British Arctic Whaling

Encyclopaedia and Glossary

Encyclopaedia and Glossary


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Aberdeen, whaling from.


Admiralty. In Britain, the office of the Lord High Admiral which, from the 13th century onward, was responsible for all matters relating to the successful operation of the Royal Navy. Its executive, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, more generally called the Board of Admiralty, were initially responsible for maritime legal matters (through the Courts of Admiralty, which operated, however, on behalf of the sovereign) and naval administration. From 1546 a subsidiary Navy Board undertook responsibility for procuring, provisioning and victualling. Lords Commissioners, including both senior serving officers and civilians, were well represented in both Houses of Parliament, ensuring that maritime matters were given full consideration by successive administrations. Arctic whaling, which many perceived as excellent training in seamanship for the navy, came frequently under review and received generous government bounties. The Lords Commissioners office was abolished in 1964, when the three armed services were combined within a single Ministry of Defence.


Amsterdamøya. ‘Amsterdam Island’, an island off northwestern Spitsbergen used by 17th century Dutch whalers for their shore factories: the site of the 17th century whaling township of *Smeerenberg.


Arctic air temperatures. Air temperatures on the Arctic whaling grounds were generally controlled by sea surface temperature. Whalers visiting the whaling grounds in summer were likely to find temperatures between -1.8°C (the freezing point of seawater) and about 5°C above, markedly colder in early and late season than across mid-summer. However, cold winds off the northern ice pack at any time could bring temperatures several degrees below freezing point, allowing spray to form ice on rigging and decks. Similarly warm southerly winds could bring welcome relief from cold spells, sometimes with rain or sleet. By October or November sub-zero temperature caused fresh ice to form on the sea, trapping the ship. Crews compelled to winter on the whaling grounds experienced temperatures down to -40°C or lower.

click on the image to enlarge itThe image depicts Arctic air temperatures over the Greenland and Davis Strait whaling grounds in winter (January, blue lines) and summer (July, red lines). The northward bulge of both winter and summer isotherms between Iceland and Greenland is due to the warm surface waters of the North Atlantic Drift. Whaler operating on either ground around midsummer generally experienced temperatures between freezing point and +5°C (32-41°F).
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click on the image to enlarge itArctic and subarctic. The Arctic is the cold region of land and ocean at the northern end of Earth, surrounding the North geographic pole, centred on an ocean basin and including a fringe of continental land and islands. The narrow subarctic region surrounds the Arctic and separates it from the north temperate region. There is no general agreement on the boundary between the Arctic and subarctic regions. Administrators and geographers favour the Arctic Circle (66° 32’N), climatologists the 10°C (50°F) *isotherm for the warmest summer month, ecologists the tree line (for discussion see Stonehouse 1989: 1-11 in KEY REFERENCES). In the whaling grounds used by British whalers the 10°C summer isotherm lies well south of the Arctic Circle, except in northern Scandinavia, where a warm marine current, the North Atlantic Drift or Gulf Stream), pushes the isotherm northward.
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Arctic Circle    – – – – – –   
10°C summer isotherm  – - – - – - –  


click on the image to enlarge itArctic Ocean. Extensive ocean surrounding the North Pole, including the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, Chukchi and Beaufort seas, with a total area of about 14 m km2. The basin is fringed by continental shelves, up to 1000 km wide and 60-100 m deep north of Alaska and Siberia, less than 200 km wide and down to 450 m deep north of Greenland and Canada. A submarine mountain range, the Lomonosov Ridge, crosses the basin from Greenland toward the New Siberia Islands, rising to within 1000 m of the surface. On its Eurasian flank lies a long narrow trough with waters over 4000 m deep. The Arctic Ocean receives annually some 400,000 km3 of oceanic water from the Norwegian Sea, 8,000 km3 from the Pacific Ocean, and lesser quantities of fresh water from the Siberian rivers. These inputs are balanced by net outflows of 430,000 km3 of water and 6000 km3 of sea ice southward, mostly down the eastern flank of Greenland but also through the channels of the Canadian archipelago west of Greenland. In winter sea ice covers 12-13 m km2 of the basin, leaving only the southwestern Barents Sea open to shipping. In summer this cover has in the past been reduced to 5-8 m km2, but recent summers have seen more substantial reductions. Whalers hunting the Davis Strait and Greenland grounds rarely entered the Arctic Ocean, but were in some seasons restricted by amounts of ice pouring out of it.
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Arctic Seals. See Arctic Seals in SPECIAL TOPICS.


Arctic Whales. See Arctic Whales in SPECIAL TOPICS.


Arctic whaling, indigenous. Though no written records exist of early aboriginal whaling, evidence is found in such artefacts as the use of whale bones in housing, harpoons and occasional sketches. While earlier cultures hunted seals, Thule Eskimos speading eastward from the Bering Sea toward Greenland in 1000-1300 AD brought with them evidence of hunting for Greenland whales, using whale ribs for rafters and baleen for a range of artefacts from baskets to dogwhips. Concentrations of whale bones are found in coastal areas where open water occurs in summer, clearly representing summer residences. Just how the whales were overcome is not clear, but 19th century visitors to Inuit settlements described several umiaks hunting together, using harpoons with sealskin floats: the float would at least facilitate the recovery of harpoons, if not interfering with the whale's ability to dive. 19th century Thule engravings show clear representation of whales being pursued from umiaks (large skin boats) by hunters wielding long-handled harpoons. Similar techniques were reported by early European visitors to western Greenland. The small communities of indigenous whalers made only slight demands on their local stocks, taking sufficient for immediate use and a store of dried meat for winter. Ingress of European whalers during the 18th and 19th centuries, taking as many whales as possible, quickly reduced stocks to the detriment of indigenous whaling. Today under the auspices of the International Whaling Commission, indigenous whaling is allowed within tightly controlled quotas. See McCartney (1984).   


