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.



Gift of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries

Cutting Spade, mid-1800s

With the whale alongside the ship, a heavy hook was set into its skin and the hook’s line was taken aboard. Set on a long wooden handle, the cutting spade was used to cut long, thick, wide slices of skin and blubber from the carcass. The whale’s flesh was then hauled aboard for further processing. This example is marked “J.D. Cast Steel.”

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Head Spade, mid-1800s

The heavy, sharp head spade was commonly mounted on a short but heavy pole. It was used for driving through thick bone when decapitating a whale, and its weight made it easier to chop through the heavy vertebrae in a whale’s neck.

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Gift of Mackey & Pindar

Blubber Fork, mid-1800s

Whalers used sharp-tipped blubber forks to toss chunks of whale blubber onto the deck or into the heavy iron try pots, where the fat was rendered down or “tried out” into oil.

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Chopper, mid-800s

Like the mincing knife, the chopper was used to cut whale blubber into smaller pieces to speed the process of rendering it into oil.


Gift of E. B. and F. Macy

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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.


Gift of A. R. Crittenden

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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.


Gift of F. S. Allen, through J. T. Brown

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Whalebone Scraper, 1880s

Whalebone scrapers were used to scrape the flesh off the bones, which were then dried on deck and stowed below for later processing and eventual sale.


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.


Transfer from the U.S. Patent Office

Image courtesy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission

Whale Hoist Patent Model, 1862

After whales died, they usually floated on the water, but sometimes the carcasses sank. To avoid this sort of loss, Thomas Roys of Southampton, Long Island, patented an apparatus for “Raising Dead Whales From the Bottom of the Sea.” Few American whalers tried it.

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Gift of Jonathan Bourne

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“Monkey Belt,” about 1883

Crewmen used this canvas “monkey belt” to hang over the side of the ship while they stripped the whale of its blubber. It was dangerous and slippery work, and if a sailor slid into the water, he risked drowning or being attacked by sharks looking for an easy meal.


Gift of Jonathan Bourne

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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.