Processing the Catch
Working aboard a whale ship was strenuous and often unpleasant. After securing a whale’s carcass beside the ship, crewmen cut away the blubber, or outer fat layer, in long strips. They hauled the strips aboard, cut them into smaller pieces, and tossed them into boiling cauldrons on deck to render the fat into oil. The whale oil was stored in barrels in the cargo hold.
Very little of the whale was wasted: its bones were stripped clean of flesh, bundled, and stowed for making products to sell on shore. Depending on the species, other parts were saved. The stench of processing whales was so strong a whale ship could be smelled over the horizon before it could be seen.
Mincing Knife, about 1876
Whaling crew used mincing knives to cut the blubber strips into thin slices down to, but not through, the whale skin. Cut in this fashion, the sections of whale blubber and skin were known as “bible leaves” because they resembled the pages of a book. This process increased the surface area of the blubber and helped it melt faster in the try pots.
Boarding Knife, about 1876
The work of carving blubber from a whale carcass and hauling the strips aboard was called “boarding.” The boarding knife was an extremely sharp, double-edged sword at the end of a short wooden pole. It served a variety of purposes, from cutting a hole in the whale’s flesh for the blubber hook, to cutting the long strips of flesh into shorter sections for further processing.
Skimmer, late 1800s
After a whale’s blubber was melted down in the try pots, a few solids, like the skin, remained. These were removed with a skimmer. The tool’s long handle helped keep the crew from being burned or splashed with hot oil. The leftovers, or “fritters,” were then tossed under the pots and recycled into fuel to keep the fires burning.
Carved Bailer Handle, about 1828
Whalemen used bailers to remove oil from large try pots into cooling tanks. The handle of this bailer has the figures of whales whittled into its surface to show the number and species of whales that had been processed. The “B.H.” refers to bowhead; “S” for sperm, “H.B.” for humpback, and “W” for right whale.