How to Dissect a Whale
By Nomi Dayan, Executive Director at The Whaling Museum
Photos taken under Research Permit AMCS #2094
When a whale beaches itself in the Long Island area, dead or alive, one man’s cell phone rings first. That man is Robert DiGiovanni. He’s the founder of the relatively new Atlantic Marine Conservation Society and its stranding response team, whose Facebook page becomes pocked with crying emojis when a dead or dying whale collapses onto the sand. I first met Rob at a beer and cheese tasting at The Whaling Museum, where he gestured to the whale models as he talked. While we chatted, he mentioned he was going to be performing a necropsy on a young Humpback whale spotted swimming the day before in Reynolds Channel in Far Rockaway. Now it was floating dead on a sandbar near Atlantic Beach Bridge - the 4th dead humpback on Long Island in less than a month. A necropsy would help explain why.
My eyes lit up. A dead whale! I half-heartedly asked if he ever allowed guests to view the process. As if on cue, Ken Pritchard stepped up, sensing an opportunity. He is the museum Vice President and Commissioner of Sanitation for the Town of Hempstead, and helps oversee how the whale’s final resting place will be prepared. Ken whipped out his phone and held Google Maps open for Rob to point at. With his big fingers, Rob poked a spot off of Loop Parkway. Tomorrow morning, ten o-clock.
I could barely sleep the night before. I had been teaching about whales for years, but I had never actually met one. I was like an informative field guide for a country I had not visited. Sure, I had caught breathtaking but elusive glimpses of blowholes and flukes from nauseating whale-watching trips, but everything else I knew about whales was devotedly learned from documentaries and books. I had handled whale teeth, but only after being passed through a whaler’s hands two centuries earlier. I had led kids through blubber insulation experiments, but never actually touched the real thing. What would it smell like? Feel like? Are dissections somber? What about the notorious stench I had heard about?
“Boots better than shoes,” Ken texts that morning. I stare into my closet. What do you wear to a whale dissection? I decide on denim with my trusty museum uniform shirt which has the necessary whale-tail on it to help me feel official in a place where both the whale and I will be out of its element.
After a short drive to Alder Island near Point Lookout, where street lights wear the spiky hats of osprey nests, Ken pulls over to a small clump of cars on a spot by the side of the highway. He wonders out loud if the car will combust from igniting the long grasses. We step out of the car, spark-free. Ironically, the area has a strong whaling history. Major Thomas Jones established a whaling station near present-day Jones beach in the early 1700’s, creating a successful monopoly around “Mereck Beach.” We search for the same goal today, a dead whale, as we venture past ubiquitous poison ivy to a random path of surprisingly soft and white sand. A Gator utility vehicle miraculously appears behind us and offers us a ride; Ken gallantly rides in the back. After a few moments of wobbling, we round a ridge of sand, and suddenly -- there it is.
Before us lays a large, dead whale on its back. Its huge throat grooves are thrust up to the sky, inflated with bloat, like a giant tire half. Normally neatly pleated and only expanded to gulp water while feeding like the other great rorqual whales, the grooves are now stretched like a drum and engorged with air, deeply stippled with light and dark lines, like elevator treads. The middle of its body is centered with a small notched dimple, none other than its belly button. The whale’s notched pectoral flippers are splayed and are surprisingly long - a characteristic of humpbacks. Its genus, after all, is megaptera, meaning large wing. A humpback’s flippers are third of its body length, used to propel the whale through its herculean annual migrations, one of the longest of any mammal, not to mention spectacular aerial displays emblemized both by environmental organizations and Pacific Life Insurance.
There are about ten quiet people there, most of whom are volunteers. They are wearing blue gloves and waterproof bib overalls so bright an orange that Home Depot would be proud. The backs of their t-shirts boldly state Conservation Starts With You. Supplies and a table are set up under a blue pop-up tent. Rob is there, directing volunteers how to cut into the side of the whale with machete-like flensing knives. People look dwarfed next to the whale, like fire ants cutting into the side of a large fish.
I whisper to Ken, “Can I touch the whale?”
“Just do it,” he hisses back. “That’ll make two of us at the museum!”
The wind shifts, and suddenly we inhale the wall of stench that slams into us. We let out a choked ugh. The air reeks of rotting fish, rancid meat, and vomit. Bubbling gas is fizzing out of deliberate cuts along the whale’s side. We got it right, I think, remembering the customized scent stations we designed in the museum where visitors can smell a whaleship. I suppress a gag reflex and side up to one person. She is part of a volunteer team from Mystic Aquarium. It is a skinny male, she says, now known as AMCS83Mn2018, and is about 3-5 years old.
The image of a mother and baby whale is one of the most endearing icons in nature. This whale, now a teenager, nursed from its mother for about a year, gaining several pounds a hour on toothpaste-thick milk which was 50% fat, far more than the scanty 4-5% fat in human milk. His mother would have taught him all she knew - how to communicate, how to behave, how to evade predators, preparing him for a life that should have gone to 50 years, and possibly to 100 (a century away from the 200-year longevity reported in Bowhead whales).
Large, black flies are everywhere, unable to believe their compound eyes. I brush aggressive ones from my face. For them, this whale is the singles bar of the century. They are checking each other out on the whale-skin dance floor, flashing their wings, pairing up, mating, and laying their eggs. Emboldened, they start to nip at my legs. I regret not wearing pants.
Another species of arthropod are also desperately clutching to the whale, simply because they have nowhere else to go. Whale lice. Thought not to be harmful, there are 29 species of these highly specialized and host-specific crabs which spend their lives tightly clutching whales’ skin folds with their claw-like legs, chewing off old skin. These lice were a gift from the whale’s own mother, who earned her lice from the mother before her. For this reason, these heirloom creatures have been helpful to scientists who use lice DNA to study whale population evolution. When a Right whale calf was found dead in 2004 with humpback-whale lice, researchers concluded that the calf was nursed by a humpback mother, if one could believe such a thing, because these lice spread through physical contact only.
