Whaling and whalers

20/03/2014 16:00

Written by David Sayers

Whaling boats in the Azores by Henner Damke ShutterstockWhaling boats in the Azores © Henner Damke, Shutterstock

In the Azores only sperm whales were hunted, the largest of the toothed whales, with males growing to 20m. First used for lamps and candle wax, sperm whale oil gave the brightest glow free of any disagreeable odour. Other uses over time included watch oil, and lubricants for delicate instruments, cosmetics, textiles (preventing fibres from unravelling when twisted into threads), an early equivalent of WD40, soap, jute, varnish, explosives and paint, and for margarine until the 1960s, when it was replaced with vegetable oils.

The first known organised commercial whaling was done in the Bay of Biscay by the Basques, who, from the 10th century, hunted migrating right whales (Eubaleana glacialis) that passed inshore. The whales were spied by lookouts onshore, and they were hunted from land-based small boats.

Six hundred years later the right whales had declined in number and the catches were small, so the Basques went cod fishing instead, in the Grand Bank area of Westfoundland, where they discovered large numbers of whales. These they hunted, as did the Dutch, British and Germans. From a larger ship small boats were used to approach the whales and harpoon them. The carcasses were then towed ashore, where the blubber was processed for eventual use as lighting oil, lubrication, soap and paint.

Within a century the whale numbers declined here as well so that the ships had to search further afield, and the blubber was processed on board. In the early 18th century, the American colonists began hunting whales, especially the sperm whale, near their shores. Soon they began to explore and profitably exploit more distant Atlantic waters and by 1765 reached the Azores, then known as the Western Islands Ground. The whaling here was so good they continued to visit in spite of the Spanish and French privateers and numerous pirates who infested the Azorean waters, and even when they were having to make three- or four-year-long voyages to the Indian and Pacific oceans and beyond to make the search profitable.

It soon became the practice for the American ships to recruit from the islands, where the local fishermen made outstanding boatmen. The British whalers out of Dundee and other towns on their way to the Greenland fisheries likewise called in at Orkney or Shetland to make up their crews. By the 1800s, American whalers were regularly calling at Horta for victuals and water, and also to tranship barrels of oil. This golden age of American whaling, when New Bedford was known as ‘the city that lit the world’, continued until the 1850s; whale oil was becoming unaffordable and the start of the American petroleum industry in 1859 producing kerosene for lighting soon began to replace it.

At the same time, the American Civil War, beginning in 1861, played havoc with the whaling fleet, Confederacy ships capturing or destroying many of the vessels, frequently off the Azores. The year 1927 saw the last of the American whalers out of New Bedford.

The Azoreans, so long accustomed to small boats from childhood, excelled in the jobs of lookouts, boatmen and harpooners in the small boats lowered to hunt and kill the whales, and in time could be found as a majority of the crew; some became officers and captains.

Yet it was a desperately arduous life with often poor food and conditions, low pay, and increasingly long voyages. It was, however, an escape from compulsory military service, and between voyages they could settle in New England and send money home to dependants in the islands.

Sperm whaling far off the Brazil coast began in the late 1700s, funded from mainland Portugal, and there were other schemes tried off the coast of Mozambique and the Cape Verdes. In 1840, subsidised voyages went as far as New Zealand, but Portugal never established a deep-sea industry.

There were attempts to fit out whale ships in the Azores, but there was never much capital available in the islands and the maintenance costs made little economic sense against the by now increasing and successful shore whaling.

It is not certain when shore whaling began in the Azores. Previously, an occasional whale had been taken, but it was not soundly established until the 1850s, in Faial, coinciding with the demise of the American fleets. It soon spread to Pico and by the end of the 19th century this island was catching the most whales, and did so until the end of the practice. The advent of shore whaling also coincided with the failure of the wine industry which so badly affected Pico, and this was the probable stimulus.

Pico established several whaling companies, all competing with each other, and obtained concessions from other islands to whale so that, by 1908, there were whale boats in Terceira, Graciosa and Faial. Flores and São Miguel began whaling a couple of decades after Pico, the latter with its whale station and try-works at Capelas, which benefited from the greater number of whales that passed its shores than those of the Central and Western groups.

Corvo, with its dangerous coastline a major disadvantage for whaling, caught few whales and these were mostly taken to Flores for processing (working-up). Santa Maria was also whaling, but it lapsed in the 20th century, only to be revived just before World War II, with the highest catch per boat of all the islands, while São Jorge became as active as Faial during the first 40 years of the 20th century.

The crew had a captain, the mestre, who was helmsman, and a trancado or harpooner, who was also the first oarsman and occupied the bow of the boat. The five oarsmen completing the crew sat between the captain and the harpooner. It was an exceedingly dangerous occupation, going far out to sea in a small open boat and then closing to kill the huge animal, first with the harpoon and then with lances.

This meant risking disaster from the great flukes or, less likely but very possible, to be upturned by an unexpected rising of the whale below the keel or for an angry animal to try to bite the boat. Between as many as ten and 30 smashed boats each year have been reported from one whaling station alone. Lookouts or vigias were positioned on vantage points around the coast and each arc of search overlapped to thoroughly watch the sea to a distance of 30 or 35 miles, from dawn to late afternoon throughout the year.