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Baleen. Springy keratinous material growing in tightly-packed parallel sheets from the roof of the mouth of mysticete whales (rorquals and right whales). The frayed lower ends of the sheets form a dense mesh through which the whale filters mouthfuls of seawater, leaving behind a mass of food particles that can be swallowed. Baleen sheets of right whales, the longest of which reached lengths of over 3 m, were particularly valued in the trade. Baleen was used in a wide variety of applications requiring flexibility and strength, from umbrella ribs to corset stays, brooms, whips and woven baskets.


Baffin Bay. Extensive bay at the northern end of Davis Strait, between Baffin Island and the northwest coast of Greenland, discovered in 1615 by Robert Bylot and William *Baffin. After the early 18th century penetration of Davis Strait by Dutch and British whalers, Baffin Bay became an important late-season whaling ground.


Baffin, William. (1584?-1622). English seaman and explorer, self-taught mathematician and navigator, who visited the Arctic first with James *Hall's 1612 expedition to west Greenland. As pilot and navigator he took part in two *Muscovy Company expeditions to Svalbard (1613-14), and one to Davis Strait (1615) with Robert Bylot in search of the *Northwest Passage. In 1616 he returned to Davis Strait, again with Bylot, penetrating to 78°N into the large bay that now bears his name, and finding three channels - Lancaster, Smith and Jones sounds -that showed promise of heading in the right direction. Later voyages were to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, where he was killed during an affray.


Baffin.Whaleship of built in Liverpool in 1820 for William *Scoresby Jr, to his own specification and for his own command. Scoresby made his last whaling voyages in the ship, regarding it as entirely successful. Baffin transferred to Leith, and was lost in Greenland waters in 1830.


Barents Sea. Area of the Arctic Ocean bordered by *Svalbard and Franz Josef Land to the north, Novaya Zemlaya to the east, Norway and Russia to the south, and bordering the Norwegian Sea along a line joining Svalbard, Bjørnøya and North Cape (Norway). Though well known to local fishermen in earlier days, it was named for 16th century Dutch navigator Willem *Barents, who crossed it in search of a northeast passage. Though well north of the Arctic circle, its surface waters are warmed year-round by branches of the Norway Current: rich plankton provides the basis of food chains supporting a wealth of fish, whales and seals. Walrus hunters of the 17th century, among the first Europeans to exploit it, drew attention to the stock of whales encountered along their rout, leading the way for later generations of Arctic whalers.


Barents, Willem. (c. 1550-1597.) Dutch navigator who in 1594 and 1595 twice crossed the sea that now bears his name. In search of the *Northeast Passage to China, he penetrated first to Novaya Zemlaya, then to Veygach Island, but was turned back by persistent sea ice beyond. On a third voyage in 1596 his ship was beset by ice north of Novaya Zemlya and ultimately sank. Barents and his crew of 16 built a hut on shore and wintered. Two died; the rest survived, thogh very much weakened by intense cold and malnutrition. In June 1597 they embarked in two open boats. Barents died on 20 June, closely followed by two others. After almost six weeks the survivors met Russian hunters who gave them food and directed them to safety. Barents's hut was rediscovered almost intact in 1871. For further details of his voyages see De Veer (1876). 


Barque. Alternative Bark. A three-masted sailing vessel carrying square sails (ie at a right angle to the fore-and-aft- line) on the fore and main masts, and a fore-and-aft sail on the mizzen or rearmost mast. Many barques of 250-350 tons were used as whaleships.


Barquentine. Alternative barkentine. A three-masted sailing vessel carrying square sails (ie at a right angle to the fore-and-aft line) on the foremast, and fore-an-aft sails on the main and mizzen masts.


Basque whalers.  Spanish and French residents of shores of the Bay of Biscay, who were reputedly among the first Europeans to capture right whales at sea. Whales that they caught close inshore, in Europe or North America, were mostly Black Right Whales Balaena glacialis, a species of temperate seas. Because of their expertise, Basques were employed as harpooners aboard some of the first English and Dutch ships to hunt the Arctic species Balaena mysticetus.


Bay ice. A layer of sea ice, normally up to about 1 metre thick, that forms annually close inshore, especially in sheltered bays, and is likely to break up, drift away and melt in summer. Larger sheets extending further from the shore are called ‘fast ice’, because they form fast (attached) to the land.


Bear Island. See Bjørnøya.


Beaufort Scale. Scale of wind strength and sea condition invented in the early 19th century by Commander Francis Beaufort RN, who was concerned to set standards of wind force at sea. With no direct means of measuring wind speed, he based his original scale on how winds of different strengths affected sailing ships and disturbed the sea surface, on visual indications on the sea surface. The scale has been developed since then, and still provides a good way of estimating wind strength from sea conditions. See Beaufort Scale in SPECIAL TOPICS.


Berg. See Iceberg.


Bergy-bit. See Iceberg.


Beset. A ship is beset when it is surrounded by ice and unable to move in any direction.


Bight. An embayment in the edge of an ice field, formed by wind or currents.