I peer closely at the lice, bleaching in the hot sun. They have almost no body and are all legs, dotting the dark skin like little stars, now dying as they lived. The pink ones are still alive, mourning for the untimely fate of the whale and, subsequently, their own.
“You made it,” Rob says as he lumbers over, his teddy-bear frame filling his overalls. His curly hair is tufting out of the sides of his cap. Specks of shiny whale flesh are stuck to his pants. I ask if he has a hunch how the whale died. “I just focus on collecting the facts,” he answers. “Then I put all the facts together to come to a conclusion.” I inquire how long the whale is, and he states “930 centimeters,” which Ken’s phone charitably translates as 30.8 feet. Humpbacks grow to 45-50 feet, with the females stretching larger than the males. Rob goes back to calmly directing his volunteers, who are cutting sections of a rather neatly grown layer of white blubber.
Blubber is not just flab. It is a unique kind of connective adipose tissue which is 60% fat, thicker and containing more blood vessels than the fat found in any other animal. Blubber is well-known for its insulating properties, but it has other functions. Blubber increases whales' buoyancy and is an important energy source for migrating whales, especially nursing mothers who fast for several months while living off of blubber for both the nourishment of themselves and their calves.
The volunteers seem to be having more trouble than whalers did. “In whaler’s cases,” Rob explains, “they want the blubber. In our case, it’s in our way.” Whalers would typically use a giant blubber hook to unravel the blubber from the whale in long strips while the whale floated alongside the ship, like spiralizing the peel of a bobbing apple. Here, sections of blubber are hacked away in rectangular hunks and then peeled off to the side with hooks. The muscle underneath is light pink.
“Can I help cut?” I ask, wanting the full experience.
Hannah, a youthful-looking biologist for AMCS, answers in the same tone I use towards my 4 year old son when he asks to help make dinner: “These knives are really sharp,” she says, “but we can train you as a volunteer. If you give me your contact information, I can send you information.” I must look crestfallen, because she explains, “Look, I once almost sliced my finger off. It didn’t heal quite straight, but...” She holds her index finger up, wiggling its angled fingertip. I smile politely.
I grab a pair of gloves and approach a cast-off piece of blubber. Surprisingly, it is simultaneously firm yet gummy, with a gelatinous surface which jiggles when I vibrate my finger. The surface sticks to my glove like silly-putty. Phew, I thought. When we have kids make goop at the museum and we tell them it’s whale blubber, we are not that far off.
“Get a new knife,” I hear Rob instructing. “I just switched knives, and it cut into it like butter.” I am surprised how they face the same troubles as whalers on a whaleship, who would call out “another sharp one!” to a blacksmith or barrelmaker who would constantly sharpen spades for the crew during the blubber-stripping process.
I walk around the whale’s body, respectfully quiet. I pass its eye. Its eyelid is partially open. Many people have shared that when you look into the eye of a whale, the experience is profound, even spiritual. When I met the gaze of a dolphin swimming sideways to look back at me on one whale watching trip, the feeling was transcendent. There is something there – a human-like consciousness perhaps - looking, feeling, and thinking back at you. And here, even dead and rotting on the beach, there was still something there behind that eye.
As if on cue, Rob comes over. He plunges his knife into the side of the eye. Dark, thick juices hiss out, and – ploink! – out comes the eyeball. I swallow hard. “Left eyeball!” he calls out. A volunteer dutifully stumbles over the sand with a cutting tray, and like a good waiter, delivers the wobbling sphere back to the tent.
I kneel by the whale’s face. Ken snaps a picture, cheering “Our fearless director!” The skin around its snout is mottled gray and white, with rounded tubercules protruding around the snout, like bumps on a pickle. To my astonishment, the biology books hold true: there, in the center of each tubercule, is one single, tiny, yellow hair. The single bristle feels stiff when I poke it with my finger. This tiny thorn is the very last speck of thousands of years of the evolutionarily shedding of whale fur, one hair at a time, a firm no-thanks to the stubbly genes that bind us bristly mammals.
I now touch its skin. The surface feels like tire rubber. I move on to touch the bristles of baleen on its upper jaw. The baleen is a messy, interweaving network of keratinous fringe, thick and matted like a bird’s nest. The bristles feel like a tough broom. While I had taught for years how baleen filters food out of the water, I now fully understand how tiny shrimp are truly entangled and then swallowed.
The smell is intensifying. The elation I expected to feel upon completing a highlight of my life – to touch a whale! - is being drowned out by the sick miasma pouring out. I continue to take shallow breaths and chew mint gum. I look over my shoulder and see Ken is smartly upwind. With the hot sun baking overhead, and bacteria reproducing by the trillions beneath the blubber, methane is building up, producing one of the worst smells nature has ever produced. This is what made whaleships the stinking rose of the nautical world, with ships downwind able to smell a whaleship before seeing one. Nauseous, choking smells were one of the top complaints of life on a whaleship. One seaman wrote in 1860: “It is as if the ill odors of the world were gathered together and being shaken up.” Whaler Charles Nordhoff described verbosely how one could not get away from the oily stench in 1856:
"Everything is drenched with oil. Shirts and trowsers are dripping with the loathsome stuff. The pores of the skin seem to be filled with it. Feet, hands and hair, all are full. The biscuit you eat glistens with oil, and tastes as though just out of the blubber room. The knife with which you cut your meat leaves upon the morsel, which nearly chokes you as you reluctantly swallow it, plain traces of the abominable blubber. Every few minutes it becomes necessary to work at something on the lee side of the vessel, and while there you are compelled to breath in the fetid smoke of the scrap fires, until you feel as though filth had struck into your blood, and suffused every vein in your body. From this smell and taste of blubber, raw, boiling and burning, there is no relief or place of refuge."
