6 Outrageous Whaling Stories

Most prevalent on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, whaling helped shape nations, but not without some shocking adventures along the way.

Apr 22, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

outrageous whaling stories


Whales have been the prey of humans for thousands of years, utilized for their meat, blubber, skin, organs, bones, and baleen. Though whale goods were used by people in both temperate and cold climates across the globe in prehistoric eras, whaling was most popular and profitable in the mid-1800s. Whale oil and associated products were in high demand in developed countries across the world, and new technology, such as steamships, made the process of hunting whales more efficient. Still, whaling operations were complicated and dangerous, full of adventure and challenges.


1. The Disaster of 1871: The Lost Fleet

1871 whaling disaster
Painting of the Lost Fleet. Source: New England Historical Society


In August 1871, 32 whaling ships from various corners of the United States, including Hawaii, New England, and California, met in the cold waters off the shores of Alaska in pursuit of the Bowhead whale. More than 1,200 people were aboard the ships, primarily men of the whaling crews but also some women and children who accompanied husbands and fathers.


The pack ice that normally swirled in the Arctic was heavy and close to shore, leaving the boats less room than they expected for maneuvering. Nevertheless, the whales were plentiful, and the hunts were successful. The ships went about their tasks, and the boat captains expected the wind to shift and push the pack ice out to sea as usual so that they could sail off when their job was complete.


whaling stories 1871 disaster
The lost fleet. Source: The Guardian


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However, the pack ice did not follow its typical route and instead pushed the ships closer together. They became lodged in the ice rather quickly, and none of the boats were able to escape to open water. The captains of the 32 ships met and decided that the safest thing to do would be to abandon the ships and evacuate in the whaleboats, which could be maneuvered over the ice and into open water.


The captains wrote a declaration defending their reasons for the abandonment and signed it, unanimously approving their decision. One thousand two hundred nineteen people loaded into the rickety whaleboats and rowed 90 miles south, where they were rescued by another fleet of whaleboats.


Against the odds, not a single life was lost in the excursion. Only one of the ships was able to be retrieved to sail again, the remaining 31 crushed by the ice. The loss of the ships and their cargo was estimated at $1.6 million at the time.


Some questioned the captains’ decision to abandon the ship, questioning if it would have been better to wait and see if a path had been blown through the ice pack if they had waited a few weeks. However, the fact that not one person was lost during the disaster seemed to justify the decision, even with the heavy economic loss. Thus, the issue was eventually laid to rest.


2. Japan 2011: Misappropriated Funds

photograph japanese whaling
A Minke whale is hauled ashore at Kushiro port. Source: Kyodo News via Science


Japan is one of the few countries worldwide that still hunts whales today. The main goal of their whaling fleet is research, but the whales that are killed for research programs are butchered and sold for meat, leading to ongoing controversy with other global entities and environmental groups.


This debate was further fueled in 2011 when it was discovered that $29 million of Japan’s national post-tsunami recovery fund was given to the whaling industry for security against harassment from protestors. Organizations such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are almost a constant presence near the whaling fleet, harassing the whalers with stink bombs and damaging equipment. A tsunami hit Japan in 2011, killing tens of thousands and damaging over 100,000 buildings, and the funds that were used to protect the whalers were intended to help the country rebuild.


A Minke whale is unloaded from a boat at Kushiro port in 2017. Source: Kyodo News via KFYR TV


The government claimed that the money was needed to help the whaling industry get back on its feet as well. Port towns that rely on whaling were heavily damaged by the tsunami. In addition, the 2010 season was cut short as the whalers caved to pressures from protestors and ended their hunt early with only about one-fifth of the planned catch. Despite the backlash from this situation and the ongoing controversy surrounding whaling, the Japanese continue to hunt whales annually.


3. The War of 1812

Naval Battle of 1812 by Rodolfo Claudus. Source: Navy Art Collection via Naval History and Heritage Command


The War of 1812 was disastrous to the United States whaling industry. The war was heavily fought at sea, and the industry essentially came to a halt. Many ships were damaged or destroyed in the conflict, but even worse, many men working on whaling ships were faced with impressment: forced service on a warship. However, these men were not forced into service with the American forces but with the British.