Bjørnøya. An isolated island in 74°N, 19°E, 190 km (120 miles) south of Spitsbergen and 380 km (240 miles) north of mainland Norway. Discovered by Willem *Barents in 1596, who noted its abundance of wildlife, it was rediscovered by the British navigator William Gorden in 1603, named Cherie Island for one of his *Muscovy Company sponsors, and stripped of its walrus stocks on subsequent visits. Icebound in winter, and lacking harbours or safe anchorage, it was a landfall rather than a haven for whalers. Norway established a meteorological station on Bjørnøya in 1923, formally claimed it two years later, and administers it as the southernost island of the Svalbard archipelago. See Arlov (1994). 


Blanket. Large piece of blubber, hauled aboard from a carcass and ready for further flensing.


Blubber. Layer of fatty tissue underlying the skin of whales, seals and other warm-blooded animals, particularly thick in those of polar seas. Cut into strips and boiled in water, blubber yielded clear oil, known generically as ‘trane’ oil, specifically as *whale oil, seal oil etc. This was one of the two saleable products of whaling: the other (scarcer but more valuable by the ton) was *baleen.


Boiling the kettle. Symbolic firing of the galley stove while a whaleship was still in port before the start of a voyage, marking the moment from which the crew were employed and on pay. 


Bolt-rope. A rope stitched by a sailmaker around the edge of a sail to protect it against fraying.


Boring. Forcing a sailing ship through a patch of sea ice before the wind, i.e under pressure enough to break or part the ice, in an extreme case at risk of damaging the ship.


Bottlenose whale. Large dolphin Hyperoodon ampullatus of Arctic seas, up to 9 m long, that was occasionally hunted for its blubber when larger whales were scarce. See Whales: SPECIAL TOPICS.


Bower anchors. Anchors suspended on either side of the ship’s bow usually from heavy chains that help to hold the ship in place when at anchor.


Bran-boat. A whale boat, fully manned and equipped, lowered in a situation where whales seemed likely to be present.


Brash ice. See Iceberg. Finely-divided floating ice, derived from disintegrating sea ice or ice bergs, often wind-blown to form long streaks or extensive patches. Wind-packed brash ice may slow down a ship’s movement, and can seriously impede small-boat operations.


Bylot, Robert. (fl. 1610-16). English navigator and Arctic explorer, best known for his associations with Henry *Hudson and William *Baffin. He served as mate on Hudson's last voyage of 1610-11, and made several subsequent voyages to *Hudson Bay, as navigator or mate, in search of the *Northwest Passage. In 1615 he was commissioned by the Northwest Company to make a further voyage, taking William *Baffin as mate. They explored westward from Hudson Bay, but failed to find evidence of further channels to the west. In the following year they continued the search further north into Baffin Bay. See Markham (1881).


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Cant. The first cut made during flensing, (i.e.removing blubber from a whale’s carcase), providing a long strip that, attached to the cant-hoist, is taken aboard for ‘making off’ or cutting into finer pieces.


Cant-hoist. Alternatives Cant-purchase or Canting tackle. A block or pulley system suspended amidships from the main mast. Attached first to the cant, it facilitated the removal of long strips of blubber from the whale carcase during flensing.


Canvas. Strong fabric woven from spun linen fibres, used particularly in sailmaking. Tight weave made the fabric almost windproof and waterproof, favouring the use of heavy grades in tarpaulins for hatch-covers, etc., and lighter grades in seamen’s outer clothing.


Careening. Heaving a ship over onto one side, usually by hauling laterally on the masts, to expose the lower part of the hull for cleaning or repairing damage.


Carronade. Small swivel-mounted cannon, produced by the Carron Co. of Scotland, often carried aboard whaleships in wartime as a defence against hostile privateers.


Casks. Traditionally barrels made of wood (usually oak) staves bound with iron hoops, that could be carried aboard as bundles and assembled by the cooper when needed for stowing blubber.


Centipeding. A means or propelling a whaleship in calm weather. The boats were lowered on either side and made fast to each other and to the ship: then rowers pulled using only the offside oars.


Chains. Alternate Chane-wales. Thick timbers bolted to the ship’s sides to provide protection against rubbing and lateral pressure.


Cherie Island. Name given by English seamen to Bjørnøya (Bear Island), following its rediscovery by William Gorden and Stephen Bennet in 1603.


Clashing. Part of the flensing process: impaling squares of blubber skin-upward on a spiked stand to remove and discard the skin.


Clews. The lower corners of a sail: ‘clewing up’ tightens a sail to its spar (horizontal) or mast (vertical) in preparation for furling.


Climatological Database for the World’s Oceans (CLIWOC). An international project by American, Argentine, British, Dutch, French and Spanish scientists to extract and make use of numerical climate data from ship’s logbooks. Most of the data are from voyages in temperate and tropical regions. The project ended in 2003: data are available on a CD-Rom. For further information see www.ucm.es/info/cliwoc.


CLIWOK: see Climatological Database for the World’s Oceans.


Closed season: see Open and closed seasons.


Compass, magnetic. Direction-finding instrument, in use at sea for several centuries, that depended on the ability of a suspended bar magnet to seek magnetic north whichever way a ship was turned. Magnetic compasses were standard equipment aboard whaleships throughout the whaling period. Though modern ships still carry them, they are almost completely replace by gyro-compasses.


Conway, William Martin. (1856-1937). British explorer and historian who explored Spitsbergen in 1896-97 and, through several publications (see BIBLIOGRAPHY) added considerably to knowledge of its early history.


