Author Archives: whaleblog

Scientists Successfully Use Sedation to Help Disentangle North Atlantic Right Whale

January 15th a very special day for NOAA scientists and its state and nonprofit partners, and for the the young female North Atlantic Right whale who was disentangled from ropes and wire mesh fishing gear. Read the full news report on NOAA’s website , it begins:

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries Service and its state and nonprofit partners successfully used at-sea chemical sedation to help cut the remaining ropes from a young North Atlantic right whale on January 15 off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Fla. The sedative given to the whale allowed the disentanglement team to safely approach the animal and remove 50 feet of rope which was wrapped through its mouth and around its flippers.

The sedative given to the whale allowed the disentanglement team to safely approach the animal. (Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

This is only the second time a free-swimming whale has been successfully sedated to enable disentanglement efforts. The first time a whale was successfully sedated and disentangled was in March 2009 off the coast of Florida.

“Our recent progress with chemical sedation is important because it’s less stressful for the animal, and minimizes the amount of time spent working on these animals while maximizing the effectiveness of disentanglement operations,” said Jamison Smith, Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Coordinator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service. “This disentanglement was especially complex, but proved successful due to the detailed planning and collective expertise of the many response partners involved.”

Overview of Scrimshaw – The Whalers’ Art

Overview of Scrimshaw –
The Whalers’ Art

Definition and Etymology:
These days, “scrimshaw” is taken to refer to all kinds of carving and engraving on ivory, bone, sea shells, antler, and cow horn. However, in its original context as a traditional shipboard pastime of 19th-century mariners, scrimshaw refers to the indigenous, occupationally-rooted art form of the whalers, the defining characteristic of which is use of the hard byproducts of the whale fishery itself – sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen (erroneously called whalebone), and skeletal whale bone, often used often in combination with other “found” materials. The origin and etymology of the term scrimshaw is unknown and has been disputed, but various forms of it – such as scrimsshander, skrimshonting, and skrimshank – began to appear in American whalemen’s parlance in the early 19th century. The term originally referred to the production of sailors’ hand-tools and practical implements, such as seam rubbers, fids, belaying pins, and thole pins, mostly made for the ship during working hours; but it soon came to signify objects made by whalemen–and, to a lesser extent, by tars in the naval and merchant services– primarily for their own recreation and amusement, intended mostly as mementos for folks at home.

“Hard byproducts” of whaling were flotsam and jetsam of the fishery – parts of the whale that had little or no commercial value and thus could be given over to the sailors for their own pleasurable diversions. Sperm whale teeth could be polished to a high gloss, then engraved with pictures to which lampblack and colored pigments could be applied. Or they could be carved in relief or in full round, to produce sculptural forms, human and animal figures, finials, handles, tools, inlay, and all manner of ornaments for wooden boxes, canes, and other objects.

Likewise walrus ivory. The walrus hunt had been associated with whaling since medieval times, and even where the whalers did not take walrus themselves (as was typically the case in the 19th century), tusks were obtained by barter with Northern peoples in Canada, Siberia, and Alaska, and were often utilized to scrimshaw. Virtually anything that could be made of whale ivory could also be crafted from walrus ivory.

The characteristics of whale and walrus ivory are similar. The advantages of sperm whale teeth are (in especially fine specimens) its milky smoothness, homogeneity of texture, breadth, and rich color. However, a length of 20 cm (or 8 inches) is uncommonly large for a sperm whale tooth; 28 cm (11 inches) is just about the record. Walrus tusks, on the other hand, frequently range up to 70 cm (about 27 inches) or longer: they not only provide a larger surface for pictorial engraving, but can be cut and sliced and combined into larger objects or larger ornaments, including the slats for swifts (yarn-winders), shafts and handles for pie crimpers, even the bars and slats for elaborate birdcages.

Baleen is the keratin plates in the mouths of the odontocete or so-called baleen whales, which includes all of the great whale species except sperm whales. Biologically, these keratin plates are larger manifestations of the same material as human fingernails, animal hoofs, and bovine horn. As applied to scrimshaw, baleen tends to be sinewy, brittle, and in many ways difficult to work; it is also vulnerable to larvae parasites. But it is also reasonably pliable, which is the basis of its commercial viability for corset stays, umbrella ribs, and skirt hoops. Properly handled, it is ideally suited for corset busks (staybusks) or bent-sided round and oval ditty-boxes. A deft artisan can also incise it effectively with pictures.