Suddenly a woman who looks vaguely familiar announces, “We have some bruising!” Dark hemorrhaging has spread around the area behind the flipper, as if someone spilled a giant bottle of crimson ink, possibly indicating a vessel strike. More pictures and samples are taken.
Then she asks, “Who here has clean hands?” Just one volunteer raises a hand. “Can you lift my sunglasses and put them on my cap?” she asks, and finds something to wipe the sweat off her face. She is wearing a psychedelic-colored cap with the word Joy written on a green piece of masking tape fixed to the front side. Now I remember: I had met her from my couch as I watched her on PBS, dumbfounded as she explained how our vocal cords evolved from fish gills. She is Dr. Joy Reidenberg, a research scientist who specializes in comparative anatomy. Today, she is here as a volunteer. Her dark ponytail, streaked with silver, sticks out of the back of her cap. At one point she hollers loudly, “Did you do the genitals?” in the same tone one would ask a friend where they parked the car.
Unlike other mammals, whales have elected to keep their procreative organs demurely hidden. All rules are off during mating season. Male Southern Right whales take the gold for the most highly endowed animal, whose prehensile-like phallus reaches an unprecedented 12 feet, helpful in breeding showdowns. Smartly, veins of cooled blood returning from the flukes are routed to the testes to keep sperm production chilled. Not to be undone, female reproductive gear is quite complex with a dizzying number of species-specific twists, turns, and angles that are still poorly understood. Still unwilling to sacrifice even an inch from being thoroughly streamlined, alongside each side of the female’s genital slit are two nipples, inverted when not actively nursing. Each can actually eject milk right into calves’ mouths in a thick, fatty, ribbon-like stream, helpful since calves can’t really move their lips.
I ask Joy a very important question: “How do you deal with the smell?”
“What smell?” she answers incredulously. “This is nothing like dead sea turtle. That is bad. This is fresh! Fresh meat!”
I gently place her sunglasses back on her face for her. While I try to conceptualize a smell worse than the one we are breathing in, Rob calls out helpfully, “I breathe through my mouth!”
It has been a few hours now. Ken patiently waits, father-like, telling me, “When you’re done learning, you let me know. I’m checking emails,” - and to reassure me of his hard work - “See, I just disciplined someone!” Two members of the Coast Guard come to stare with appropriate disgust. Bottled water is passed out. I reflect on the irony of us drinking from single-use plastic bottles which are undisputedly choking the ocean while we examine this whale for evidence of human impact.
I look at the whale’s tail in the sand, which feels surprisingly firm and stiff. There are no bones in whales’ tails; instead the flukes are made up of muscle and dense tissue. Besides for being used to propel a whale through the water, tails are used for lobtailing or tail slapping, thought to be a form of communication as well as defense. Arteries and veins in flukes help maintain the whale’s temperature. Southern Right Whales even use their flukes like sails: they lift their flukes into the wind to move through the water. Researchers rely on the color patterns, shapes, and scars on whale tails to aid with identification, just like human fingerprints. In the past few years, there has been a disturbing uptick in the number of sightings of Humpback and Gray whales who have lost this most quintessential part of their biology. Likely choked off by entangled fishing line, a consequence of industrial fishing which occupies a third of the planet, the majority of tailless whales are thought to eventually succumb to this fatal handicap. Astonishingly, there have been reports of plucky individuals who continue to survive, even on unimaginable migrations.
The excavator is now called into service. We stand a respectable distance back. Flashes of YouTube videos showing whale carcasses exploding like geysers run through my mind. With directional waves of Rob’s hands, the pectoral fins are detached from their white sockets. The backhoe raises its giant metal jaws, like a T-rex above a kill, and starts to peel back the lower jaw. We hear a popping sound of released gas. “There it goes,” Ken says.
“Try not to cut the larynx!” Joy calls.
Ken watches the backhoe carefully. “He’s good,” he evaluates the operator. As the jaw is lifted, Ken calls out, “If the jaw swings, won’t it hit the tent?”
“No!” Rob hollers back reassuringly. “It would hit me!” Rob and Joy continue to cut alongside the whale, slicing through tendons and muscles as the backhoe continues to peel the whale apart, helping the whale to split. The massive, cushiony gray tongue spills out of its mouth, like overturned dark Jello. Rob explains that the tongue itself can weigh over a ton. Dark rivulets stream out from under the whale and pool in the sand.
“Do whales have taste buds?” I wonder out loud.
“There’s evidence for taste buds in some dolphins,” Rob answers. Salt seems to be whales’ primary taste; the other taste buds have atrophied away. While this sounds like a pitiful way to eat, no whale chews its food, so they likely don’t care too much about what they’re missing.
Whale tongues are a prized delicacy for orca whales, who will viciously attack whales in teams and then feast on the tongue first. There is even a mutualistic story of a pod of killer whales who teamed with whalers near Australia bring down whales for a chance to eat the tongue.
The upper jaw is cast to the side. “Wouldn’t you like that?” Ken whispers about the fringed baleen. “For the museum? Imagine he says you can have it. Now what do you do with it?”
Not only would I have to figure out what to do with half a whale head, but I have to figure out what to do with the whale palate in the museum that I now realize is ceremoniously displayed upside down. Who would have thought the center of a whale’s palate grooved inward at its center, and was not domed upwards like ours?
I then notice something oddly strange taking place. I blink my eyes. The cut pieces of whale are a sickly green. They weren’t green a few minutes ago. Is it my imagination? Am I being blinded by the sun?
Joy explains, “It’s exposed to oxygen, and it’s rotting.” Now I see why whalers truly had to process whales immediately, even – to the dismay of whaling wives – on the Sabbath. Because of the insulating properties of blubber, whale flesh decays extremely rapidly.
