Although it’s an industry almost completely relegated to past centuries, whaling has been brought to the fore once again, by the viral ‘Wellerman’ sea shanty phenomenon and the drama The North Water, based on Ian McGuire’s 2016 novel of the same name.


Though indigenous populations had been hunting whales for fuel, clothing, and food for centuries, by the 19th century whaling became a vital global industry. The North Water focuses on a whaling crew from Hull, which by the early 1800s was one of the largest whaling ports in England. Indeed, by the time Britain went to war with France in 1803, vessels from Hull made up a significant percentage of the British whaling fleet.

Life on a merchant whaler

Life at sea in the age of sail is often viewed through a somewhat romantic lens; visions of sails fluttering in the breeze, daring feats of bravery and great victories in battle. Very little popular culture, however, has focused on the merchant fleet, even less so on whalers. Whaling was an incredibly challenging way of making a living, requiring long periods of time away from home in dirty ships and cramped conditions, with the constant threat of losing your life while doing so. Death could come from sickness, injury, the loss of your harpoon boat or even your ship. “A dead whale or a stove boat” was not just a phrase coined by the famous Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; it was cause for concern whenever whalers went to work, who would have known that the whale posed a real threat to the vessel.

Death could come from sickness, injury, the loss of your harpoon boat or even your ship

In the 19th century, before modern weaponry and cargo cranes, the methods used for snaring a whale relied on both accuracy and strength. Once a whale was spotted, small boats of around 6-9m, each with a crew of around six, were launched from the ship and would row out as close to the whale as they could. From here, the whale would be harpooned by each boat. Long lines of rope, attached to the harpoons, would fly out as the whale swam. These ran free, in the hope that this would prevent the boat from being dragged under or capsized (though of course this did sometimes happen). Eventually, through blood loss and exertion, the whale would tire. This could take many days; indeed the ‘Wellerman’ shanty references “40 days or even more”. The crews would then lance the whale and tow it back to the main ship, where it would be prepared for butchering.

A roaring trade

Whale blubber was boiled into oil for lanterns and fuel, and also used in soap making. Parts of whales were used for making candles and corsets, and even perfume could be concocted from ambergris found within sperm whale intestines. The master of the ship would keep a log detailing when a whale was taken, by whom and the location (latitude/longitude), as well as the type of whale and the quantities of oil barrels processed for each voyage.

Moby Dick author Herman Melville spent time on a whaling ship himself, and used this experience to inform his depiction of legendary whaler Captain Ahab. With his scarred face and wooden leg, courtesy of the titular white whale, Ahab serves as a reminder of the injuries that men could sustain on such voyages. Indeed, the story of Moby Dick is based in part on a true event. In 1820, the 26.7m-long Essex, an American whaler, was at sea in the southern Pacific Ocean. Already damaged in an earlier storm, it was sunk by a sperm whale repeatedly striking the ship. This forced the crew to make for land in the small boats. An account from shipman Owen Chase detailed not only the usual challenges of dehydration and exposure to wind and weather, but also revealed how the crew were forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive being stranded on a small and isolated Pacific island for a prolonged period.

The north waters

Those whaling in the Arctic also had to deal with another threat to their ships – damage caused by snow and ice. Between 1818 and 1869 nearly 800 whaling ships from Hull were lost at sea, and many men lost their lives.

As McGuire touches on in his 2016 novel, the dangers of life aboard a whaling ship were, of course, not limited to winds and weather. Vessels were usually not very large. Challenging conditions and months isolated from those ashore, in enclosed spaces, could foster tension and anger among even the best crews, and merchant vessels were not known for the discipline found on naval ships of the time.

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Another threat to whaling crews was the loss of men. While the Royal Navy could easily replace deserters by press-ganging, preferring to take merchant sailors over landsmen, on a whaling ship of 20-30 men, just one deserter could cause problems.

Breakdowns among the crew are something that McGuire focuses on in his novel. These could range from differences in opinion to frustrations over positions onboard and ensuing anger or violence. Even sexual assault and murder were not unheard of on ships at the time. It was not all bad, however, and it is important to note the camaraderie that being part of a small crew could often bring. Spending time away from your families in isolation would often mean that you already had something in common with those you sailed alongside.

The crew of the North Water on set against a snowy backdrop, with a ship in the background.
New drama 'The North Water' explores the fates of the crew on a 19th-century whaling vessel from Hull. (Image by BBC/See-Saw Films/Nick Wall)

As for their motivation for embarking on such gruelling voyages, men would commonly sign up for whaling expeditions with dreams of financial reward. It was common for crews to split the proceeds of their voyage, in a similar vein to the Royal Navy with their prize money. If the hunt proved profitable, then men could make a reasonable amount. However, if profits were not made, a crew could receive nothing, even for a potential voyage of multiple years.

Cities such as Hull and Aberdeen relied heavily on the whaling industry. Indeed, between 1815 and 1825 Hull had around 2,000 men employed in whaling, with over 60 whaling ships. The industry continued until many years of whaling forced the creatures almost into extinction. Ships returned empty, with no money to be made, and eventually whaling died out. It was eventually banned in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), in an attempt to protect the animals, though Japan has since resumed commercial whaling.

Today, you can still find evidence of the industry in many of the towns that made their living from it, and the legacy of the men on these perilous voyages can be found in scrimshaw artworks [made from decorated bone] left behind; sometimes in the form of model ships, or even whales, carved from the discarded parts of those they hunted.

Kate Jamieson is a naval historian. You can find out more about her work at


The North Water continues on BBC Two on Friday 17 September at 9.30pm, with episodes available on BBC iPlayer