The Study of Whales and the History of Whaling

whalesWhales…hmmm, what do we know about the history of whales? Well, God created them, then Jonah got swallowed by one…but theres’ more. We’re going to learn about these amazing ocean creatures, how many species, where they live, their unique design and also how they have been useful to man. The oceans are teaming with whales and once man discovered ways that whales could be useful, an industry bloomed. You might be wondering what kind of industry and whether it was even “right” to use whales, so let’s see what the Bible says about this!

When God created animals he gave man dominion over them and after the flood He gave Noah the following directives concerning animals –

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants. I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood…Genesis 9:1-4

Throughout all of history man has used all sorts of animals for all sorts of thing: fur to keep warm, hides for shoes and clothing, meat for food, bones for tools as well as many other bi-products that man needs. The problem comes in when man abuses and over uses animals for greed!

People discovered that whales were rich in blubber which when melted down becomes oil – a fuel that would light the lamps in homes around the world, the baleen could be used for boning in women’s clothing, spermaceti (found in the head of the sperm whale) could be used for smokeless candles, and ambergris (found in the stomach of the sperm whale) was used to make perfume. Whale bones could be ground up and used by farmers for fertilizer. Bones were also used for tools and the teeth were used by a sailor’s craft called “scrimshaw” by engraving beautiful designs.

The first “whalers” were the shore whaling Basques from Spain. Sailors hunted for whales close to land and developed a way to sort of “herd” them using small boats until they became beached. Once the animal was killed, it could be processed right on the beach. But after a time the whales were as plentiful by the shores so whalers had to venture further and further out so the whaling expeditions could take 2-4 years. Ships had to be outfitted with everything needed to supply a crew for a long voyage AND everything need on board the ship to process the whale once it was caught.

whales1Because a large ship cannot go very fast, small boats called shallops, were sent out on the chase. Once a whale was spotted a shout of “Thar she blows” went up and off they went. When the boats got close enough to the whale, the harpooners would spear the whale which would usually tow the boat around until it tired out – this is what they called a Nantucket Sleighride. Whaling was a dangerous job and sometimes that whale would dive taking the boat under with it.

The shallops would then tow the whale back to the ship where it was fastened to the side of the ship and a platform was lowered so the sailors could begin the task of removing the blubber. This was a dangerous, smelly and slippery job but it could payoff in the end. The whole crew got a share in the profits when the ship returned with 1-2 thousand barrels full of whale oil.

What kinds of whales did the whalers seek? Pretty much anything they could get, but there were some breeds that were more desirable than others. The Right Whale – named because sailors believed this was the right kind of whale: it swam slower than others so they could catch up to it, it stayed close to shore and it didn’t sink.

So, now you have it…a brief summary of the history of whaling. Now let’s look at whales, different species, and their behavior. You can see that we’ve listed several different species of whales, but they all fall into two categories: toothed or baleen. You can add to this list and do a little research so you can do a mini report on one species. Whales are mammals – not fish, so they have live young which they feed milk, they must surface to breath oxygen. Whales will lunge out of the water which is called breaching, they also “spyhop” which means they come up and sort of tread water to have a look around, and they also just lay in the water when sleeping or at rest which is called “logging” because they look like a log. You can do further research about where they live and how they feed…on you own. Have fun!

Whale Species:

  • whales2The Humpback Whale
  • The Sperm Whale
  • The Blue Whale
  • The Sei Whale
  • The Gray Whale
  • The Minke Whale
  • The Fin Whale
  • The Killer Whale
  • The Pilot Whale
  • The Bowhead Whale

Areas to Study

  • Different species of whales and where they live
  • Classify into: Toothed and Baleen whales
  • Learn about where whales live and what they eat (i.e. The sperm whale’s favorite food is the giant squid)
  • Learn how long whales can stay under water
  • Learn how the different spouts show sailors what kind of whale is surfacing. Draw a picture
  • Learn about the anatomy of a Whale (label a diagram)
  • Look at pictures of scrimshaw.
  • Do a mini report – include pictures and diagrams
  • Learn about echolocation.
  • Try to draw a whale – See:
  • Read about Jonah and the lesson he learned about obeying God – Write out your favorite passage from Jonah for handwriting practice.
  • Draw a diagram showing the different spouts. Label the species according to its spout.
  • Find a picture of a New England home with a “Widow’s Walk” – Explain what they were used for.
  • Divide a sheet down the middle and write Fish on one side and Whales on the other. Now compare (Fish / scales Whales / smooth skin Fish / Gills Whales / Surface for air etc.)
  • List whale products and what people used them for.

Whale Books
Thar She Blows by Stephen Currie
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Good-bye for Today by Peter and Connie Roop
The Whale Song by Dyan Sheldon
Gone A-Whaling by Jim Murphy
Yankee Whalers by M.J. Cosson
Cornerstones of Freedom: New England Whaling by Conrad Stein
Yann and the Whale by Hanze
Ibis – A True Whale Story by John Himmelman
Whales (All Aboard Reading level 2) by Graham Faiella
The Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Baby Whale Rescue True Story by Arnold and Hewitt
Beluga Whales (True Books) by Ann Squire
True Blue Friend: A Webs to Whales Nature Tale (with CD-ROM) by Cheryl Block

Hey, if you’re interested in learning more about how easy unit studies can be, check out my book Everything You Need to Know About Homeschool Unit Studies on our website:  We’re here to help. Please also feel free to call. Jennifer is often available to answer questions and give advice! 888-4-R-UNITS

jenniferJennifer Steward is a happy wife married to her highschool sweetheart, mother to eight children, and grandmother to five grandchildren. She counts it a blessing to have been able to educate all of her children from home since the beginning. Four of them have graduated from homeschool high school…four to go! Jennifer is the owner of a home business called STEWARD SHIP, and author of the popular Choreganizer and Everything You Need To Know About Homeschool Unit Studies.

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