Forty ships pushed through the scree of heaving ice in July 1871, trying to outmaneuver each other up the narrow, shifting, seasonal waterway now opening between the pack ice and the Alaskan shore. At no point along its entire length from the Bering Strait to Point Barrow was this channel wider than the broadest reaches of Long Island Sound.
It resembled the end stage of a gold rush: too many miners jammed elbow to elbow, scrabbling over the remaining crumbs of a once fabulously rich vein. Yet still they came on, ignoring every sign of the vein’s exhaustion, for there was nowhere else to go, and they knew nothing but mining.
This was the last profitable whaling ground on earth. The whalers had virtually exhausted the whale stocks of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, eastern Arctic, and Southern oceans. It had taken less than a hundred years.
IN AUGUST 1788, the British whaling ship Emelia sailed from London for what was then the most exploited known whaling ground in the world: the relatively shallow banks off the coast of Brazil. The tropical waters teeming with organic effluent from the Amazon and other rivers made a rich soup of nutrients and sea life, an ecosystem that drew great numbers of whales. This fabulous offshore repository of wealth had become known to seamen as “the Brazils” or simply “the banks.” But the Emelia’s whalemen found few whales there, and those that remained had become wary of ships and men.
Already by the late eighteenth century, whale populations everywhere in the Atlantic had noticeably decreased. Even after the Revolution had destroyed or bottled up in port most American whaleships, those that still cruised the Brazil banks, mostly British ships, noticed a change.
The Emelia was owned by the premier English whaling merchants of the day, Samuel Enderby & Sons, who had long been engaged in business with merchants in Nantucket and had a strong connection with the island. A number of the sailors on British ships at the time were Nantucketers, the acknowledged world experts on whaling. Their island home had remained neutral throughout the Revolution, and Nantucket’s whalemen found ready employment in the British fishery after the war. The Emelia’s captain, James Shields, and first mate, Ar chaelus Hammond, were both Nantucketers. Along the docks and in seamen’s taverns in London before the voyage, they had met the captains of British merchant vessels sailing home across the South Pacific from China, and many of these had spoken of the great numbers of sperm whales they had seen in that ocean. So, late in 1788, off the disappointing coast of Brazil, Hammond—so the story goes— persuaded Shields to sail the ship south and around Cape Horn into the Pacific.
This was no small decision aboard a ship fitted out to cruise the tropics. Cape Horn was already well known as a graveyard of ships and sailors, a place of consistently ferocious weather and abnormally large seas that could overwhelm the best-managed, best-equipped vessels. There was another route into the Pacific some miles north of Cape Horn, through the strait discovered by Magellan more than 250 years earlier, but few ships carried charts for the strait—or the waters around the Horn, for that matter. The only recommended tactic for getting from the Atlantic to the Pacific—if a ship wasn’t going to sail east around the bottom of Africa and across most of the world—was to sail south, well offshore, before turning west somewhere below South America (there was no more precise instruction) and hope for the best.
The Emelia successfully rounded the Horn early in 1789—summer in the Southern Hemisphere—and sailed into an edenic new world where large ships were still relatively unknown and the whales cruising the vast ocean had never been hunted and knew nothing of men. In March, off the coast of Chile, sperm whales were sighted and boats were lowered to give chase. Mate Hammond’s reached the pod first, and he became the first man (that is, of the history-writing American and European cultures) to harpoon a whale in the Pacific. The Emelia quickly filled all its barrels, turned south, and once again rounded Cape Horn. Heading north, in the middle of the Atlantic, she met the Nantucket ship Hope, owned by William Rotch. As the two ships passed within a few hundred feet of each other, Captain Thaddeus Swain aboard the Hope heard Shields on the Emeliashouting the information that he had come from “round Cape Horn with 150 tons sperm oil.” Rotch, who in the aftermath of the Revolution was based temporarily in Dunkirk, France, and running a small fleet of his whaleships out of that port to supply the European market, soon sent four more of his ships to the Pacific by way of Cape Horn. Word spread fast. The first whaleships to head for the Pacific from American ports were the Beaver , from Nantucket, and the Rebecca, from New Bedford, both sailing in 1791. Both returned to port after seventeen months with their holds filled with sperm oil.
The so-called Golden Age of American whaling refers to the years between the 1820s and the 1850s, when the business, centered increasingly in New Bedford, reached its peak, but this boom truly dates from around 1790, for it was in fact powered by the discovery of the Pacific whaling grounds.