Cross-sea. A sea surface in which waves caused by a current wind move at an angle to swell generated by earlier or distant winds – often indicative of changing weather conditions, and possibly providing difficulties for boat-handling.


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Danskøya. ‘Dane’s Island’, an island off northwestern Spitsbergen used by 17th century Danish whalers for their shore factories.


Davis, John. (c. 1550-1605). English navigator and explorer who made three voyages (1585, 1586, 1587) in search of the *Northwest Passage. In discovering the important strait that is named for him, penetrating as far north as Baffin Bay, he pioneered the route to the Northwest Passage. Davis Strait  became also a highly profitable Arctic whaling ground.


Deadlights. Alternative Dark-lights. Metal or wooden shutters designed to protect cabin windows in rough weather.


Dolphin. In a harbour, a post or firm structure, usually separate from a quay, to which a ship may safely be moored.


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East Greenland. See Greenland.


Edgeøya. A large Arctic island in 77°N, 22°E, forming the southeastern flank of the Svalbard archipelago. It was discovered first in  1613 by the Dutch explorer Joris Carolus (Conway 1901), and rediscovered two years later by the English sealer Thomas Edge (c. 1588-1625) who took over 1000 walruses from its shores. Though too often icebound for regular use by whalers, during the 18th century it was occupied by itinerant Russian hunters, of whom one party spent an involuntary six years there in 1743-49. See Arlov (1994).  


Eskimo, alt. Esquimaux. Generic term used by incomers to define native inhabitants of Arctic American and Greenland coasts. Now generally replaced by Inuit or Innuit.


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Fast ice. Sea ice that forms close to the land: see Bay ice.


Fin whale. Alternatives Finner or fin-back whale. Rorqual (fast moving baleen whale) Balaenoptera physalus, with prominent dorsal fin. This species was ignored by Arctic whalers because it was fast-moving and difficult to catch, with relatively thin blubber and short baleen. See Whales: SPECIAL TOPICS.


Fish. 18th and 19th century whalers' term for a whale. Though contemporary zoologists were in no doubt that whales were mammals, ‘fish’ (the catch) and ‘fishery’ (the business of catching) were used universally, not only in common parlance but also in Acts of Parliament and other legal instruments relating to the industry.

Fishburn and Broderick. Ship builders of Whitby. Thomas Fishburn, first mentioned in rate books in 1742, in 1748 took possession of a ship-building yard from a bankrupted Jarvis Coates, buying it about 1759. He was succeeded by his son Thomas Fishburn, in partnership with Thomas Brodrick, Though earlier vessels were registed by Fishburn alone, the first built by the partnership was registered in 1795,  Fishburn and Brodrick built many ships of up to 400 tons, including whalers. Fishburn died in February 1826, aged 71; Brodrick died three years later, aged 63, The yard was closed in 1830, Their offices were occupied by the Whitby and Pickering Railway Company, later by the York and North Midland Railway, whose terminus expanded to cover traces of the shipyard.


Flat-aback. Position of a ship being blown astern by a facing wind: uncomfortable because the ship is out of control.


Flensing. Alternative Flinching. The process of removing strips of blubber from a whale carcase – the first stage in ‘making off’, or cutting the blubber into finer strips for stowing in casks.


Flinch-gut. Below-decks space in a whaleship, used as a temporary store for unprocessed blankets and strips of blubber.


Floes. Alternative Ice floes. Patches of sea ice, often fragments of much larger annual ice sheets that have disintegrated, but remain singly or in clusters separated by leads of open water. Clusters of floes larger than a few hundred m2 in diameter are called ice fields.


Foreganger. Lightweight but strong rope, about 8 m long, connecting a harpoon shaft with the whale line or main rope: its lightness and flexibility facilitated throwing the harpoon.


Fore-runner. See Fore-goer.


Fortification. Strengthening of a whaleship inside and out, as protection against sea ice: see Ice-strengthening.

Frobisher, Martin. (c. 1535-94). English navigator and explorer who, in 1756, was among the first to seek the *Northwest Passage to China. Investigating Davis Strait, he discovered the bay that is named for him.


Frost flowers. See Sea smoke.


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Grapnel. Lightweight anchor, usually four-pronged, for use in boats; used also as an ice anchor to attach to a floe.


Grease ice. The earliest stage of sea ice formation, when ice crystals accumulate in surface waters. In calm weather this gives the surface an overall greasy or oily appearance.


Greenland, alternatives Grønland (Danish) andKalâtdlit-Nunât (Eskimo). Large island, mostly ice-covered, area 2,175,600 km2, lying between Canada and northern Europe, crossed by the Arctic Circle. Its west and south shores were settled originally by Eskimos from North America c.2500 BC, then by Norse colonists during the 12th to 15th centuries. From 1721 it became a Danish colony, with small trading settlements established along the deeply-indented west coast: the east coast is more difficult of access due to streams of sea ice pouring constantly south from the Arctic ocean. From 1979 Greenland has been a self-governing province of Denmark. Before and during the Danish occupation native hunters pursued whales from the west coast settlements, and whalers hunting the Davis Strait grounds became familiar with the complex of islands, bays and headlands. The name ‘East Greenland’ was formerly applied to Spitsbergen (Svalbard), which on discovery and for many year after was thought to be part of Greenland. So through the 18th and 19th centuries the whaling ground south of Spitsbergen was known as the ‘Greenland’ ground, Arctic whaling was ‘the Greenland trade’, and Arctic whalers were ‘Greenlanders’ irrespective of where they hunted.


