A bowhead whale’s appeal

What if a whale could write a letter to the editor?

The bowhead whale was also known as the Greenland whale. (Illustration by Matti Lainema and Juha Nurminen, Ultima Thule: Arctic Explorations, Helsinki: John Nurminen Foundation, 2001)

By Kenn Harper

In 1848, one-fifth of the world’s whaling fleet was in the North Pacific in search of an ever more elusive quarry.

In that year, Captain Thomas Roys, in command of the Superior, ventured far to the north in the Bering Sea, and killed a new type of whale near Imaqliq – Big Diomede Island, one of two islands where the sea narrows and Asia and North America come close together.

A map showing the Bering Sea, through which whalers passed to exploit the bowhead-rich waters of the Chukchi Sea. (Illustration from Marc Songini, “The Lost Fleet.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

It was a bowhead — black and slow and very fat, sporting long baleen which the whalemen called “whalebone.”

Roys then ventured even farther north, the first whaler to try his luck in the Chukchi Sea. In all, he killed eleven bowheads that season, yielding 1,600 barrels of oil.

The following year, 50 ships sailed into Arctic waters, taking 500 whales. The next year was even better, from the point of view of the whalers but much worse if you were a bowhead. Over 100 ships visited the new whaling ground and 2,000 bowheads were killed. 

Experienced whalers knew that whales were social and intelligent beings with feelings and a desire to keep their species alive. When first discovered in the Chukchi Sea, whales were relatively easy to approach and therefore easy to kill.

Then they quickly became “more and more shy,” then “wild, restless, and suspicious.”

They sought refuge in the ice, but whalers followed them there, endangering their own lives while trying to deprive the bowhead of its lifeblood.

Many years later, an Alaskan Inupiat man, Asatchaq, in sharing his traditional wisdom about whales and their ways, claimed that whales watched people and made choices depending on what they learned.

“Those who feed the poor and the old, we’ll go to,” the whales would say. “We’ll give them our meat.”

A Quaker missionary to Hawaii, Rev. Samuel Chenery Damon, established a newspaper, The Friend, in Honolulu in 1843. Because Honolulu was a major meeting place for whalers in the Pacific, his paper often carried whaling news. 

In 1850, it carried a heartbreaking letter to the editor, a letter purporting to be from a bowhead whale. Titled A Polar Whale’s Appeal, it was written in “the second year of trouble,” and appeared in The Friend on Oct. 15, 1850.

Here is what the bowhead whale had to say about the whale slaughter.

“In behalf of my species, allow an inhabitant of this sea, to make an appeal through your columns to the friends of the whale in general. A few of the knowing old inhabitants of this sea have recently held a meeting to consult respecting our safety, and in some way or other, if possible, to avert the doom that seems to await all the whale Genus throughout the world, including the Sperm, Right, and Polar whales. 

“Although our situation… is remote from our enemy’s country, yet we have been knowing to the progress of affairs in the Japan and Ochotsk seas, the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and all the other ‘whaling grounds.’ We have imagined that we were safe in these cold regions; but no; within these last two years a furious attack has been made upon us, an attack more deadly and bloody, than any of our race ever experienced anywhere in the world.

“I scorn to speak of the cruelty that has been practised by our blood-thirsty enemies, armed with harpoon and lance; no age or sex has been spared. Multitudes of our species (the Polar) have been murdered in ‘cold’ blood. 

“Our enemies have wondered at our mild and inoffensive conduct; we have heard them cry, ‘there she blows,’ and our hearts have quailed as we saw their glittering steel reflecting the sun beams, and realized that in a few moments our life-blood oozing out would discolor the briny deep in which we have gambolled for scores of years. 

“We have never been trained to contend with a race of warriors, who sail in large three-masted vessels, on the sterns of which we have read ‘New Bedford,’ ‘Sag Harbor,’ ‘New London.’ Our battles have hitherto been with simple Indians in their skin canoes. 

“We have heard of the desperate encounters between these whale-killing monsters and our brethren the Right whales on the North-west coast. Some from that quarter have taken shelter in the quiet bays of our sea, others of the spermaceti species from Japan, have also visited us and reported their battles and disasters; they have told us it is no use to contend with the Nortons, the Tabers, the Coffins, the Coxs, the Smiths, the Halseys, and the other families of whale-killers. 

“We Polar whales are a quiet inoffensive race, desirous of life and peace, but, alas, we fear our doom is sealed; we have heard the threat that in one season more we shall all be ‘cut up,’ and ‘tried out.’ Is there no redress? 

“I write in behalf of my butchered and dying species. I appeal to the friends of the whole race of whales. Must we all be murdered in cold blood? Must our race become extinct? Will no friends and allies arise and revenge our wrongs? Will our friends be allowed to prey upon us another year? 

“We have heard of the power of the ‘Press;’ pray give these few lines a place in your columns, and let them go forth to the world. I am known among our enemies as the ‘Bowhead,’ but I belong to the Old Greenland family.” 

The letter was signed, “Yours till death, POLAR WHALE.”

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