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Sperm Whaling with its Varieties

Major collection: Hart Nautical
Named collection: Allan Forbes Collection
Object type: lithograph
Maker: Russell, Benjamin; Bufford, John Henry
Place made: United States, Massachusetts, Boston
Date made: 1870
Materials: paper; color; ink; cloth
Measurements: 21 in x 36 in
Nomenclature: whaling scenes
Classification: whales

"Two whalers are shown in the middle ground hove to with their boats lowered. Because sperm whales were commonly, although not always, hunted on offshore grounds, there is only a broad expanse of ocean in the background. All along the foreground are boats engaged in the full range of whaling activities. To the left a boat is waiting its chance to fasten to a whale. Another boat is going on a whale, with the harpooner about to dart his iron. A third boat toward the center of the picture is going on a whale with its sail still set. By ancient custom, the harpooner (commonly called the boatsteerer by whalemen) pulled the bow oar. After harpooning the whale, he changed position with the boat header, an officer in charge of the boat, who steered it until the whale was truck. It became the officer's duty to kill the whale after he had been exhausted and the boat could approach him again. This is shown under the bow of the whaler at the left. When the whale was struck, he did one of three things, all of which are depicted in the center and right foreground. Generally he ran, as shown in front of the whaler on the right. Another response was for him to sound, or dive to a great depth. In that case, the boat would hold on to him as long as the whale line lasted, but if he did not level out or return to the surface before all the line was paid out, he would have to be cut loose and whale, harpoon, and line would be lost. While that was undesirable, it was preferable to the third alternative of the whale, which was to attack the boat, as sperm whales, being somewhat more pugnacious than other species, have been known to do. The scene near the right foreground shows a boat stove by a whale, with its crew swimming around in the water. The damage resulting from such an attack could range from simply upsetting the boat to total loss of boat, gear, and crew. Assuming all went well, the whale would eventually tire from a 3,000-pound weight and the whalemen would pull up to him, enabling the boat header to kill him with a lance, as shown on the left. If there were more whales in the area, the carcass was marked with a waif, a small flag mounted on a pole to facilitate finding it later, and the boat went off in pursuit of another. Often several boats were secured together in tandem to lighten the work of towing the dead whale to the ship. All these activities can be seen in the lithograph, with identifying captions below." See Hall, Elton Wayland. 1981. Panoramic views of whaling by Benjamin Russell. New Bedford, Mass: Old Dartmouth Historical Society.