Yet such unrelenting success sowed the seeds of ruin. Sixty years after the Emelia’s discovery, well before the peak of the Golden Age, whaling captains were already looking back on what by then appeared to be the good old days. In 1853, a whaleship captain (he chose to write anonymously but was probably either Asa Tobey, captain of the Lagoda, or Charles Bonney of the Metacom, both ships and men from New Bedford) published a series of letters in the Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript charting the inevitable effect of the whalers’ efficiency wherever they voyaged:
In the commencement of right whaling the Brazil Banks was the only place of note to which ships were sent. Then came Tristan, East Cape, Falkland Islands, and Patagonia. These places encompassed the entire South Atlantic. Full cargoes were sometimes obtained in an incredibly short space of time—whales were seen in great numbers . . . where they had been gambolling unmolested for hundreds of years. The harpoon and lance soon made awful havoc with many of them, and scattered the remainder over the ocean, and many I believe retreated further south—a few remain, as wild [i.e., wary] as the hunted deer. Can anyone believe that there will ever again exist the same numbers of whales? or that they multiply as fast as they are destroyed? . . .
After the Southern Ocean whales were well cut up, the ships penetrated the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, St. Pauls, Crozets, Desolation, New Holland, New Zealand, and Chili. I believe it is not more than twenty years since whaling began in either of these localities—but where now are the whales, at first found in great numbers? I think most whalemen will join in deciding that the better half have been killed, and cut up in horse pieces years ago. A part of the remainder have fled further south. A few yet remain, and most of them know a whale boat by sight or by sound. . . .
Then came great stories of large whales in large numbers in the North Pacific. The first voyages by their success created great excitement—the fleet there increased and was fitted out with extra care and skill, and in a few years our ships swept entirely across the broad Pacific, and along the Kamschatka shores. They moved round Japan, and into that sea and there whales were found more numerous than ever. The leviathans were driven from the bosom of that sea, their few scattered remnants running in terror whenever their enemy is near.
The pioneering captains of these whaleships, like the writer above, were master mariners and navigators, among the canniest and most skillful in human history. They came to know the sea and read the oceans with instincts that bordered on the extrasensory. Good navigators in any age (but especially before the widespread use of electronic navigation devices caused these senses to atrophy) necessarily acquired this skill: something inside them that grew to fill the gap between what was demonstrably known and what they desperately needed to know in crucial moments. Thus they became aware of the great ocean currents, discrete rivers running through the wider seas—the Gulf Stream, the Benguela off Africa, the Brazil and the Falkland, the Humboldt off Chile, the Kurio Shio and the Oya Shio off Japan, the Alaska, the Aleutian, the Kamchatka. They felt—in the spray on their faces and in the air around them—the temperature gradients where the edges of these currents, some cold, some warm, met the surrounding ocean; they saw the water change colors, and they observed closely the life in the water and the air that migrated along these highways. But all this they could only know by sailing blindly ahead, in many places without charts—often through dense fogs in high latitudes. Most whaling grounds were discovered by chance married to a seaman’s intuition. As they were located, exploited, and depleted in sequence across the Pacific, ships sailed deeper into unknown and uncharted waters, looking for rich new pastures, hoping to stumble upon an epoch-making discovery like the Emelia’s.
One of the most curious, observant, independent-minded, and strong-willed of these pioneering whaling captains was Thomas Welcome Roys. Born on a farm in upstate New York, Roys shipped aboard a Sag Harbor whaler at age seventeen in 1833, and was a captain by the time he was twenty-five. Cruising off the Kamchatka peninsula of Russia in the North Pacific in the early 1840s, he noticed, and made careful note of, steady streams of migrating whales swimming to the north. In 1845, on his second voyage as a captain, the twenty-nine-year-old Roys was injured by a right whale off Kamchatka. The whale’s thrashing tail destroyed the boat he was standing in and dumped him into the sea, breaking two of his ribs. After this accident, his ship, the Josephine, of Sag Harbor, New York, sailed to the Russian coastal town of Petropavlosk, where Roys remained to recuperate from his injury while his ship continued whaling with its first mate in command.
While he was ashore, Roys spoke with a Russian naval officer who had cruised north through the Bering Strait into the Arctic and seen unusual-looking whales there. Roys supposed these must be similar to the Greenland right whales that whalers had hunted in the high latitudes of the North Atlantic. No American or European whaleship had yet sailed north of the Bering Strait, and Roys began to think of the possibilities of a voyage there. He was so intrigued that before he left Petropavlosk, he purchased a hundred dollars’ worth of Russian charts covering the waters north of the strait. Later, while still cruising in the Josephine on the right whale grounds off Kamchatka, Roys met and gammed with Captain Thomas Sodring of the Danish whaleship Neptun. Sodring told him of three strange-looking whales he had taken near Petropavlosk. He, too, had supposed at first they were right whales, until his crew began to cut them up: their blubber—evolved for colder arctic seas—proved to be extraordinarily thick, rendering enormous quantities of oil, and there was more “bone”—baleen—in their mouths than Sodring had ever seen in another whale.