Joy now steps into the spilled organs of the whale. Her boots disappear into swirled guts. Volunteers pull their shirt collars up over their faces to block the stench. Ken takes a look, proclaims “Disgusting!” and walks back to the side. A volunteer is behind her, ready to catch her if she starts to slip. She reaches within the spinal cord, trying to feel for the brain. “Nothing!” she says. Just recently dead, and the brain has already decayed into liquid.
They are examining the lungs and the stomach, which sadly turns up empty instead of full of bunker, the fish that is drawing more and more Humpbacks to the area. I want to stay and see the rest of the organs, but I surrender to my own mammalian need to pump milk for my own little human calf at home, who is wearing a onesie with a smiling whale on it. Ken leaves instruction not to dig the ten-foot deep hole for the whale until the entire necropsy is complete. Burial is the most natural and practical way to let nature take care of the whale. We leave as the lower intestines are spilling out, which are cream-yellow and kinked like giant sausage.
When we get back into the car, we wrinkle our noses. “Ken -- do we smell?” I innocently ask. Because the odors are oil-based, the smell is slow to dissipate. If only we knew that ten minutes later, his typically reverent employees would be vocally throwing him out of the office, demanding he take a shower before returning. I finally drive myself home with both the AC on high and each window fully down, barely able to stand myself. I need to make a stop at a store, but decide I’m not fit to be around people. If we had only observed the necropsy and smell like death, my eyes cross to think how bad the people actually performing the task smell - and how bad whalers themselves smelled, who could not decently wash for years.
I feel refreshed after a hot shower. My husband complains the bathroom still smells, and silently banishes my sneakers to the front porch. At the end of the day, I check the AMSC’s Facebook feed:
"The necropsy examination showed that the whale had not been actively eating and may have been sick. Samples are being sent to a pathologist to help determine a cause of death, and results may take several months to come back."
I look at the posted picture of the whale before the necropsy started. My eyes now see a complex machine through the tough skin - tendons, muscles, blood, innards.
Three days later, Ken texts, “My car still smells, slightly.” My shoes are still cast outside of the house, forlorn. Ken adds, “I’m going with the story that you stunk worse than I did. I spent a large amount of time upwind.”
I try to relate the greatness of the necropsy to my wincing museum team - “the blubber! the stink!” - as they cover their noses in empathy. My mother texts please don’t send any more pictures. My sister says I’m throwing up just thinking about it. But I remember what Long Island ornithologist and museum founder Robert Cushman Murphy wrote in his diary on October 10, 1912 when he observed his first whalehunt: “This has been the most exciting day of my life.” While I observed no hunt and only whale, I know he’s not making it up.
What do I do if I see a whale on Long Island?
From Narwhals to -- Unicorns?!
By Brenna McCormick-Thompson, Museum Educator
Every year, the Whaling Museum conducts outreach programs in schools and libraries across Long Island. Our educators pack up some of the museum’s most interesting artifacts and travel to share them with kids from Queens to Riverhead. Of the many items we bring - antique compasses, battle-worn harpoons, glittering deck prisms, and fear-inspiring megalodon teeth - few are as popular as a small, delicately spiraled segment of whalebone: the very tip of a narwhal tusk.
This tusk is actually a tooth, which most male (and very rarely female) narwhals grow out of the front of their heads. The purpose of these elongated teeth is not definitively known, and is still hotly debated among the scientists who study these small arctic whales. Of all whales, the narwhal in particular has always been rather mysterious. Gathering information about these creatures, never mind even locating them, has always been a tricky business since they spend their lives hidden away in deep, dark arctic seas under thick layers of ice.
It’s perhaps this aura of mystery that makes the narwhal the perfect alter ego of one of the most popular mythical creatures: the unicorn. Even for kids who recognize the tusk for what it is, the thrill of holding a “real” unicorn horn is palpable...and rather curious. How did the enlarged canine of an isolated species of arctic whale come to be so fundamentally associated with a magical horned horse?
To uncover the origins of the unicorn myth, we have to travel back to Ancient Greece. In the 4th Century BCE, Greek physician Ctesias was travelling through Persia when he heard tales of an exotic land beyond the Indus River. Captivated by the accounts he heard of the strange beasts and curious peoples who inhabited the land we now call India, Ctesias took it upon himself to record these wonders for audiences back home. The resulting work, Indica, was an odd compilation of faithfully recorded descriptions of contemporary Indian beliefs and customs, and fanciful portraits of astonishing creatures. Among the latter is an account of the “wild asses in India the size of horses and even bigger.” Ctesias writes that these animals “have a horn in the middle of their brow one and a half cubits in length. The bottom part of the horn for as much as two palms towards the brow is bright white. The tip of the horn is sharp and crimson in color while the rest in the middle is black. They say that whoever drinks from the horn (which they fashion into cups) is immune to seizures and the holy sickness and suffers no effects from poison.”
The creature described by Ctesias, which the Greeks came to know as monoceros (one-horned) and which later the Romans called unicornus, was most likely an Indian rhinoceros. Having no exposure to such an animal, and with only the words “asses” and “horses” to serve as a guide, subsequent ancient and medieval scholars struggled for centuries to describe this seemingly fantastical beast.
Consequently, the unicorns depicted in early bestiaries are patchwork creatures - curious combinations of lions, goats, and deer - always vaguely equine in nature, but never the gleaming white horse we’ve come to know. The most striking difference between ancient and modern unicorns is the horn itself. Early unicorns were often given smooth, curved horns, surprisingly reminiscent of rhinoceros tusks. Though the creators of these images had undoubtedly never seen a rhinoceros in person, it’s possible that they may have come across the horn of one of these animals posing as a unicorn relic.
