Remembering Basque Whaling in North America

One of the most important North American archaeological sites related to whaling can be found in Red Bay, Labrador, in Canada. Red Bay was the largest and most important of several locations along the Labrador coast at which Basque whalers set up whaling stations to render the blubber from the whales they caught, beginning in the 1500s.  These whalers sailed across from the Bay of Biscay in their galleons to North America, to hunt baleen whales. The oil from these whales would then be sailed back to Europe for use as lamp fuel, soaps and other products. This phase of whaling under sail lasted until the early 1600s.

In recent years, the bones left behind by the Basque whalers have been examined by researchers, primarily Moira Brown and Brenna McLeod, to determine which species were hunted. It had been assumed that the targeted species were North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). The DNA extracted from these bones led to the identification of 21 distinct individuals, 20 of which were bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus), the larger cousin of right whales.  The three species of right whale and the bowhead comprise the Balaenidae, one of the four families of baleen whales. This discovery has initiated some revisiting of the assumptions of the population numbers of North Atlantic right whales prior to the hunting that occurred between 1500-1935. Perhaps this species was never as populous as first imagined.

The Red Bay site has been nominated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. You can learn more about the site in this Global Travel Industry News article or Labrador Coastal Drive. For some first hand insight into some of the research done in 2004, search online for “Log of the Rosita – Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution”, written by former NBWM Trustee Dr. Michael Moore from WHOI.


Bowhead whale skull at Ilisagvik College, Barrow, AK. Photo by Robert Rocha, NBWM.

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