After the Josephine returned to Sag Harbor, Roys was given command of another ship, the Superior. Having spent a significant sum on his northern charts, it’s likely that he shared his thoughts about whaling in the Arctic with the Superior ’s owners, Joseph Grinnell (of New Bedford) and Robert Minturn, of the whaling firm Grinnell, Minturn & Co. They considered arctic whaling too risky, and instructed him to sail not north but to the distant south, to cruise the remote but well-known wastes around Crozet and Desolation islands in the Southern Ocean, south of the Indian Ocean, almost halfway between South Africa and Antarctica. When he got there, Roys found these once plentiful grounds, where he had successfully hunted whales before, nearly fished out. He then sailed east (the only possibility for a whaleship east of Africa in the Southern Ocean, with its frequent and fast-moving westerly gales) until he arrived in Hobart, Tasmania. Begun as a penal colony in 1804, Hobart had developed into a major whaling port servicing the South Pacific whaling fleets by the time Roys arrived there early in 1848. It was probably in Hobart where a letter reached him with the news that his wife had died only a month after he had sailed from Sag Harbor the year before, shortly after the birth of their only son. This may have made him reckless, for he sent a letter to Grinnell and Minturn from Hobart telling them that he was sailing for the Bering Strait and seas north of there.
Months later, in late July, eight thousand miles north of Tasmania, at the extreme top of the Pacific, the Superior was nosing past the Dio mede Islands into the Bering Strait. Aboard his ship, Roys had kept his intentions entirely to himself. His crew and officers had no idea he had sailed without permission, where he had brought them, or how far he was intending to go. They certainly knew they were in the far north—from the weather and glimpses of the coast; probably somewhere “on Kamchatka [grounds],” they supposed—but when they saw seven native umiak canoes filled with more than 250 Eskimos paddling toward them from the low shore, they lost their composure. Eskimos in walrus-skin boats were not found at sea off the Kamchatka peninsula. At that moment, the Superior was becalmed, unable to move, unable to avoid the oncoming native flotilla, and Roys’s men were terrified—he recorded that his first mate broke down in tears. Roys himself didn’t know if the natives, in such large numbers, outnumbering his crew by many times, had friendly or hostile intentions. Apart from harpoons, the only weapon aboard the Superiorwas “one Blunt & Sims revolver that would not go unless you threw it.” But before the Eskimos got close enough for that, a breeze came across the water from the southwest. The men clapped on sail and the ship pulled slowly away—still to the north, and soon into an icy fog. Roys’s crew remained so frightened that many of them “never expected to see home again.”
When the fog cleared away a day later, whales were breaching the surface of the sea around the Superior in all directions, in numbers none of them had ever seen before. They appeared huge; the mates thought they were humpbacks, but Roys now believed he had found something new to commercial whaling: the polar whale the Russian naval officer and Captain Sodring had spoken of. The boats were lowered, although Roys’s spooked whalemen “were not inclined to meddle with ‘the new fangled monster’ as they called him.” Yet the will of the captain was rarely opposed, especially one as forceful as Roys. And despite their fears, the men were as keenly motivated as their captain: big fat whales meant money for all. The men did as they were told, got into the boats, and pulled off into the long arctic twilight.
It was midnight but still light when the boatsteerer in Roys’s boat threw his first harpoon. It stuck fast and the whale sounded immediately. It swam along the bottom (only 25 fathoms, or 150 feet, deep here in the Bering Strait), towing Roys and his men in their boat for fifty minutes until Roys “began to think that I was fast to something that breathed water instead of air and might remain down a week if he liked.” The mates were now convinced, by its size and lung capacity, that it was a humpback. Then the whale rose to the surface and was quickly and easily lanced and killed. Only when the whalemen began to “cut in” the whale alongside the ship were they finally persuaded they had caught something quite unusual. The baleen—the long, curved, keratinous fronds that hang in the whale’s mouth like a dense curtain to filter out the plankton and shrimp from great mouthfuls of seawater—was twelve feet long, almost twice the size of right whale baleen; and the immensely thick blubber evolved for such cold seas produced 120 barrels (3,780 gallons) of oil, far more than the yield of most other whales.
Roys sailed the Superior and its unwilling crew another 250 miles north into the Arctic Ocean. They caught whales all the way, yet despite the sudden astonishing success of the voyage, in which every man would share, Roys’s officers and crew remained spooked, “living in hourly expectation of some unforeseen calamity and almost beside themselves with fear,” he remembered later. “I actually believe if they had any hope that open mutiny would have succeeded they would have tried it to get away from this sea.”
Over the next month, Roys and his men caught eleven whales north of the Bering Strait, yielding 1,600 barrels of oil—several years’ haul on a normal voyage—stopping only when the ship was full and could take no more. On August 27, the Superior turned south and sailed for Hawaii.