The British navy, under British law, had the right to stop ships at sea and search for any English citizens or deserters, forcing them into service. However, many British naval captains would take any able-bodied, English-speaking man and force him onto their crew. Around 6,000 Americans were impressed into British service during the war, and anger over this practice contributed to tensions around the war. It would take a few years, but America’s whaling industry would rebuild from this calamity to reach a golden age in the mid-1850s.


4. Vanished in 1849: The Theophilus Chase

whaling stories westport memorial
The Westport Memorial for mariners lost at sea. Source: Ted Hayes photo, via East Bay Media Group


Built in Westport, Massachusetts, the Theophilus Chase was a whaling ship on which the brother of famed author Herman Melville had previously served. After completing previous trips successfully, in 1849, the ship left Westport, captained by Pardon Macomber, and headed to the South Pacific in search of its catch.


The Theophilus Chase was never heard from again, and no evidence of the ship was ever located. It is unknown exactly how many men were lost with the ship, though in 2022, the names of more than ten who were previously overlooked were discovered, and plans were made for them to be added to the Westport memorial to mariners lost at sea.


5. The Wreck of the Catherwood: 1856

whaling stories sperm whale
A sperm whale. Source: Marine Mammal Center, Sausalito, California


It seems that Westport was no stranger to lost ships. However, the fate of the Catherwood was known, unlike the Theophilus Chase. In 1856, the Catherwood, another whaling bark from Westport, was lost off the island of Narbio in the Galapagos. This was reported in the Boston Daily Courier in February of 1856. However, none of the Galapagos Islands are named Narbio or are listed as formerly being named as such, so it is unknown where exactly this wreck took place.


The hunting of a sperm whale. Source: New Bedford Whaling Museum


Due to a thick fog, the ship struck the island. The crew attempted to tow the Catherwood back out to sea, but heavy swells pushed her back, causing the ship to strike land forcefully and suffer irreparable damage. The crew was forced to abandon ship as the wreck began to sink, with only the ship’s papers saved in the melée. Retreating to the island, the men survived for five days, eating what they could find, mostly crabs, as they were unable to salvage food or fresh water from the ship, save one cask of bread.


whaling stories whale skeleton
Whale bones held value in the whaling market. This is the skeleton of “Reyna” a Right Whale that was accidentally struck and killed off the coast of Chesapeake Bay. Her skeleton is on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum for educational purposes. Source: New Bedford Whaling Museum


Fortunately for the crew, they would be rescued by a passing ship with no loss of life. However, the financial loss to the Catherwood was significant, as she had 500 barrels of sperm whale oil on board when she wrecked, as well as a cargo of whale bones. Whale bones had value for use in corsets (popular fashion at the time), buggy parts, and art. The journey was a complete monetary loss.


6. Spoils of War: The Capture of the Kate Cory in 1863

whaling stories alabama model
A model of the C.S.S. Alabama. Source: Blue Jacket Ship Crafters


In 1863, the Civil War raged throughout the United States. Though the majority of the action took place in land battles, the sea was no stranger to wartime conflict. The Confederacy had a number of successful raiding ships operating during the war, the most successful of which was the Alabama.


Whaling was still a popular pursuit during the war years, and though many men were fighting, others were still pursuing an income at sea. The Kate Cory was a Massachusetts whaler, one that was quite famous and successful in its time. However, she was captured by the Alabama off the coast of Brazil in 1863. Though no men were killed in the taking of the ship (they weren’t soldiers, after all), they were captured and removed from the ship. The ship was then burned, and all her profits along with it. The crew would eventually make it home, albeit empty-handed. The Kate Cory would be just one of over 60 ships taken by the Alabama during the Civil War.


whaling stories painting alabama
A painting of the Alabama. Source: Civil War Talk


The story wasn’t over, however. It turned out that the Alabama had been built in a British shipyard on commission by the Confederacy. As a result, a diplomatic dispute arose. England had neutrality laws in place preventing it from choosing sides in the American Civil War. The Alabama was just one of several raiders built for the Confederacy by the Brits, and as a result, the US brought suit and demanded compensation from Britain in recompense for the damage caused by these ships.


Lawyers claimed that British aid had prolonged the war and indirectly cost the United States millions or even billions of dollars. A treaty would eventually be reached in 1871 in which England was ordered to pay the United States $15.5 million in compensation.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”