Greenland Sea. Marine area between the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans, bordered by *Greenland to the west, *Svalbard to the east, and *Iceland to the south. Its nominal border with the Norwegian Sea follows a line from northeast Iceland to *Jan Mayen and *Bjornøya. The strong East Greenland current brings dense pack ice southward between Greenland and Svalbard. South and east of this ice, the Greenland Sea was one of the two major 18th and 19th century fishing grounds for Greenland and other whales. 

Greenland whaling ground. Svalbard and the sea areas east of Greenland, corresponding approximately to the present-day *Greenland Sea. One of two hunting grounds favoured by British Arctic whalers, it was named on the misapprehension that Svalbard (then known as Spitsbergen) formed part of the previously-discovered island of Greenland. The name was retained long after the error was cleared up: Arctic whalemen were known as 'Greenlanders' whichever ground they visited.


Gumming. Stripping flesh from baleen (whalebone): the first step in cleaning baleen and preparing it for market.


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Hakluyt Society. A London-based society founded in 1846, honouring the memory of the English chronicler Richard Hakluyt*, to promote interests in historical geography, especially through the editing and publication of manuscripts of travel and exploration. The society’s publications include many early accounts of Arctic exploration and whaling.


Hakluyt, Richard. c. 1552-1616. English cleric and chronicler of historical geography. A lecturer in geography at Christ Church College, Oxford, his writings included Divers voyages touching the discovery of America (1582), Discourse concerning western discoveries (1584), and Principal navigations, voyages and discoveries of the English nation (1598-1600) – the latter a major three-volume work including early accounts of Arctic exploration, sealing and whaling.


Hall, James (d. 1612). English mariner, born in Hull, who served as a pilot with the Danish navy on three expeditions (1605-07) to explore the west coast of Greenland in search of missing Norse colonies. In 1612 he led his own expedition to 64°N on the same coast, taking William *Baffin as a navigator. The expedition re-locate a source of silver ore discovered during the first voyage, but Hall was killed by an Inuit spear and the mine proved worthless. Hall's expeditions to what later became an important inshore whaling coast are reported in Markham (1881) Gosch (1897).


History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP). A global research initiative, involving about 100 researchers, to study past ocean life and human interactins with the sea. An interdisciplinary research programme uses historical and environmental archives to estimate former population levels of exploited species, including whales. For further details see www.hmapcoml.org.

HMAP. See History of Marine Animal Populations.


Harpoon. Metal spear with arrow-shaped head, attached to a wooden shaft, designed to penetrate the whale’s skin and blubber and hold against pulling-out. Hand-thrown harpoons were used almost exclusively during the 17th to early 19th centuries, to be replaced first by hand-held harpoon guns, later by swivel-mounted guns. The harpoon provided the first attachment between whale and attacking boat: the whale was killed by lances.


Harpooner. Alternative Harpooneer. Officer in charge of a whale boat, with responsibility for throwing or firing the harpoon.


Hudson Bay. A shallow, extensive inland sea of southeastern Canada, linked to Davis Strait and the Atlantic Ocean by Hudson Strait. It is named for Henry *Hudson, the English navigator who explored it in 1610-11, but may have been discovered earlier. Hudson knew only its eastern side, considering it part of the Pacific Ocean - a misapprehension shared and promoted by his crew on their return to England. A consortium of merchants, the Northwest Company, in 1612 raised funding for an expedition under Thomas Button and Robert *Bylot to explore further. Their discovery of a western shore established the bay's true nature, encouraging Bylot to explore further north into Davis Strait. The bay and its hinterland proved rich in wildlife, which was exploited from 1670 to 1869 by the *Hudson's Bay Company.


Hudson's Bay Company. Following the discovery of Hudson Bay in 1610-11 and the further discovery of a wealth of fur-bearing animals in the hinterland, an English consortium lead by Prince Rupert (cousin of King Charles II) formed the 'Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay'. A Royal Charter dated May 1670 granted the company exclusive rights to exploit the resources of the newly-discovered territory. The company established trading posts around the bay and along contributary rivers, where for over two centuries its main business was to trade furs trapped by native hunters for knives, beads, blankets and other manufactured goods. The company flourished, diversified, and is in vigorous existence today: for details of its history and influence on the development of Canada see www.hbc.com.


Hull, whaling from. Hull vessels were trading at Vardo, northern Norway, in the late 16th century, bringing back whale oil, cod and walrus ivory. The rediscovery of *Spitsbergen and discovery of *Jan Mayen by Henry *Hudson in 1607 opened a whale fishery which, despite a monopoly by the Muscovy Company, men of Hull were among the first to exploit (see Thomas *Marmaduke). In 1618 King James I granted Jan Mayen (then called Trinity I.) to Hull Corporation as a fishing station, and Hull whalers were involved in land-based whaling on Spitsbergen, in fierce competition with Dutch, Danish and other European whalers. By the end of the 17th century the Dutch were dominant and British whaling had declined: Hull’s ‘Greenland House’, built in 1674, became a store for corn and general merchandise. The trade revived in the mid 18th century, led by James Hamilton, a local merchant  trading extensively on the eastern seabord of America, who had begun to import oil produced by  colonial whalers from the 1730s, chiefly out of Nantucket and Rhode Island. When supplies were interrupted by French expansionism, Hamilton responded in 1754 by equipping his own vessel, York, for an experimental voyage to Greenland. He was followed by Joseph and Robert Pease (importers of oil from Holland, with offices in Amsterdam), William Turner (a major importer of whalebone), and Samuel Dewitt (a Dutch sea captain and merchant), who between them floated the Hull Whale Fishery Company with a capital of £20,000. The government bounty of forty shillings per ship ton encouraged the new enterprise. By 1800 Hull had become a major whaling port, second only to London in numbers of ships and men involved. See SPECIAL TOPIC: Whaling from Hull.