Through the centuries, each of these products had commercial value from time to time, and so were only intermittently available to whalers for their own hobby work. Baleen had many commercial applications, but a baleen surplus in Holland in the 17th century eroded its commercial value, affording mariners an opportunity to obtain pieces of baleen for their own use. Skeletal whale bone was used for architecture and artisanry by Norse and Basque whaling pioneers in medieval times; but, beginning in the 17th century, pelagic whalers – who were primarily concerned with oil and secondarily with baleen – discarded the bones as worthless deadweight. So eventually bone, too, came into the hands of whaleman-artists.

Whalemen often used the basic materials that define scrimshaw – sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen, and skeletal bone – in combination with other “found” materials, typically bits and pieces of wood, metal, sea shells, tortoise shell, and cloth. Latin American coins, in wide circulation in the Pacific, could be fashioned into finials and fixtures. The characteristic basic black pigment was lampblack, a suspension of carbon in oil, the product of combustion, easily obtained from the shipboard tryworks (oil cookery) or from ubiquitous oil lamps. (The notion that whalemen used tobacco juice as a pigment for scrimshaw is purely fanciful: it isn’t black, it doesn’t work, and not even a single example has been documented.) Colored pigments for polychrome (multi-colored) works included verdigris (a tenacious green deposit naturally forming on copper and brass), various homemade fruit and vegetable dyes, and commercially-produced india or china ink.

Scrimshaw Precursors
Whale ivory, bone, and baleen precursors to whalemen’s scrimshaw appeared almost from the beginning of medieval European whaling: domestic implements carved out of skeletal bone by Vikings in Norway, game pieces and chessmen made at Paris, Cologne, and elsewhere, and an impressive inventory of 11th- and 12-century votive carvings produced in English and Danish monasteries. Walrus tusks from Norway became a cheaper substitute for elephant ivory (which was imported to Europe from Africa by Venetian and Genoese merchants), and found its way into the hands of artisans in Central Europe, England, Turkey, Russia, and Spain. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and German whaling captains occasionally used baleen to make oval boxes, mangles (for folding cloth), and votive objects commemorating a family event or a successful hunt.

The Advent of Whalemen’s Scrimshaw
It was not until after the Napoleonic Wars that the meteoric rise of whaling, resulting in longer voyages, larger crews, and over-manned ships, created an atmosphere for scrimshaw to flourish on a large scale. A few bone swifts, straightedges, and hand-tools survive from the 18th century; but the earliest known works of engraved pictorial scrimshaw date from circa 1817-21. Contrary to popular belief in many quarters, which ascribes the origin of pictorial scrimshaw to American hands, the first practitioners to adorn sperm whale teeth were British South Sea whalers, a few of whose pioneering works survive in the Museum collection. The first piece to bear a date is elaborately but anonymously inscribed from the whaleship Adam of London, date 1817. The first known American scrimshaw artist, and one of the best, was Edward Burdett (1805-1833), who began scrimshandering circa 1824. The first American piece to bear a date is a recently-discovered tooth engraved by Edward Burdett aboard the ship Origon of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, in 1827. The most famous early scrimshaw artist is Burdett’s fellow-Nantucketer Frederick Myrick (1808-1862), who produced 36 or more so-called “Susan’s Teeth” aboard the Nantucket ship Susan during 1828-29: he was the first ever to sign and date some of his work. These pioneers were the vanguard of a tremendously productive generation of American, British, and Australian scrimshaw artists who followed in the 1830s and ’40s, the Golden Age of scrimshaw.

Pictorial Scrimshaw
From the orthodox ship-portraits and whaling scenes pioneered in the 1820s, the pictorial repertoire expanded dramatically in the 1830s to include virtually every kind of image and theme. Sedate female figures and family groupings were persistent favorites. Patriotic subjects, naval scenes, symbolic figures like Britannia, Columbia, and Hope, and portraits of Great Men and Women – George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Napoleon, Josephine Bonaparte, and Jenny Lind – abounded. The scrimshanders’ eye took in all subjects and themes, Biblical, mythological, and theatrical, zoölogical and botanical, urban, rural, religious, and ecclesiastical, domestic, foreign, exotic, and banal.

