(ran February 1981)
Bermudians will capitalize on just about anything! And the discovery of valuable ambergris in 1611 prompted a great deal of local interest in whales.
It gave pleasure to women all over the world since it was much sought after for producing perfumes. The Bermuda Company, it is said, took its whaling vessels well before anyone else in the “New World”. The famous fleets of Nantucket and New Bedford, Massachusetts did not set out until around 1640.
The local whaling industry originated on Smith’s Island. Soon after its successful start, stations opened in Smith’s, Southampton and Sandys Parishes. The hunt for ambergris continued. But the chance of finding the valuable substance was remote. So the search diverted to the huge mammals. Oil from blubber was used locally and in Europe. The bones were a boon to women concerned about fashionable form. They were used in corsets.
Locally, the meat – known as sea beef – was enjoyed by most, but not all, residents.
“The English have a strong prejudice against this food, but Bermudians have a method of cleansing it, which leaves no fishing flavor, and it is tender as veal,” stated an 1827 newspaper account.
The mammal’s huge hide was made into many a pair of shoes. In fact, few parts of the whale were wasted.
During the first century of whaling, Government imposed a variety of restrictions, preventing growth and development of the industry. Before 1639, Bermudians had to obtain permission to go whaling.
Even in those days the talk of tax was an unpopular subject. But Bermudians paid taxes on every whale caught before 1639. Whaling regulations were relaxed only for a few years before being reimposed. It wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century that the regulations were permanently removed. Author Edward F. Schortman wrote that whale houses existed in Richardson’s Bay, Ferry Reach and at Green Bay, Castle Harbour. Other such establishments were at Tucker’s Town, Devonshire, Paget and on Whale Island, Sandys.
Bermudians were careful to avoid waste of their oil. Originally, carcasses were left near the sea and much oil was wasted. In fact many a carcass never made it to be styled into corsets due to ravenous sharks.
Whaling was very much a family enterprise. The Heydons, Sayles, Darrells, Stowes, Higgs, Tatems, Middletons, Lightbourns, Athells, Burrows and Hinsons were some of the locals involved in the early days of whaling.
Late in the eighteenth century, local whalers nearly became involved with the large Nantucket industry. Mr. Shortman wrote in his account on whaling history: “Had the Nantucket whalers come to Bermuda in force, they would have undoubtedly have engaged in pelagic whaling as they did from Nova Scotia and Milford Haven, and so would have changed the entire complexion of Bermuda whaling.”
The last Bermudian whalers died last year. They were Mr. Frederick “Gunny” Astwood and Mr. Joe Soares.
Mr. Astwood caught only one whale during his 32 years of trying. That was in 1940. He had struck other whales but never landed them. His boat is owned by the Sonesta Beach Hotel and is kept on a knoll to the west of the hotel.
Mr. Soares was luckier than his friend, Mr. Astwood. He caught two whales off Bermuda. His son, Carl, told me: “My father built a boat especially for whaling. He took Gunny’s harpoon and mounted it on the bow and shot at it. Gunny was with him one time and was steering the boat. My father told me that he kept telling Gunny to get right on top of the whale.” The younger Mr. Soares says that his father’s boat is still being used. Mr. Erskine Simmons, who accompanied Mr. Soares on some whaling efforts, now owns it.
But whaling ended here as the demand dwindled for whale products. Remnants of the industry can be seen at the Maritime Museum’s special display.
With the whale watches of yesteryear in our distant past, the approach now is to preserve and document the sea giants that pass by our shores.
Mr. Frank Watlington, a senior scientist at the SOFAR Station devoted to underwater acoustics, was the first person to successfully tape whale sounds off Bermuda. He did so at the request of Dr. William Shevill of the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute, who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on whales.
“He came and asked me to record the sounds of the humpbacks because he couldn’t get them,” says Mr. Watlington. “I was within 15 or 20 feet of three humpbacks.”
I then asked to hear the tapes. Mr. Watlington promptly closed his office door. “The noise nearly drives everybody crazy around here,” he explained. One can empathise since the tapes have been played for some 17 years.
The plaintive moanings and high-pitched whistles have an eerie sound.
“We are speculating on the reason they make these sounds. A great deal of research has been done on porpoises and it has been determined that they communicate with one another. We just don’t know for sure why the humpbacks make these sounds,” he said.
Mr. Watlington gazed down upon the nearby reefs from his office high on the cliffs of St. David’s. He mused: “In the fifties I saw many more whales than I do now. This is mainly because of the Japanese and Russian ships that fish for the meat. They like fishing for the finbacks because they get up to 60 feet long and they have a lot of meat…” The finbacks pass Bermuda each year from November to March, he said. Sometimes they arrive later.
Mr. Watlington has never seen a whaling ship off the coastline here.
The SOFAR Station has conducted comprehensive studies on the finback whales. This was done because scientists wanted to know the origin of the consistent 20-hertz noises off Bermuda that the finbacks make.
Mr. Watlington has seen other types of the ocean mammals – narwhals, potheads and the bottle-nosed variety.
Other enthusiastic whale watchers go up in helicopters to sight whales. Dr. Jim Burnett-Herkes, Director of Fisheries is one of them.
“We try to get an idea of the size of their pods from the helicopter,” he said. But we must be careful not to get too close – 1,500 feet is about the closest that you can get. But this isn’t the best way to see them. It is better by boat.”
Dr. Burnett-Herkes has spotted minke, pilot, sperm, humpback and other small baleen whales. He is particularly interested in the humpbacks that pass by from mid-March until the beginning of June.
“We can fingerprint whales,” he said. “There is a colour pattern of the underside of their flukes. And we can identify them according to the amount of white on the fluke. Black and white photographs have been taken and the whales traced to different places because the growth pattern of this mark changes only slightly from year to year.”
Dr. Burnett-Herkes says that whales are not tagged as much now because the metal marker has caused infections. Often, the tags catch on rocks and get lost.
Next month further humpback studies will be conducted with Mr. Greg Stone, of the University of Rhode Island, arrives here. He will work with Mr. Teddy Tucker and members of the Fisheries Department for approximately six weeks.
Mrs. Teddy Tucker says that her husband spotted some whales off Bermuda at the beginning of the year. She did not know what type they were.
Last month, at least three rare Cuvier beaked whales beached themselves on South Shore beaches. They reason? “No-one really knows why they do this, but it is usually related to disease,” says Mr. Burnett-Herkes. One of the whales had a bad lung. In another case, a beached whale was found to have hardened arteries. Samples of the whales were sent overseas for research. It will take several years for complete results.
Dr. Burnett-Herkes offered another reason for the death of the whales – the inner ear becoming infested with parasites. This causes the whales to lose thei
r sense of balance and they try to stabilize themselves by swimming to the beach.
Dr. Burnett-Herkes told me the tale of a sperm whale, which once entered Castle Harbour. It took hours to get the mammal across the shallow water because his sonar “depth sounder” would warn him not to cross over the shoals. Dr. Burnett-Herkes and a large team of helpers decided that the only way to get it out to the open water was to tow it.
“It didn’t want to go over the shoals and it tried to bite the Police boat!” he said. “When we got it through, it stood on its tail, looked at us and then took off to the southwest. “
Famous local fisherman and restaurateur Dennis Lambe had a whale of a tale, too. “I was five feet from one once. It was bigger than the boat. It was a hell of a great black thing.” He had been pulling in fish pots and did not know about the whale’s presence until he heard a groan. “I looked over the side of the boat. I can tell you it really frightened the living daylights out of me. He was a dandy…the closest I’ve ever seen one.”