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Ice blink. Band of bright sky light on the horizon, denoting the presence of an extensive iice field beyond. See Water sky.


Ice island. See Icebergs.


Icebergs. Large blocks of ice, formed on land but now floating. The largest, called ice islands, are sections broken from ice shelves: they may be several hundred km long and wide, and are big enough to be tracked from satellites. Smaller icebergs, some up to a few km long but generally less, break from glaciers and ice streams. Ice islands and icebergs begin melting once they are in the water, and usually fragment into smaller bergy-bits (5 m or less showing above water), growlers (smaller pieces) and brash ice (fragments less than 2 m across), the latter finely divided and swept by wind into concentrated fields. Between one quarter and one seventh of an iceberg shows above the water, depending on the amount of air contained in the ice. Whiteness usually denotes the presence of air; blue or green ice is denser and more compact. Often encountered by whalers, icebergs occasionally afforded a welcome lee, but more often were a menace, particularly when driven by wind or current toward a beset ship.


Icebreaker. Powerful and strongly-built ship designed especially for clearing waterways through sea- or lake-ice. 18th-19th century whaleships were ice-strengthened, i.e. fortified internally and externally against damage from shifting ice, but had neither the power nor the strength for breaking any but the weakest ice. Steam-powered icebreakers with strengthened hulls, protected propellers and cutaway bows (designed to lift the weight of the forward-moving ship onto the ice) appeared in the mid-19th century. Today’s largest and most efficient icebreakers are nuclear-powered.


Impressment. Method of recruitment adopted by the British armed services in times of war, involving ‘press-gangs’ empowered by law forcibly to enrol civilians for a period of service.  Most notorious were 17th-19th century naval press-gangs – detachments that scoured ports and boarded homeward-bound ships to secure seamen for service in the Royal Navy. Whaleships returning from the Arctic were often targeted: though officers including mates, harpooners, spectioneers etc. were granted immunity from impressment, other ranks were especially valued for their experience and quality of seamanship. Impressment was especially rife during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but no longer needed after the Napoleonic war (1803-15).  


Isotherm. Imaginary line on Earth’s surface joining points that are at the same temperature. Summer and winter isotherms connect points that experience the same mean temperatures for designated months: see *Arctic temperatures.


International Whaling Commission (IWC). Established under the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the IWC seeks to discharge its responsibilities partly by reviewing catch data and recommending research toward management of current whale stocks. Historic whaling is of interest mainly in providing data on former stock size, to which end IWC from time to time sponsors or supports special workshops and investigations: see for example Brownell and others (1986) in BIBLIOGRAPHY.


Inuit: see Eskimo.


IWC: see International Whaling Commission.


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Jan Mayen. Norwegian island in the Greenland and Norwegian seas, ° N, °E, 56 km (35 miles) long and 14 km (9 miles) wide. First sighted by Henry *Hudson in 1607, it was charted in 1614 by the Dutch navigator Jan May who claimed the surrounding waters as exclusively a Dutch whaling ground. Many other whalers visited the island during the 18th and 19th centuries, using its prominent main peak, Beerenberg, as a landmark and point of departure. The islands appears in logbooks as John Mayne, and many other variants. Since 1921 it has been the site of a Norwegian meteorological station, and since 1929 a Norwegian possession.

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Kedge. A small anchor, used for instance to steady a ship against turning, rather than holding it in position.


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Making-off. See Flensing.


Minke whale. Small rorqual (fast moving baleen whale) Balaenoptera acutorostrata, with sharply-pointed snout. This species was common in Arctic waters in summer, but ignored by early whalers because it was fast-moving and difficult to catch, with relatively thin blubber and short baleen.


Multi-year ice: see Sea ice.


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Nautical day. By tradition, the nautical day ran from noon (when a latitudinal position might be determined from the sun's altitude) to the following noon. Thus unless otherwise indicated, dates given in 18th and early 19th century ships' logs refer to days that started at mid-day, 12 hours after the midnight start of the civil day. 

Newcastle, whaling from. Whaling from Tyneside began in March 1752 with the establishment of the Newcastle Whale Fishing Company and dispatch of a single ship, Swallow, to the Greenland ground. During the following decades small numbers of whalers continued to operate from Newcastle, more often from the outports of North and South Shields, which provided facilities without the need to traverse a long estuary, reaching a peak number of 20 in 1787. From then onward numbers declined to five or six in the early 1820s, two to three during the 1820s and 1830s. These continued to operate profitably, meeting the demands of their local markets, especially for lighting. ‘The single most important source of demand, the coal mines of Northumberland and Durham, remained secure for many years to come and whale oil continued to be supplied to shop-keepers, tradesmen, farmers and proprietors of small industrial concerns throughout the region. Moreover, the continued use of whale oil in soap, paint and leather manufacture secured its survival as an industrial raw material’ (Barrow 1998). A series of disastrous summers during the 1830s resulted in losses of some Newcastle ships and withdrawal of owners from the trade. By 1845 only one vessel, Lady Jane, remained, and her loss in 1849 ended whaling from Newcastle.


North Shields, whaling from. See Newcastle, whaling from.


