WHITMAN – Considering that the whaling industry has been outlawed in the United States since 1941, whaling culture still has an impressive hold on us.
The blue, green and white logo of the erstwhile Hartford Whalers NHL team – now the Carolina Hurricanes – is still widely thought to be one of the best logos in sports. The H for Hartford sitting atop a stylized W for Whalers, both toped with cetacean flukes has always been eye-grabbing.
During the COVID lockdown of 2020, the stir-crazy global community became enthralled with a certain New Zealand whaling sea shanty, “The Wellerman,” which was written about a whaling supply ship owned by the Weller Brothers. Written in perhaps the mid-1800s – the Weller Brothers were bankrupt by the 1840s – the song relates how eagerly whaling ship crews looked forward to its ships’ visits bringing much sought-after sundries like tea, rum and perhaps letters from home.
What started as a single-voice work by Scottish tenor Nathan Evans, saw successive singers add bass, baritone and other vocal ranges as well as instruments – and the video blandishments of several popular memes.
People were bored and it was a catchy tune.
Whaling crew descendant, and New Bedford Whaling Museum docent Charles R. Chace brought a different taste of whaling’s hey day and decline to the Whitman Public Library on Saturday, Jan. 27 by way of a talk titled “Whales and Whaling History.”
“Ever since man has lived next to the seashore, they’ve been using whale products because whales die and wash ashore,” he said. “Then they learned how to hunt them a very long time ago.”
At first, that meant sending boats out after sick or dying whales close to shore and hunting them. By the time 20th-century factory ships were created, they were killing 50,000 to 60,000 whales a year, mainly to feed the post-WWII starving peoples of Europe.
A global moratorium on hunting was imposed in 1983. But Japan has since begun hunting again, Chace said.
Chace, whose grandfather Jonathan Chace and great uncle, Capt. Charles A. Chace of Westport, were both whalers, and whose great aunt had been a first mate on some of her husband’s voyages, combined tales of his family’s eexperiences with notes about whale biology and the demographic changes of whale crews to weave a story about some of the final years of whaling in America.
President of the Descendants of Whaling Masters, Chace was named for his great uncle, who spent 40 years making whaling voyages.
“I grew up listening to his stories and I learned some things about whaling from him,” Chace said, noting that his grandfather was the first member of the family to go whaling, followed by three brothers and his son, Charles. Chace’s great aunt Emily married Capt. Ed King and went to sea with him several times. Capt. Charles A. Chace’s wife Rachel went to sea as an assistant navigator on several voyages before they began their family.
Chace’s great uncle had also been a docent of the whaling museum before him.
Chace himself has developed a love for whales and has been a supporter of measures to protect them from the threats of the modern world and a changing environment. As an educational docent at the Whaling Museum, he has been trained to discuss the exhibits, the feeding, breeding and birthing of several whale species, and the equipment and methods used to hunt and process them. His talk was sponsored by the Friends of the Whitman Public Library.
“My grandfather died young, and he raised my father, [Stuart]” Chace said of the whaling captain for whom he was named. “He lived to be 93.” The elder Charles Chace died a month before he was invited to another instance of whaling in our culture, the debut of the movie adaptation of “Moby Dick,” starring Gregory Peck in 1956.
“Gregory Peck was going to pick him up and take him to the movie,” Chace recalled. Instead, he and his mother attended, sitting two seats behind Peck in the theater.
His talk focused on the differences between baleen and toothed whales, their ranges, eating habits and ways in which whale’s bodies helped them survive the ocean depths. He also discussed the mechanics of different types of harpoons.
Baleen whales swim along the surface, taking water in and then pushing the water back out through the baleen, licking small zooplankton caught in it, and swallowing. Baleen was used for women’s corsets, umbrella stays, buggy whips – many things that would be made of plastics today. Baleen sold for about 80 cents a pound in the 1850s.
Blue whales, humpbacks and fin whales, however, have lower-jaw skin that expands as they take in water expelling the water to sift out zooplankton as they breach.
Right whales, he noted, got their name because the now-highly endangered breed was considered the “right whale” to hunt.
“We’re trying hard to save them,” Chace said of the right whales, of which there are now only about 350 left. “They are slow swimmer, easy to catch and float after they die. Grey whales fight back – they called them devil-fish.”
Sperm whales, the largest toothed whales, live in harems and feed on the giant squid that live at depths of a mile and a half. They find their prey by sonar and swallow it whole, returning to the surface in stages because they are subject to the bends, as humans are.
To dive down there to begin with, sperm whales have a hyper-efficient bloodstream with a higher factor of hemoglobin than humans to help store oxygen. Their spines are also not directly connected to their ribs, allowing them to exhale before sounding, as their rib cage folds inward to protect their lungs.
Sperm whales are capable of sounding for more than an hour.
They were hunted for the spermaceti in their head, which is part of their sonar.
Chace offers more tales of whales and the whaling industry – including terrible food and living conditions of crews – visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum [whalingmuseum.org].