Relics of Arctic Whaling Days
When the Scottish and American whalers left the Canadian Arctic in the late 1800s, they left behind some intriguing relics or artifacts that help us understand their rugged industry. The largest of the whaling relics are iron try‐pots and iron blubber or oil tanks. They can be found across the Arctic, having survived well over 100 years. There are several former whaling sites on Baffin Island which are regularly visited by tour ships and local excursions.
British and other whalers made whaling voyages to the Greenland side of Davis Strait for many years before penetrating the northern part of Baffin Bay and crossing to the Canadian side. The first whaling voyage into Lancaster Sound was in 1820. This area soon became one of the most famous of the northern whaling grounds. At the mouth of both Lancaster Sound and Pond Inlet, at the “floe edge” where the winter ice meets the open sea, bowhead whales congregated to feed. And there the whalers gathered to hunt them for the valuable baleen (or “whale bone”) and blubber which was rendered into quality oil for lamps and lubrication.
The whalers hunted their prey in several nine-metre whaleboats, equipped with oars and a harpoon gun mounted on the bows. Killing a whale was a dangerous and difficult task, and when successful, they often had to tow the whale a considerable distant back to their ship.
When the dead whale was brought alongside the ship, it was attached at both head and tail and the processing began. A long piece of blubber about one metre wide, called the “cant piece,” was first stripped off, starting at the whale’s neck, and pulled up to the ship. As the long narrow piece was stripped off, the whale carcass rotated.
Once the cant piece was hauled on board, the “harpooneers” cut off 40 cm square chunks of the skin with blubber knives, and passed them on to the “boat steerers,” who, armed with choppers, stood behind a six-metre trough and cut the blubber into smaller chunks.
What happened next depended on where the whaling ship was from. Most of the Arctic whalers were from either Scotland or the United States, and the techniques they used to process whale blubber were quite different.
The American whalers processed the blubber in the Arctic either onboard their ships or on land. They rendered, or “tried” the chunks of blubber into oil using the try-works, a brick structure containing large cast iron pots, known as try-pots. The pots were heated using coal and pieces of blubber. The liquid oil was then poured into wooden barrels for shipping back to their home port.
The Scottish whalers originally packed the smaller chunks of blubber into wooden barrels (later into iron tanks), and only rendered them into oil once they reached their home port.
Both American and Scottish whalers set up whaling stations in Cumberland Sound, on southern Baffin Island. At Kekerten Territorial Park, a National Historic Site near Pangnirtung, the remains of both processing techniques can be seen. Three large tanks at Kekerten are from the whaler Ernest Williams, one of the last of many whalers wrecked in the Arctic.
Cornilius Nutarak, an Inuk Elder from Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) shared his memories of whale oil processing in an interview in 1994. “During the same years [about 1902-1904] these containers were still being used to make oil at Sannirut… I remember seeing them, when they were still at Sannirut…” (Sannirut, on Bylot Island, is also known as Button Point.)
“When I was a child I saw where they used to boil fat, there was a furnace and a large container… As a child I was almost unable to get to the top. So there used to be those things used by the whalers to boil fat with, and they also had containers to catch the liquid after with a big pipe, which seems to be covered with metal. These containers were taken aboard the ship to be taken away.” Nutarak later saw the same kind of containers in Pangnirtung: “I wanted to see how big they really were. I stood beside it to measure it and it came up to here [his chest].”
On a trip to the Arctic in 1928 on the Beothic, as part of the annual Eastern Arctic Patrol, national museum biologist Dr. R.M. Anderson visited Button Point. His notes mention the remnants of the old whaling station: “One frame shack on shore, and ruins of another, an old try-pot and several casks from the old whaling station.”
During a Students on Ice expedition to the floe edge at Pond Inlet in June 2004 we stopped at Qaiqsut, a traditional Inuit hunting and living place, just west of Sannirut / Button Point. Near the beach was an old iron tank, and on the beach, a damaged try-pot, upside down and partially buried in the gravel pushed up by sea ice. Two years later this try-pot was almost completely buried in beach rock and gravel. The staff of Sirmilik National Park subsequently rescued the try-pot and it now sits well above the beach beside the iron tank.
The use of iron storage tanks on the new Scottish whalers, beginning in about 1857, was an important development for whaling, and of particular interest to the historic whaling sites on Baffin Island. No longer was the blubber shipped home in wooden barrels, but in screw-top iron tanks, most about one metre square.
By 1883 all the steam whalers of the American fleet were also provided with iron tanks, which fitted inside the shape of the ship. In their system the hot oil from the try-pots was poured into open settling tanks or directly into the ship tanks after the “trying out” or rendering.
On the Scottish whalers, as the boat steerers received large chunks of blubber, they cut them into small pieces on a cutting block, which was sometimes a piece of the whale’s tail. The choppers had to be careful not to leave any meat, known as “krang,” attached to the blubber to avoid spoilage. The pieces then fell into the trough, which had a hole in the middle connected to a large shoot or pipe. The “skeaman,” the officer of the hold, directed the shoot, made of canvas or gutta-percha, into the blubber tanks below decks. The tanks in the middle of the deck were square or rectangular, but those placed against the hull were curved to fit, making full use of the available space.
One of the most successful of the Scottish whaling steamships was the Eclipse, owned by the famous Scottish whaler, Captain David Gray. Built in 1867, Eclipse carried 55 hands, eight 9-meter whaleboats, and about 37 blubber tanks, with a capacity for over 200 tons of oil. Under several different captains and owners, the Eclipse hunted bowhead whales from 1867 to 1908. Under Captain John Gray, Eclipse was the first whaler to navigate through Eclipse Sound, near Pond Inlet, named after the first ship of the same name.
As the whalers’ success at hunting bowheads dwindled due to over-hunting, the local Inuit whalers switched to hunting beluga whales and a new industry started based on beluga oil, and tanned skins for shoemaking. At the historic Pangnirtung Blubber Factory, in operation between the late 1920s to the mid-1960s, large settling tanks and iron tanks from an earlier era sit next to rows of the modern steel barrels that replaced them.