Northeast Passage. Sea passage between Europe and the far east running north of Siberia, believed to exist by early mariners and eagerly sought by Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor (1553), Willem *Barents (1594), Henry *Hudson (1607, 1608), and many others. The warm North Atlantic Drift encouraged them to penetrate beyond northern Norway, but thereafter abandoned them to heavy and persistent ice. However, they discovered incidentally both the Greenland whaling grounds and a profitable trade in furs, walrus ivory and later timber with western Russia. Russian navigators meanwhile found passages between the Siberian rivers and explored westward from Bering Strait. The whole passage was first made west-to-east bythe Swedish explorer N. A. Nordenskiöld in 1878-79. Today it is in regular use by Russian freighters, kept open by powerful icebreakers.   


Northeast and Northwest passages.  Maritime passages from the north Atlantic Ocean to China and the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic. When profitable 16th century overland trade routes between Europe and the Far East were disrupted by hostile invaders, European nations sought alternative routes to China and the Indies by sea. Spanish and Portuguese mariners were foremost in discovering routes around the southern tips of Africa and South America. Their Dutch and British counterparts headed northward on either side of Greenland to explore for northeast and northwest passages. Both proved elusive, predictably due to intense cold, persistent storms even in summer, and the presence of sea ice – both single-year ice generated in situ each winter, or more formidable multi-year ice pouring southward from the periphery of the Arctic Ocean. Successive voyages in search of the passages resulted in the discovery of many northern islands and coasts hitherto unknown to Europeans. Also discovered were huge stocks of right whales yielding both oil and baleen (whale bone), on which were based the profitable Arctic whaling industries of Britain and northern Europe. The first continuous Northeast Passage was completed by in 1878-80 by Adolf Nordenskiold, the first Northwest Passage by Roald Amundsen in 1903-06.


Northwest Passage. Sea passage between Europe and the far east running north of Canada. From the early 17th century, but mainly contemporary with exploration for the *Northeast Passage, explorers pressed westward between the known coasts of Greenland and North America in a search that lasted well over 300 years. Martin *Frobisher (1576, 1577, 1578) and John *Davis (1585, 1586, 1587), for whom Frobisher Bay and Davis Strait are respectively named, were among the pioneers. During the early 19th century British naval ships investigated the many ice-filled channels running westward from Davis Strait between the islands of the Canadian Arctic archipelago, but the complete passage was first made east-to-west by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903-06.


Norwegian Sea. Marine area between the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans, bordered by Norway to the east, and nominally by a line joining the Shetland and Faroe islands, northeast *Iceland, *Jan Mayen and *Bjørnøya to south, west and north. Though crossed by the Arctic Circle, surface waters are warmed by branches of the North Atlantic Drift (Gulf Stream). 18th and 19th century whalers from Britain and northeast Europe crossed this often-stormy stretch of ocean to reach the 'Greenland' (i.e. Svalbard) whaling ground.


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Pack ice. Sea ice that formed as part of a large sheet, but has been broken up by swell into floes. ‘Open pack ice’ is interlaced with leads or channels of open water through which a ship can push its way. ‘Close’ or ‘Closed pack ice’ is held tightly together by currents or winds, making it difficult or impossible for a ship to manoeuvre. A ship held in closed pack ice close to land stands in severe danger of being crushed if strong winds tend to pile the ice against the land – a fate that befell several whaleships, particularly in Davis Strait.


Pancake ice. An early stage in the formation of sea ice, when pieces newly-formed, usually circular, 30 cm to 3 m in diameter, are packed tightly together, with raised edges due to rubbing against each other.


Phytoplankton. See Plankton.


Plankton. Minute plants and animals drifting in surface waters, often in huge shoals covering many hectares. Phytoplankton includes bacteria and single-celled and multicellular algae: the latter trap solar energy by photosynthesis and absorb gases and minerals from the surrounding water. Zooplankton includes larval (juvenile) forms of fish and many bottom-living animals, plus many shrimp-like animals, all of which feed on phytoplankton and on each other. Plankton en mass may be dense enough to colour surface waters green or pink. Discoloration by plankton often indicated to whalers that baleen whales were likely to be close by.


Polar bear. Large white bear Ursus maritimus, restricted in range to Arctic coastal areas and sea ice. Polar bears were frequently hunted by whalers, who brought skins and live cubs back for sale in Europe. See Polar Bear in SPECIAL TOPICS.


Polynya. Persistent patch of open water in the middle of an ice field, which occurs despite freezing conditions, usually due to strong winds, or horizontal or vertical currents. Polynyas are often sites of local water enrichment, recognized and used as feeding grounds by birds, seals and whales.


Pood.  Unit of weight of 16.38 kg, used by Dutch whalers.


Press gang; see Impressment.


Pressure ice. A field of pack ice that has been compressed laterally, usually by strong winds, to form hummocks, ridges and rafting. Ships caught in pressure ice were likely to be *beset, and under severe pressure could be in danger of structural damage.


