cases, the harpooner failed to get the harpoon planted or the harpoon pulled free as the animal dove.


The boat crew after modeling and before painting. A trial insertion into the boat to be sure all fits and the men are holding the oars properly. The boat equipment is also stowed, again to make sure it all fits. There was no extra space aboard a whale boat. In addition to all the hunting equipment, a boat also carried flags on staffs to mark a dead whale as their property if the boat set off after a second whale, drinking water and some food for the crew, a lantern for nighttime operations, cutting spades, baling buckets and sundry other things. And a crew of six.

The crew is made of heat setting polymer clay over a steel wire armature. In this photo you can also see the multiple harpoons a whale boat carried. Some are already stored along the starboard side. There are two harpoons lying athwart the gunwales. One to be held by the harpooner figure and the second already planted in the whale.

the crew

This photo shows the whale line as supplied in the kit (above) and the line I made up out of cotton using my rope machine. Whale line was a specialized product made of tightly spun Manilla hemp and lightly tarred. It was three-stranded, less than an inch in diameter and remarkably strong.

two whalelines