With the advent of spring, large schools of whales make their appearance in the Arctic, forcing their way under the floes and through the leads in the ice, bound to the northward.
They follow the ice along the shores of Alaska to Point Barrow, and then turn to the eastward along the northern shore, where it is supposed they find good breeding-grounds. Late in the fall, they come back, and go south again along the shore of Siberia. (USCG)
In 1848, Yankee whalers first entered the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea. The ensuing 66-years of commercial whaling in the western Arctic had a profound impact on the history and culture of the region and Hawaiʻi. (Barr)
The central location of the Hawaiian Islands between America and Japan brought many whaling ships to the Islands. Whalers needed food and the islands supplied this need from its fertile lands.
Whalers’ aversion to the traditional Hawaiian diet of fish and poi spurred new trends in farming and ranching. The sailors wanted fresh vegetables and the native Hawaiians turned the temperate uplands into vast truck farms.
There was a demand for fresh fruit, cattle, white potatoes and sugar. Hawaiians began growing a wider variety of crops to supply the ships.
In Hawaiʻi, several hundred whaling ships might call in season, each with 20 to 30 men aboard and each desiring to resupply with enough food for another tour. The whaling industry was the mainstay of the island economy for about 40 years.
The fleet of whaling-vessels reach Point Barrow during the first part of August. They then follow the whales eastward, as far as and sometimes farther than the mouth of the Mackenzie River. It is along here they make their greatest catch.
But they must not remain too long in the season, and the whaling captains generally look at leaving by the middle of September, in order to return to Point Barrow, before the last part of that month.
From there they work their way over to the westward, pursuing their whaling south along the coast of Siberia, and finally come out through the Bering Strait not later than the middle of October. (USCG)
Hardly a season passed that one or two whaling ships were not trapped or wrecked by the arctic ice pack; more than 160 whaling ships were lost. (Barr)
In August 1871, 41-whaling ships from Hawaiʻi, New England and California came to the icy waters of the Arctic in the pursuit of the bowhead whale. The pack ice was close to shore that year and left little room for maneuvering of the fleet.
The whaling captains counted on a wind shift from the east to drive the pack out to sea as it had always done in years past. Instead of moving offshore, the ice pack suddenly and unexpectedly trapped 32-ships between ice and shore. (NOAA)
The ice blocked their passage south. In the storm, they abandoned ship; 1,200-crew set out in small whale boats to make their way across 60-miles of water to safety. (Alaska History)
Of all the ships abandoned to the Arctic winter of 1871, only one ever sailed again. They ships included:
Awashonks, Carlotta, Champion, Comet, Concordia, Contest, Elizabeth Swift, Emily Morgan, Eugenia, Fanny, Florida II, Gay Head, George, George Howland, Henry Taber, J D Thompson, John Wells, Julian, Kohola, Mary, Massachusetts, Minerva (recovered later,) Monticello, Navy, Oliver Crocker, Paiea, Reindeer, Roman, Seneca, Thomas Dickason, Victoria, William Rotch
The stranded vessels were spread out in a line ranging more than sixty-miles south from Point Franklin. The whaleboats had to be dragged by hand over the pressure ridges of ice to the lead edge where they could be sailed in the little open water remaining.
Many times the way was blocked by ice closing the leads and the boats had to be hauled again to open water. Waiting to the south, free of the pack ice, were the remaining seven ships of the fleet.
The boats reached the rescue fleet safely without the loss of a single life. The overcrowded ships then made their way uneventfully to Hawaiʻi. Although whaling in the Arctic did continue for a number of years, the industry never recovered from this disaster. (Allen)
The economic blow to the whaling industry was staggering. Loss of the ships and cargoes was estimated at a value of $1.6-million ($22.5-million in 2000 dollars.)
Interestingly, however, few of these ships were replaced in the fleet, and most of the insurance paid to the whaling companies was reportedly invested in other industries, evidence of the beginning of the end of American whaling. (NOAA)
Although the whale-oil industry has a long history, whaling was already in decline. The petroleum industry displaced it during a relatively short time. In 1859, an oil well was discovered and developed in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
The discovery of petroleum, a new method of refining crude oil into kerosene and the invention of a lamp to burn the new kerosene product enabled petroleum to replace whale oil as a preferred means of lighting.
Kerosene also had a longer shelf life and less objectionable odor than whale oil, and people did what people generally do when they find a better product; they bought it.
In addition to the discovery of oil and the development of processes and products to use it, the whale-oil industry experienced a sharp reduction of whaling ships through two relatively large-scale events.
The Civil War, like the wars before, was very bad for the whaling fleet. Confederate cruisers like the Shenandoah, the Alabama and the Florida destroyed more than 50 Yankee whalers.
In addition, New Bedford contributed 37 old whaling ships to the war effort in the form of the “Stone Fleet.” These vessels were filled with rocks and sunk at the mouths of Southern harbors in an attempt to block shipping. (Whaling Museum)
Decade by decade, the value of whale oil dwindled, fewer ships were sent to sea, fewer men signed on, fewer fortunes were made and fewer livelihoods depended on American whaling prowess.
The losses in 1871 contributed to the decline. Fewer ships meant fewer whaling expeditions and less oil. (Ferguson) Whaling in Hawaiʻi soon came to an end.
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William L. Marciel says
Thank you for this very interesting post. My great grand father was a whaler from the Azores. He landed in Honolulu on the whaling vessel Kahala (actually Kohola) in April 1865. From there he moved to Maui, I am one of many of his descendants. Aloha and Malama Pono.