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Sea ice. Ice formed on the surface of the sea (as opposed to glacier ice and ice shelves, which form on land). Sea ice forms each winter, thickening in the course of the season both by further freezing and accumulation of snow. Much of it melts and disperses in the following summer. Any that remains at the start of the next season thickens further to become multi-year ice. Though flat and unbroken when it first forms, sea ice may be fragmented into floes by swell, and driven by winds to form pressure ridges and open leads. Wind-generated pressure becomes a hazard to ships, particularly any that are caught in ice fields driven by onshore winds against an island or coast. As whales tend to gather in summer around the periphery of melting ice fields, and concentrate in open water surrounded by ice, whaleships operated in constant contact with sea ice. The success or failure of a voyage often depended on the skill of a master in negotiating it.  See also Bay ice, Fast ice, Floes


Sea smoke. Mist arising when warm moist air is chilled by passage over a colder sea or area of sea ice. Chilling may result in precipitation of ice crystals, or formation of heavy rime or hoar frost on the decks and rigging of ships: hence seamens’ names ‘frost rime’ or ‘frost smoke’. On sea ice it may produce bundles of ice crystals several cm across, called ‘frost flowers’.


Shore lead. A stretch of navigable water between pack ice and the shore, usually kept open by offshore winds.


Smeerenberg. Dutch whaling township established on Amsterdamøya, northeast Spitsbergen, during the 17th century, including factories for blubber-processing, foundries and barracks for summer resident populations. See Hacqubord (1980, 1984)


South Shields, whaling from. See Newcastle and South Shields, whaling from.


Spitsbergen, Spitzbergen. See Svalbard.


Svalbard. Archipelago of Arctic islands, formerly called Spitsbergen or Spitzbergen, in the Greenland Sea. Lying between 74° and 81°N, 10° and 35°E, it includes five large islands (Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet, *Edgeøya, Barentsøya and Prins Karls Foreland), and outlying *Bjornøya, Hopen, Kong Karls Land, Kvitøya and distant *Jan Mayen. The Dutch expedition of 1596, in which Willem Barents was principal navigator, sighted the northwest corner of the main island, which contemporary cartographers regarded as an eastern extension of Greenland. The British navigator Henry Hudson, visiting in 1607, reported the presence of many whales close inshore. By 1820 the west coast of the main island (which now bore the Dutch name Spitsbergen) had begun to attract whalers from Britain, Spain, France, Holland and Denmark (see 'British Arctic whaling overview'), whose numbers led to competition - almost to warfare - for space to establish whale processing factories on the beaches. Spitsbergen's importance as a centre for inshore whaling declined later in the 17th century, but whalers and sealers continued to operate offshore between Svalbard and the edge of the Arctic pack ice throughout the 19th century.


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Try-pots. Cast-iron cauldrons used during the 18th and 19th centuries to render oil from blubber. Set up in brick hearths on beaches, often in groups of two, three or more, the pots contained boilng water to which sliced blubber was added. Oil released from the blubber was skimmed off into barrels, and the spent blubber provided fuel to keep the process going. Such factories, now, long abandoned, can still be identified by the remains of their brickwork. Sperm whalers hunting world-wide set up similar factories on deck, so that the oil could be tryed-out and barrelled immediately. Typical iron trypots used by British whalers were manufactured in London, mainly to be used in the slave trade for preparing food. 


Tun. Unit of volume of 252 imperial gallons, that gave its name to a barrel of this capacity, and was widely used by whalers in measuring yields of blubber and oil.


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Water sky. Dark band in the sky over an ice field, denoting the presence of open water beyond the horizon.


Whale boat. See Whaler.


Whalebone. See Baleen.


Whaler, alternative Whale boat. Strongly-built open boat, usually pointed at both ends, propelled and steered by oars or paddles, but fitted also with a mast and fore-and-aft sail. Whale ships on the whaling grounds carried five or six such boats, 7-8 m long, slung from davits ready for instant lowering when whales were seen. Each boat carried a crew of 6-8 including *harpooner, *linesman and steerer, whose task was to approach and harpoon the whales, then tow them back to the mother-ship for flensing.


Whaleship. Ship especially designed or fortified (strengthened inside and out) for hunting whales. 17th and 18th century Arctic whaleships were typically capacious wooden transports, two- or three-masted, *ship-rigged or *barque-rigged, of 250-350 tons. Some were built for whaling, but most were adapted from vessels that had previously been involved in commerce, and could readily revert.  


Whitby, whaling from. Whaling from Whitby began with two ships, Sea Nymph and Henry and Mary in 1753, increasing to four in each of the following years until 1758. ‘… from 1759 to 1766, both included, it was given up except for one only in 1760, the vessels being withdrawn for the transport service, a less precarious source of gain. After the return of peace in 1769 the industry was renewed, and it was continued year by year by varying numbers of vessels …’ ’ (Weatherill 1908). In 1787 and again in 1789 a peak number of 21 whaling ships left the port. Thereafter numbers decreased steadily, until by 1837 only two remained: after that year the whale fishery from Whitby ceased. For further details see Jones (1982), Barrow (2001), and Stonehouse (2004).


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Yarmouth, whaling from. ‘The town first entered the Arctic whale fishery in 1627, only 17 years after the first English whaling voyage from London. Although this was a new venture, it was not an unprecedented one, for Yarmouth vessels were no strangers to Arctic waters. There was already a regular trade to the cod and ling fisheries off Iceland. The whale fishery from the town followed the same pattern as English whaling generally with a decline in the 1660s and a revival in the 18th century. At Yarmouth this revival seems to have occurred about 1753 with the fishery being pursued fitfully until 1775 when another slump occurred. Whaling resumed from Yarmouth in 1784/85 and then entered a boom period during the rest of the decade. It declined during the 1790s, ending with the last voyage by a Yarmouth whaler in 1797.’ (Lewis 1983). Lewis provides further details of ships, masters etc. for both the early and later periods: see also Southwell (1906).


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Zooplankton. See Plankton.


Updated: 9 July, 2013



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