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Bowheads and Baleen
Commercial whalers had also discovered Herschel Island. As early as 1889, European and American whalers pursued bowhead whales for their baleen and oil. These great mammals migrated through the Beaufort Sea, in close proximity to Herschel Island. The Island provided a safe harbour for the whalers and many ships would over-winter here.
Baleen, also called whalebone, is a tough, flexible cartilage-like substance found in the bowhead's mouth. An average size bowhead could have 700 pieces of baleen ranging from 6 inches to 12 ½ feet that is secured to the skull by thick muscle. The baleen acts like a sieve, filtering water and trapping shrimp-sized krill that is the mainstay of the whale's diet.
Due to its flexibility, baleen had many uses. The most common were stays in corsets that helped Victorian women attain a 12 inch waist. Baleen was also used to make buggy whips, parasols and umbrellas, fishing rods, caps, suspenders, canes, divining rods, bows, tongue scrapers, pen holders, paper folders and cutters, graining combs for painters, shoe horns, and hair brushes.
The whale's skin covers a layer of blubber that is rich in oil. It varies in thickness and can be up to 20 inches thick in some parts of the body. The blubber from an average size bowhead produced approximately 100 barrels of oil. The oil was used for fuel and lubricants. Some city streets and indoor lamps were lit with whale oil.
Whaling was very profitable for the captains and owners of the ships. A good season could bring up to $400,000. worth of whales. In 1900 whale oil sold for $15 a barrel and baleen for $6 a pound. A single bowhead could yield a hundred barrels of oil and 2000 pounds of baleen, making the whale worth about $15,000.
In the summer of 1890, two American ships based in San Francisco arrived at Herschel Island. They brought sufficient supplies for the coming winter as it was almost impossible to sail north, hunt and return, all in one season. The ships' crews were a motley assortment from Portugal, New Zealand, Hawaii, the Siberian coast, and America. Many were down-on-their-luck, or running from the law and had never been on a sailing ship. Consequently, although they were well suited for a life at sea, these nefarious characters would have profound negative effects on the native population.
Soon, a number of factors contributed to the demise of whaling in the area. The number of bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea declined quickly with the presence of over 30 ships each season. By the mid 1890s, the whales were no longer "thick as bees" around the mouth of the Mackenzie River. The introduction of plastic and the development of petroleum products caused the prices of baleen and oil to fall. In 1904, baleen sold for as much as $5.80 per pound. Within a few years, the price dropped to .50 cents per pound. Consequently, whaling was finished in the Beaufort Sea by 1911.
© Old Log Church Museum 2002