This image of the unicorn seemed to change as narwhal tusks were gradually introduced into the European market. Appearing first in northern regions, these tusks were possibly distributed by the Viking sailors who were among the only people to venture into the arctic realms of these whales. These elegant, pale horns so captured the medieval imagination that the concept of the unicorn changed to better correspond to these strikingly beautiful artifacts. Unicorns transformed from beastly hybrid monsters to graceful beings who were so pure of spirit they could only be tamed by the fairest of maidens.
Legends and artwork featuring the new, refined unicorn exploded across the continent, all but obliterating any memory of the fierce Indian beast from which the myth originally came. By the time Marco Polo embarked on his travels through Asia towards the end of the 13th Century, the notion of the gleaming, white unicorn was so absolute, that it was with great confusion and disappointment that he proclaimed “'Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin; in fact, 'tis altogether different from what we fancied.”
Little by little, Europeans recognized that their concept of the unicorn was inspired by two very real, very different creatures. Though both the rhinoceros and the narwhal have since left the realm of legend and progressed into the world of science, each animal retains echoes of their mythic pasts. The horn of the Indian rhinoceros (whose Latin name is appropriately Rhinoceros unicornis) is tragically still valued for its alleged medicinal properties. As for narwhal tusks, they seem to have retained the aura of mystery and magic that so deeply enthralled so many people centuries ago. Though it’s clear that these whales were not the original inspiration for the unicorn myth, we certainly have their stunning tusks to thank for transforming unicorns into the magnificent creatures we know today.
Brenna brings a wealth of maritime knowledge to the Whaling Museum. She wrote her dissertation on the Representations of Collective Memory and National Identity Aboard the Cutty Sark while at Georgetown University. With an MA in Global History and experience teaching at the Westchester Children’s Museum, she is especially adept at interpreting museum artifacts for education programs involving a wide array of age groups and learning styles.
So, What did Whalers Really Eat?
Before George Washington, Paul Revere, and Alexander Hamilton, the first – and feistiest! - patriots were none other than Long Island whalers.
The first colonists were English Puritans who arrived to the east end in 1640. At the time, the area was considered an extension of Connecticut and New England – seen as remote and separate from the Dutch-ruled western end of Lange Eylant. These pioneers were initially farmers, but they quickly became seasonal entrepreneurs after they noticed their enormous marine neighbors spouting by their shores: blubber-rich Right whales.
Whaling companies were launched during the winter months, hunting whales in rowboats on frigid beaches with the labor of local Native Americans. In large iron trypots on the sand, whaling crews stewed blubber until it melted into liquid gold - whale oil. Whale oil was used chiefly for illumination (and later in time, for a variety of manufacturing purposes). Oil even served as a currency; local schoolteachers were paid in whale oil. For the next twenty years, colonists worked to perfect this trade. Whaling quickly became part of community life, with required whale-spotting shifts from able-bodied men. School even let out from December to April so children could help spot and process whales. Oil was shipped to New England rather than New Amsterdam to avoid Dutch taxes.
This trade route was suddenly halted when new commerce rules were set in place by England. The entire Long Island was now a part of New York. All goods were to be exported through New York City. The whale was a “royal fish,” from which the crown demanded a twenty to fifty percent tax. East-enders were horrified.
The battle between whalers and England began. Whalers were outraged at taxation without representation – foreshadowing the defiant Boston Tea Party a century later. Whalers rebelled by turning Long Island into a smuggler’s haven, avoiding taxes by continuing to ship their oil to Boston or New London.
A string of upset New York governors tried to enforce the tax – generally unsuccessfully. When the Duke of York investigated how many whales were caught in the past 6 years – and what his share was – he found no records had been kept. Lord Cornbury, a later New York Governor, whined that “the illegal trade” was still carrying on between Long Island and New England.
With colonists’ protests falling on deaf ears, the towns of East Hampton, Southampton, and Southold bypassed the Governor of New York and submitted a petition to the court of England to be made a free corporation or continue under Connecticut rule. Their detailed list of complaints is similar to the tune of complaints in the Declaration of Independence. Their plea was denied.
Their solution? Ignore the whale tax anyway.
Colonists continued to smuggle the majority of oil to New England. New York merchants themselves were also flouting the law, which required all international trade to go through England. Instead, they traded directly with the West Indies, exchanging whale oil for rum, sugar, and cocoa.
Taking international trade into their own hands, New Yorkers who felt particularly courageous loaded up their ships and sailed with their goods to Madagascar, where there was an anarchist colony of none other than – pirates! Doing business with pirates was highly profitable, since it was all tax free. An inspector noted that in 1695, Long Island “was a receptacle for pirates and the people generally a lawless and unruly set.”
Whalers continued to protest. One of the pluckiest whalers who objected to the tax was Samuel Mulford of East Hampton, who lived from 1644-1725. He was a bold and somewhat quirky fellow. He championed the cause of the whalers, himself a financially successful owner of a whaling company of 24 men. Elected as a representative to New York Assembly in 1683, he was expelled from the assembly twice for his outspoken demands; colonists simply re-elected him and sent him back. When he sailed to London to protest the whale oil tax, he sewed fishhooks in his pockets to deter pickpockets during his long wait outside Buckingham Palace.
Ultimately, the Crown eased taxation. Mulford didn’t get to see this victory, as this announcement came five years after his death. Encouragingly, various acts were passed by the British Parliament to support the lucrative whaling industry, but colonists’ frustrations towards their relationship with England never really went away. During the Revolutionary war, which brought whaling to a standstill, locals repurposed whaleboats for guerilla warfare against British efforts.
After American won its independence, a new era opened for whaling. In 1785, the Lucy left Sag Harbor to whale offshore Brazil; she returned with an unprecedented 360 barrels of whale oil. Americans took notice. To encourage trade, George Washington then authorized the first lighthouse in New York State to be built, the Montauk Lighthouse. The hundreds of whaleships that followed the Lucy would have sailed home from their global voyages directed by this lighthouse - illuminated by none other than whale oil.