Records indicate the best time was around 06.00. On sighting a blow a rocket was fired from the vigia to let the whalemen know to launch their boats, and also a white flag. If a kill was made, the flag was flown at half-mast to warn the try-works to get ready for processing. The boats would sail or row out, in later years to be towed out by motor launch, guided by large sheets laid out on the cliffs or by radio telephone.

Once the whale felt the harpoon it went away very fast or dived, taking out line at a rapid rate; friction could set it on fire, so water was poured over it. Sails and mast had to be rapidly lowered while taking care to stay clear of the running line down the middle of the boat between each man’s rowing position; not to do so could result in the loss of a leg or worse. Once several hundred feet of line had been taken out and the pace began to slacken, the line would be fixed to the loggerhead, a post at the back of the boat.

With the line fixed, the whale would feel the drag and take off again to tow the whalers at around 25–30km/h, often called the ‘Nantucket sleigh ride’, which was another dangerous period because the whale could veer or double back and capsize the boat. When the whale tired, rope was taken in, but let out if the whale surged again. Since a whale in one breath can exchange 85–90% of air, an objective was to break the animal’s breathing pattern to prevent it from diving deeply. Eventually the whale tired sufficiently for the boat to close, when lances were used for the kill.

The most important modern innovation was the gradual introduction from 1909 of motorised tow-boats, enabling several boats to be rapidly towed to the whale regardless of unfavourable winds once it was sighted by the lookouts; this greatly extended their range. The engine noise would have scared off the whales, so the last mile was covered by sail, oars and finally by paddle to within harpooning range. Among other advantages, it enabled longer chases without becoming benighted at sea and in possibly deteriorating weather; it also offered support in case of an emergency such as if a whale boat was smashed by the whale. Finally, it towed the dead whales back to shore, a backbreaking task formerly done by the whaling boat under oars.

Although harpoon guns and exploding lances were used to hunt whales, the Azorean whalemen stayed with the hand harpoon and lance. Similarly, processing or saving of the dead whale changed little; first the whale was cut in, meaning the blubber was cut up or flensed with the animal either beached, or tied alongside a jetty using cutting-spades, ropes and at most a hand capstan. With the blubber and spermaceti removed, these were then tried out, by being placed into try-pots or iron cauldrons to melt and reduce over a basalt oven to make sperm oil and ‘head oil’.

The carcass, with its meat and bone, was simply towed back out to sea and abandoned. It was not until 1934 that sufficient capital became available to invest in modern processing equipment using powered winches and pressure cookers when the whole animal was utilised. Just after World War II radio-telephones were first used for communication between the lookouts and the motor tow-boats, purchased from the US military, who sold off the stock very cheaply.

In the Azores the owners of a whalery might take half the profits, with the balance shared between the whalemen. Importantly, income was supplemented from small-scale farming, ie: some crops, one or two animals, some fishing. The whale boats or canoas were American to begin with, and 1894 saw the first one built in the Azores, on Pico. The Azores design evolved to be longer, accommodating a seventh, extra crew, to have larger sails and other technical differences.

As with so many island enterprises, the commercial success of whaling suffered market vicissitudes beyond the control of the islanders. New substitute products, prices, and in the late 1940s the big Antarctic sperm whale catches, impacted upon Azorean sales, but markets during the two world wars and the Korean War saw high demand. In 1935, 99 sperm whales were taken, and in 1969, 263 was the last of the peak catches. In terms of world totals, the Azorean catches made little impact, but depleted stocks are part of the history of whaling and some species were driven almost to extinction – annual catches in the 1930s were over 40,000 whales – and the Washington Convention of 1946 was an attempt to regulate whaling.

As the century continued the numbers allowed to be caught were reduced substantially, but economics, declining stocks, falling prices and the ready availability of substitutes caused nations to abandon whaling. By 1954, Azorean whaling was seen as a relic industry. The factory on São Miguel closed in 1972, and whaling ceased in the Eastern Group of islands. The International Whaling Commission in 1982 agreed zero commercial quotas, but Norway and Japan, and now Iceland, continue.

Whale hunting in the Azores became a very minor affair, and had ceased altogether by the mid-1980s. I remember standing on the quay at Lajes on Pico watching in the shallows a huge jawbone slowly being grazed by sea creatures; it must have belonged to one of the very last whales to be caught.

Today, the annual whaleman’s festival, Festa dos baleeiros, continues to be held on the first Sunday in August in the tiny church on Monte da Guia, above Porto Pim in Horta. In Lajes do Pico there is also a whaler’s festival, and still some of the old whaling villages beautifully maintain old canoas and sometimes even commission new ones, especially for sailing races. There is an annual regatta, when opportunities are given for people to sail in a whale boat.

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Interested in finding out more about the Azores? Speak to our friends at Sunvil, and check out our guide to the islands: 

Azores 6 Bradt Travel Guides by David Sayers and Murray StewartSunvil logo

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