FROM HIS CONVERSATIONS with Russians in Petropavlosk, Roys would have known the likely intentions of the seven boatloads of Eskimos: they were hoping to trade. The exchange of iron, tobacco, and knives for the natives’ seal, fox, and sea otter furs was already a well-established commerce. But the fears of his crew were not misplaced, and the hackles on the back of Roys’s own neck would also have told him that the Eskimos were opportunistically prepared for any possibility, including taking over the whaleship by force—which, with his broken pistol and cowering crew, would have been a pushover if the ship hadn’t conveniently sailed away.
The Superior was probably the first whaleship any of the Eskimos had seen, although it would have looked no different to them from the other square-rigged sailing ships whose appearance in arctic and subarctic waters was, just then, beginning to be not uncommon. Contact between Russian and European explorers, traders, and the native peoples of the Bering and Chukchi sea coasts was already more than a century old. Roys would have learned in Petropavlosk and elsewhere of Russia’s longtime interest in the Arctic, begun in 1648, when a band of Cossacks, traders, and hunters looking for new plunder sailed out of the Kolyma River into the Arctic Ocean. Eighty years later, Czar Peter the Great appointed a Danish captain serving in the Russian navy, Vitus Bering, to lead an expedition from Kamchatka east to explore the North American coast. In 1728, Bering’s two ships sailed north up the Siberian shore, through the strait that now bears his name, and then back again as far as Okhotsk. Many Russian expeditions followed, all bent on securing trade, fur, mining rights, and sovereignty on the coast of America, only fifty-nine miles from the easternmost tip of Asian Russia.
Roys would certainly have known of Captain James Cook’s exploration of the Arctic seventy years earlier—Cook’s surveys were the basis for many of the charts carried by American and British navigators throughout the Pacific. Cook was already famous, promoted to post-captain and a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, when he left England for the last time, on his third voyage, in 1776. Two years later, his ships Resolution and Discovery passed through Bering Strait and pushed as far north as 70’ 41” N, the latitude of Wainwright Inlet, less than a hundred miles from Point Barrow, before being stopped by a “moveable mass of . . . heavy loose ice.”
THE NEWS OF ROYS’S VOYAGE, radiating outward from Hawaii around the globe through the press, but most powerfully and quickly by word of mouth, was as electric and galvanizing to the whale fishery as the Emelia’s first voyage around Cape Horn. Roy’s discovery of the western arctic grounds was the most important in the whole history of whaling. His men’s fearful reaction to what they saw there was entirely reasonable: the Arctic was, by all seaman-like criteria, no place for an unwieldy wooden ship. Yet soon fleets would flock there in a feeding frenzy. Over the next fifty years, more than 2,700 whaling voyages were made to the icy wastes north of the Bering Strait. More than 150 whaleships were lost there. More than 20,000 bowhead whales, as Roys’s big whale with the bow-shaped mouth full of baleen came to be called, were killed, hunted to near extinction.
In 1853, only five years after Roys’s voyage, the anonymous whaling captain publishing his letters in the Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript, described what had happened since:
Then the great combined fleet moved northward towards the pole, and there the ships of almost all the whaling ports in the world are and have been for several seasons lending their united efforts to the destruction of the whale—capturing even the young. These polar whales were most easily captured, at first, but . . . his nature [has] been entirely changed by constant and untiring pursuit. He is no longer the slow and sluggish beast we at first found him. Particularly at the latter part of the season, they are very shy. I have often noticed, after one or two whales were struck in the morning, after the fog cleared, that the entire body of whales would be stirred up, so that it would be almost impossible to strike [another] one during the whole day. Within a space of from ten to twelve miles there would be from fifteen to thirty ships, all doing their best, but the greatest number were to be seen without any smoke [i.e., no tryworks burning, hence no whales caught]. On the 4th of September I counted fifty-eight ships, and only twelve of them were boiling. . . . I know that the whales have diminished since I was here two years ago, and that they are more difficult to strike. How can it be otherwise? Look at the immense fleet, stretching from Cape Thaddeus to the Straits! By day and by night the whale is chased and harassed—the fleet perpetually driving them, until they reach the highest navigable latitudes of the Arctic. The only rest they have is when the fogs are thick, and the wind high. There could not have been less than three thousand polar whales killed last season, yet the average of oil [for each ship in the fleet] is only about half as great as it was two years ago.
It is impossible now to read such a lamentation of the decline of nature in any but ecological terms. But the writer above, and the audience he was addressing, never thought about ecology. It would be a century before the work of Rachel Carson and others tipped the public consciousness into that direction. The shipmaster’s last line reveals the true focus of his concern: “[These facts show that] it will not long be profitable to send ships to the Arctic.”