More: Learn about Long Island whaleboats used in the Revolution ►
Like a Kid in a Candy Store
By Nomi Dayan, Executive Director
As you reach for a sweet treat this June in honor of National Candy Month, consider how the abundance of candy today is a rather exceptional thing.
For much of human history, sugar was an expensive indulgence reserved for celebratory desserts. Sugary treats were a luxury for the rich. People also used sugar for therapeutic functions, with early candy serving as a form of medicine, including lozenges for coughs or digestive troubles. Sugar was also used as a preservative; similar to salt, sugar dried fruits and vegetables, preventing spoilage. But all in all, sugar was carefully conserved. In George Washington’s time, the average American consumed only 6 pounds of sugar a year (far less than the 130 or so pounds consumed annually per person today).
The use of sugar swelled dramatically in 1800’s. Suddenly, sugar was everywhere, and with it came new technological advances in candy production. Sugar shipped from slave-powered plantations in the West Indies became more affordable and available with new, steam-powered industrial processes. These changes were part of the Industrial Revolution, made possible by prized whale oil and its valuable lubricating properties. In 1830, Louisiana had the largest sugar refinery in the world. The invention of the Mason jar in 1858 drove demand for sugar for canning, and in 1876, the Hawaiian Reciprocity Treaty made sugar even more available. People couldn’t get enough of sweetness.
The availability of sugar brought a slew of new inventions to the culinary scene: candy! Confectioneries sprang up everywhere. The shops’ best customers were children, who spent their earnings on penny candy. Hard candies became very popular. As Yankee whaling reached its peak, Victorian-era sweets boomed with a succession of creations: the first chocolate bar was made in 1847; chewing gum followed in 1848; marshmallows were invented in 1850, and in 1880, fudge. People’s breaths were taken away when sweets with soft cream centers were tasted at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.
Some candies, especially hard ones, were sold as being ‘wholesome’ and even healthy. Unfortunately, candy was anything but nourishing. Sugar was sometimes adulterated with cheaper Plaster of Paris or chalk. Other candies were far more toxic. In 1831, Dr, William O’Shaughnessy toured different confectionery shops in London and had a range of dyed candy chemically analyzed; he found a startling number of sweets colored with lead, mercury, arsenic and copper.
But as ubiquitous as candy was on land, a sweet treat was quite rare at sea, especially on a whaleship. Sugar on board was a still a luxury reserved for the captain and officers. The crew had to settle for molasses, which was often infested; one whaler wrote it tasted like “tar.” Candy only makes brief glimpses in whaling logbooks, or daily records. On May 22, 1859, William Abbe journaled on the ship Atkins Adams: “Cook & Thompson Steward making molasses candy in galley.” (Earlier on the voyage, he described molasses kegs as “the haunts of the cockroach.”)
Laura Jernegan, a young daughter who sailed with her father and family on a three-year whaling voyage, wrote in her diary on board the Roman, “Feb 16, 1871. It is quote pleasant today. The hens have laid 50 eggs…” Then, an exciting thing happened – she passed another whaleship at sea, the Emily Morgan. There was a whaling wife aboard, too! Laura wrote: “Mrs. Dexter [the wife of Captain Benjamin Dexter] sent Prescott [her brother] and I some candy.”
In other cultures, whales still facilitated the treat scene – no sugar needed. Frozen whale blubber was (and is) a traditional treat for the Inuit and Chukchi people. Called muktuk, cubes are cut from whale skin and blubber and conventionally are served raw.
While whaling in our country is a thing of the past, the years of unrestricted whaling reflect how, in essence, people treated the ocean “like a kid in a candy store,” as noted by author Robert Sullivan. In the 20th century, so many whales were caught so quickly and efficiently that soon even whalers themselves were worried about saving the whales. Today, as we continue to gather resources from the sea, we must ensure the ocean can replenish itself faster than we can sweep its candy off the shelves.
Bring Candy History into Your Kitchen
Sound Success, Despite the Sun
By Nomi Dayan
Whaling was a risky business, physically and financially. Life at sea was hazardous. Fortunes were made or lost. Whalehunts were perilous, as was the processing of the whale. Injuries were rampant and death was common, sometimes on nearly every voyage. In some instances, the deceased was none other than the captain.
Captain Sluman Lothrop Gray met his untimely end on a whaleship. Born in 1813, very little is known of his past, his family, or his early experiences at sea. In 1838, he married Sarah A. Frisbie of Pennsylvania in the rural town of Columbia, Connecticut. His whaling and navigational skills must have been precocious, because in 1842, in his late twenties, Gray became a whaling captain – and a highly successful one.
His wife, Sarah, joined him in his achievements, living with him at sea for twenty years. Three of their eight children were born during global whaling voyages. Gray commanded a string of vessels: the Jefferson and Hannibal of New London, CT to the Indian and North Pacific Oceans, the Mercury and Newburyport of Stonington, CT to the South Atlantic, Chile, and Northwest Pacific Oceans, and Montreal of New Bedford, MA to the North Pacific Ocean.
While financially successful, Gray’s crew felt his harsh personality left much to be desired. Some of his blasphemies were recorded by a cabin boy on the Hannibal in 1843. He did not hesitate to flog crew members for minor mistakes. Unsurprisingly, when Sarah reported her husband had taken ill, the crew rejoiced. (To their chagrin, he recovered.)
As Gray aged, he attempted to retire from maritime living and shift into the life of a country gentleman. He bought 10 acres of land in Lebanon, Connecticut and lived there for 7 years, where his house still stands.
This bucolic life did not last, and Gray returned to whaling. With his wife and three children – Katie, Sluman Jr., and Nellie aged 16, 10, and 2, he sailed out of New Bedford on June 1, 1864 on the James Maury. Built in Boston in 1825 and sold to New Bedford owners in 1845, the James Maury was a hefty ship at 394 tons. Gray steered the course towards hunting grounds in the South Pacific.
