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Unacquainted with the Art of Swimming: June 3rd, 1811

June 3, 2011

The 1811 season had started badly for the ships in the Greenland Sea, but by the end of May the number of whales caught was rising fast. However, as the returns at the end of the season showed, many of these whales were young and small. In the Davis Strait, to the west of Greenland, the 1811 season was hampered by a great deal of ice, but the number of ships–around two thirds of the British whaling fleet–fishing there, is indicative of the decline in whale numbers around Spitzbergen. The number of small whales caught by Scoresby, and other captains, and the near absence of large ones, hints at a future sharp decline in whale numbers in the Greenland Sea, a decline which all but put an end to whaling there by 1830.

While the whales were generally small, several Greenland ships caught significant numbers, and Scoresby at least caught some of larger size. On Monday Scoresby reported seeing many whales, but despite 10 attempts to get one fast, they all escaped. Scoresby blamed the clarity of the water, which was of a “transparent blue colour” allowing the whales to see their pursuers in plenty of time.

Two incidents on June 3rd help create a picture of life on board a whaler. The first tells us how well adapted whale ships were to their unique trade. Here Scoresby takes sole control of the ship himself, even managing to tack on his own:

In the absence of the Boats I worked and steered the Ship by myself alone tacked once. Several Sips to the Wd or NWd have got fish lately[.] The Aimwell [was amongst] those which were successful in their pursuits they all lay at the edge of Floes or frozen Packs[.] They had small whales here middle sized or larger.

The other incident illustrates the risks involved in going after whales. With large numbers of whales all around the ship, Scoresby sent out six boats. In one of them the “Spicksoneer” or chief harpooner, John Hall struck a large whale which:

with her tail struck so forcibly at the boat the Boatsteerer Wm Welburn was thrown overboard. The stroke was repeated when the Spicksoneer and Linemanager shared the same fate. Welburn recovered the Boat the two latter were not so fortunate. The Boat by the lines was instantly drawn from the spot and the two men left swimming …

Neither of these men was badly hurt, though they spent a few minutes in the water, and suffered “fright”. Remarkably, the Linemanager managed to stay afloat long enough for another boat to reach him despite being “unacquainted with the art of swimming”.

The large whale was finally killed, along with another later in the day.

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