The secret life inside a whaling logbook

  • Sunday, 30 April 2017
  • linda

whaling logs pictureWhaling logbooks and journals tell the story as to what life was like aboard a whaling vessel. Like many old documents they were handwritten in cursive, often on paper that has been damaged over the years, sometimes in pencil or faded ink, and the writers usually were not too keen on spelling. Nevertheless, a lot of valuable information can be found inside these records of past whaling voyages.

whaling log bookEach whaling ship that departed carried a logbook aboard, in which whale hunts, shipwrecks, weather conditions, and daily sailing life were recorded. Whalers have sought their quarry in perilous waters for centuries

whalinglogs imageWhile the logbooks were meant purely as a form of record, some of their writers were more visually expressive, illustrating events like a whale up turning a boat, or the thrill of the pursuit of the giants of the deep. The man who kept the Iris log, for instance, filled its pages with elaborate drawings.
whaling pageEvery ship had to have a logbook. It served as the official record of the activities of a whaling voyage. It was the duty of the chief (first) mate to keep the log on a daily basis. In contrast was the journal, an unofficial document that could be kept by anyone.

Fortunately, the entries in a whaling logbook or journal usually follow some common patterns, and once you know what to look for it is a lot easier to decipher what you read
The beginning of an entry
whaling log depicting positionUsually, the entries started with the day of the week and date. It includes the position of the vessel, the sail she was under, the wind speed and direction, the activities of the crew, and any whales seen or taken.
The log keeper will then describe the weather, which usually includes the wind speed and location. Discover in the ship’s logbooks and you find clues about climate and history.
Encounters with marine life
whalinglogs page withstampsWhalers also kept a lookout for marine life. They encountered many types of whales, as well as dolphins, porpoises, and “grampuses.” The main types of whales encountered were blackfish (pilot whales), blue whales (sulfur bottoms), bowhead whales (polar whales), finback whales (finners or fin whales), gray whales, humpback whales, killer whales (thrashers), right whales (black whales), sperm whales, and white whales (belugas).

 They usually did not catch dolphins, but often did hunt porpoises, walruses, and seals. When they hunted walruses they would catch up to as many as 75 walruses a day.

Going for the kill
When a whale was spied from aloft either spouting, turning flukes or breaching out of the water, the crewmen would then lower the whaleboats from the vessel into the water. They then had three options;
• “Struck and sunk,” meaning the whale sunk to the bottom of the ocean and was lost.
• The whale “took the line,” which is to say they swam away with the harpoon and rope still attached and were able to get it free from the whaleboat or..
• Eureka ! “saved” or “took” (caught) the whale and “took it alongside” the ship.
whalinglogWhale illustrated with a stamp in a whaling logbook with the number referring to the gallons of oil from this whale courtesy Marthas Vineyard MuseumThey would then cut the whale’s flesh into many smaller pieces so it could be brought onboard. The next several hours and sometimes days would be spent boiling the blubber in order to turn it into oil. The oil was then stowed in casks.
Everything was recorded. Stamps of whales, with space for a number indicating how many gallons of oil, were procured from each body, also accent text throughout the logbooks.
Stamps and drawings

whaling stampsThe stamps served a very practical purpose for the whaling ships.
The whale stamps and other drawings might be considered folk art today,” said Todd Pattison, NEDCC senior book conservator. “But at the time, they were just part of the documentation required for a commercial venture. Keeping the log was a job, but they were on those ships 24 hours a day for months and even years at a time. These records would have given them an outlet for expression at the same time they were recording business details.”

whalinglog logbook waterdamage

Some logbooks and journals had both drawings and stamps in them. Whale stamps were the most common; these were pieces of wood, bone or ivory cut to look like certain species of whales. Using the stamps, a ship’s owner or his agent could scan the logs to quickly tally whales seen (usually denoted by a stamp of a whale’s tail flukes) and killed (a stamp showing the full body).

 However, most log keepers did not use the stamps consistently, and would either not stamp every time they caught a whale, or would sometimes stamp when they had only seen a whale. As such, the whale stamps cannot be reliably used as an indicator of whales seen or taken. 

whaling logbook entry

Log keepers occasionally used ship stamps (which looked like whaling vessels) to record speaking to and gamming with other vessels. Whale drawings and ship drawings were often used in place of whale and ship stamps. Some logbooks also have profile drawings of land masses seen.

“When you read about the excitement of sailing around the Horn, or a first-hand account of the weather on a particular day, in a particular spot in the Pacific Ocean, you can’t help but feel a connection to the person who is writing in the logbook, ” added Jessica Henze, NEDCC associate book conservator. “As conservators, we don’t sit down and read the books, but we are not separate from them. We feel connected by handling these objects that have been to places we have never been.”


Allison Meier: Hyperallergic.com

 Rachel Adler: New Bedford Whaling Museum

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