Unexpectedly, after nine months at sea in March 1865, he suddenly became ill. The closest land was Guam - 400 miles away. Sarah described his sickness as an “inflammation of the bowels.” After two days, Captain Gray was dead. The first mate reported in the ship’s logbook: “Light winds and pleasant weather. At 2pm our Captain expired after an illness of two days.” He was 51 years old.
Sarah had endured death five times before this, having to bury five of her children who sadly died in infancy. She could not bear to bury her husband at sea. Considering how typical grand-scale mourning was in Victorian times, a burial at sea was anything but romantic. It was not unheard of for a whaling wife to attempt to preserve her husband’s body for a home burial. But how would Sarah embalm the body?
Two things aboard the whaleship helped: a barrel and alcohol. Sarah asked the ship’s cooper, or barrelmaker, to fashion a cask for the captain. He did so, and Gray was placed inside. The cask was filled with “spirits,” likely rum. The log for that day records: “Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather; made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits.”
The voyage continued on to the Bering Sea in the Arctic; death and a marinating body did not stop the intentions of the crew from missing out on the summer hunting season. However, there was another unexpected surprise that June: the ship was attacked by the feared and ruthless confederate raider Shenandoah, which prowled the ocean burning Union vessels, especially whalers (with crews taken as prisoners). The captain, James Waddell, had not heard – or refused to believe - that the South had already surrendered.
When the first mate of the Shenandoah Lieutenant Chew came aboard the James Maury, he found Sarah panic-stricken. The James Maury was spared because of the presence of her and her children – and presumably the presence of her barreled husband. Waddell assured her that the “men of the South did not make war on women and children.” Instead, he considered them prisoners and ransomed the ship. 222 other Union prisoners were dumped onboard the ship and sent to Honolulu. One can imagine how cramped this voyage was since whaleships were known for anything but free space.
A year after the captain’s death, the remaining Gray family made it home in March 1866. The preserved captain himself was shipped home from New Bedford for $11.
Captain Gray was finally buried in Liberty Hill Cemetery in Connecticut. His resting place has a tall marker with an anchor and two inscriptions: “My Husband” and “Captain S. L. Gray died on board ship James Maury near the island of Guam, March 24, 1865.” Sarah died twenty years later, and was buried next to her husband.
It is unknown if Gray was buried “as is” or in a casket. There are no records of Sarah purchasing a coffin. Legend has it that he was buried barrel and all.
Nomi Dayan is the Executive Director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor, NY.
Speak Sailor? You Do Already
By Nomi Dayan
Have you ever been asked to please stand by? Ever told someone not to barge in? Have you hung on to the bitter end, or been given a clean bill of health?
If so, you have spoken like a sailor.
Each type of human activity, noted essayist L. Pearsall Smith, has its own vocabulary. Perhaps this is most evident in the speech of mariners.
The English language is a strong testament to how humans have been seafarers for millennia, with a multitude of words and phrases having filtered from life at sea to life on land. Today, a surprising number of phrases, words, and expressions still have nautical origins, notably from sailing terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries. While some adopted phrases have fallen by the wayside, many expressions in our everyday language are derived from seafaring.
Barge in: Referring to flat-bottomed workboats which were awkward to control
Bitter End: The last part of a rope attached to a vessel
Clean Bill of Health: A document certifying a vessel has been inspected and was free from infection
Dead in the Water: A sailing ship that has stopped moving
Down the Hatch: A transport term for lowering cargo into the hatch and below deck
Figurehead: A carved ornamental figure affixed to the front of a ship
Foul up: To entangle the line
Fudge the Books: While the origins of this term is unclear, one theory connects it a deceitful Captain Fudge (17th century)
Give Leeway: To allow extra room for sideways drift of a ship to leeward of the desired course
High and Dry: A beached ship
Jury Rig: Makeshift or temporary repairs using available material
Keel over: To capsize, exposing the ship’s keel
Show the ropes: Train a newcomer in the use of ropes on sailing vessel
Letting the Cat out of the bag: One explanation links this phrase to one form of naval punishment where the offender was whipped with a "cat o' nine tails," normally kept in a bag
Passed with flying colors / Show One’s True Colors: Refers to identifying flags and pennants of sailing ships
Pipe Down: Using the boatswain’s pipe signaling the crew to retire below deck
A New Slant: A sailor will put a new slant on things by reducing sails to achieve an optimum angle of heel to avoid the boat from being pulled over
Slush fund: The ship's cook created a private money reserve by hoarding bits of grease into a slush fund sold to candle makers
Steer Clear: Avoid obstacles at sea
Taken Aback: Sails pressed back into the mast from a sudden change of wind, stopping forward motion
The author is the Executive Director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.
Oh Baby!: Birth at Sea
By Nomi Dayan
As I prepare to become a mother for the third time around, I am brought to reflect on one of the most dirty, reeking, and unlikely places to possible to birth a baby: a whaleship.
Today’s challenges with pregnancy and childbirth pale in comparison with the experience of the 19th century woman – and even more so, the challenge whaling wives faced at sea.
Because whaling wives saw so very little of their husbands, some resorted to going out to sea – a privilege reserved for the wife of the captain.
Aside from dealing with cramped and filthy conditions, poor diets, isolation, and sickness, many wives eventually found themselves – or even started out - “in circumstance.”
In the 19th century, pregnancy was never mentioned outright. Even in their private diaries, whaling wives rarely hinted to their pregnancies. Some miserably record an increase in seasickness. Only the very bold dared to delicately remark on the creation of pregnancy clothes. Adra Ashely of the Reindeer wrote to a friend in 1860, “I am spending most of my time mending – I want to say what it was, but how can I! How dare I!” Martha Brown of Orient was more forward by mentioning in her diary in 1848 that she is “fixing an old dress into a loose dress,” with “loose” meaning “maternity.”
Once the time of birth approached, women at sea faced two options: to be left on land – often while the crew continued on - or to give birth on board.
Giving birth on land was far preferable, as the mother would be theoretically closer to medical care and whatever social support was available. Martha Brown was left in Honolulu – much to her personal dismay to see her husband depart for 7 months – but fell into a supportive society of women, most left themselves in similar situations. During Martha’s “confinement” after birth when she was restricted to bedrest, a fellow whaling wife nursed her. When Captain Brown returned, he wrote to his brother: “Oahu. I arrived here and to my joy found my wife enjoying excellent health with as pretty a little son as eyes need to look upon. A perfect image of his father of course – blue eyes and light hair, prominent forehead and filled with expression.”
Giving birth on land did not always ensure a hygienic setting as one would hope. Abbie Dexter Hicks of Westport accompanied her husband Edward on the Mermaid, sailing out in 1873. Her diary entry on the Seychelle Islands was: “Baby born about 12 – caught two rats.”
Some whaleships found reaching a port before birth tricky. In 1874, Thomas Wilson’s wife Rhoda of the James Arnold of New Bedford was about to give birth, but when the ship arrived at the Bay of Islands of New Zealand, there was no doctor in town. A separate boat was sent to search up the Kawakawa River for 14 miles; when a doctor was finally found and retrieved, the captain informed the doctor that it was a girl.
Some babies were born aboard whaleships – either by design or by accident, despite hardly ideal conditions. Births, if were recorded in the ship’s logbook, were mentioned matter-of-factly. Charles Robbins of the Thomas Pope was recorded in April 1862: “Looking for whales… reduced sail to double reef topsails at 9pm. Mrs. Robbins gave birth of a Daughter and doing nicely. Latter part fresh breezes and squally. At 11am took in the mainsail.”
Captain Charles Nicholls was in for a surprise when he headed to New Zealand on the Sea Gull in 1853 with his wife. Before the birth, fellow Captain Peter Smith had told him during a gam (social visit at sea), “Tis easy,” and advised the first mate be ready to take over holding the baby once it was born. When the time came, Captain Nicholls dutifully handed the baby to the first mate, only to return several minutes later shouting, “My God! Get the second mate, fast!” – upon when he promptly handed out a second infant.
Captain Parker Hempstead Smith’s wife went into labor unexpectedly: “Last night we had an addition to our ship’s company,” seaman John States recorded on February 18, 1846 on board the Nantasket of New London, “for at 9pm, Mrs. Smith was safely delivered of a fine boy whose weight is eight lbs. This is quite a rare thing at sea, but fortunately no accident happened. Had anything occurred, there would have been no remedy and we should have had to deplore the loss of a fine good hearted woman.”
He also added his good wishes for the baby: “Success to him – may he live to be a good whaleman – though that would make him a great rascal.”
The author is the Executive Director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center.
Druett, Joan. Petticoat Whalers. Auckland: Collins, 1991
MacKay, Anne ed. She Went a Whaling: The Nournal of Martha Smith Brewer Brown. Oysterponds Historical Society, 1993
After 81 years in the dark, The Whaling Museum & Education Center will be shining some light on its hidden collection through a generous grant from the National Park Service’s Maritime Heritage Grant Program.
Part of a 1:1 match of $49,557, this funding will allow the museum to digitize, preserve, and create publicly available online access to an estimated 2500 items selected from its permanent collection.
The considerable project, scheduled to be completed by 2019, will dramatically increase access to the museum’s significant and historical collections by producing publicly accessible digital archives, and will enhance public awareness and appreciation for the key role whaling played in our country’s maritime heritage. As part of the project, the museum will also produce object-based curricula and teaching materials for schools which highlight using the online collection in classrooms.
An essential component of this project will be digitizing the museum’s archives, a largely untapped and unknown resource which offer perspectives, insights, and research opportunities not found in any other museum. This includes 95% of the existing manuscript material from the Cold Spring Harbor whaling fleet, records of the Long Island coastwise trade under sail, crew lists, shipping papers, prints, photographs, and correspondence. Together, these archives form a rich visual record of Long Island’s development as a historically prominent whaling center.
Executive Director Nomi Dayan explains, “We are honored and excited to be one of three New York organizations successfully awarded this year by the National Maritime Heritage Program. When visitors view our exhibits, most don’t realize that what they’re seeing is the tip of an iceberg, as approximately 5% of our collection is on view at one time. This project helps us extend past restricted physical space and enhances our institutional capacity to both preserve the collection through digitization, as well as better serve the public by making largely unknown resources publicly available online. Ultimately, we hope this project will engage the public in ongoing conversations about the social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental forces of our whaling heritage that have shaped our country.”
Dayan added, “This project will also open the museum’s doors to a global audience. In the past few months, we have received research inquiries from individuals from Australia to Chile. This project will radically enhance access without having to rely on staff time or necessitate travel to the museum.”
Currently, the only way browse the collection is to physically cruise the tightly packed drawers, folders, and boxes in storage, which is inefficient and compromises the items’ fragility. Online access with a searchable database is a vital tool for promoting public appreciation and understanding of history – and in the case of whaling history, connecting the processes, events, and interactions among people and whales to scientific and cultural understanding today.
“This is a very exciting time for the museum's collections, says Collections and Exhibitions Manager Kyrsten Polanish, “This project will help to prolong the life the objects by reducing the amount of times objects are physically handled while making them more accessible to anyone wanting to find out more about maritime history.”
Improved cataloging, digitization, preservation, and documentation for the artifacts would elevate the museum’s archives to the current best practices of collections management.
The museum’s archives are currently available for research by appointment only.
Follow the Whaling Museum's ambition to stay current, and meaningful, and connected to contemporary interests.
Written by staff, volunteers, and trustees of the Museum!