Diversity of Scrimshaw
It is the remarkable diversity and intricate ingenuity of shipboard scrimshaw that drew the comments of contemporaneous observers. Reverend Henry Cheever remarked that “skimshander” is a term for “the ways in which whalemen busy themselves when making passages, and in the intervals of taking whales, in working up sperm whales’ jaws and teeth and right whale bone into boxes, swifts, reels, canes, whips, folders, stamps, and all sorts of things, according to their ingenuity” (The Whale and His Captors, 1850). Herman Melville, a veteran whaleman, if not actually a scrimshaw artist himself, describes the genre as “lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material in the hours of ocean leisure” (Moby Dick, 1851). There were indeed many types, produced primarily as mementos and souvenirs for the whalemen themselves, and especially as gifts for loved ones at home.

The swift (an elaborate yarn-winder), a distinctively American form, was an early and persistent manifestation. Pie crimpers and kitchen implements proliferated. Corset busks (staybusks) and canes (walking sticks) were epidemic: whaleman John Martin, homeward-bound with a full catch in the Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, in 1844, wrote whimsically in his journal , “There are enough canes in this ship to supply all the old men in Wilmington.” Ditty boxes, workboxes, and tabletop chests could be extremely simple or highly ornate, made entirely of baleen or bone, or a combination of materials and inlays, sometimes surmounted with a human or animal figure carved in full round. Aromatic boxes of precious Polynesian sandalwood, often exquisitely inlaid with ivory, abalone, and silver, were constructed by many painstaking seamen. Among the most elaborate creations were “architectural” or “architectonic” forms: pocketwatch stands, usually shaped like miniature “grandfather” clocks (tall clocks), a nighttime resting place for dad’s gold timepiece. Sewing boxes, typically built of wood or bone, often lavishly fitted with drawers, spools for thread, pincushions, and other accessories, were characteristically ornately decorated with inlay, finials, fobs, and fixtures of marine ivory, sea shell, tortoise shell, and silver. A skeletal-bone and or wood-and-bone birdcage could consume countless months of work at sea. Banjos and violins with ivory and bone fittings were also in the inventory of the musically inclined and manually skilled.

In fact, many whalemen were quite skilled – ship’s carpenters and coopers perhaps especially so. Having been trained in the trades, their dexterity and technical competence would have been substantially better honed than average; certainly their per capita scrimshaw productivity was disproportionately high. Nor was scrimshandering limited to the whalers themselves. Wives and children, who sometimes accompanied whaling captains to sea, also produced scrimshaw in significant numbers. Some of the women – like Sallie Smith, wife of Captain Frederick Howland Smith of Dartmouth, Massachusetts – produced work to as high a standard as their male counterparts.

The defining characteristic of scrimshaw is the occupational context of process, materials, and personnel. Its aesthetic, iconographical, and technical characteristics, exhibiting trends and tendencies that mostly followed fashion ashore, place it foursquare within the decorative mainstream. But its vivacious florescence within a single, sequestered occupational group render it unique able to impart insights into the life and times of sea labor in the Age of Sail. The scrimshaw itself was produced in large measure with the artist’s mind fixed on the people back home, not only as the intended recipients of scrimshaw gifts, but also as the beneficiaries of his newly-acquired sailors’ vision of the wide world. The genre, born of the sea, constantly looks homeward to shore.

Join us on Jan. 29th for ‘Scrimshaw 101’ . Tweet this one day course with this hashtag: #scrimshaw101

Give the Gift of Membership

The Perfect Gift for the Person Who Has Everything

Looking for the perfect gift? Delight your friends and family with an entire year of FREE admission to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  Members also receive a 10% discount in the Museum store, invitations to members-only events, members-only mailings such as The Bulletin from Johnny Cake Hill and so much more.   Visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum today to purchase a gift membership for your friends or family and receive a complimentary $10 gift card!

To learn more about the Whaling Museum’s membership program, visit our website or contact Amy Morrison at (508) 997-0046, ext. 150.

NBWM in “Antiques and the Art Online”

Thank-you to Antiques and the Art Online and author Laura Beach for your informative article (11/23) on our collections and our evolving role as a partner for positive change in the region.

“What has changed is the 107-year-old New Bedford Whaling Museum. Over the past year, it completed three ambitious renovation and installation projects, enhancing its display of an outstanding collection of art, artifacts and manuscripts numbering more than 750,000 objects. It added 2,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Over time, the institution will be transformed from what president James Russell calls “a temple to Yankee whaling” to a cosmopolitan center for the study of New Bedford as a multicultural melting pot and economic powerhouse, past and, if community leaders have their way, future.”

Read the full article

Crewlist Project Update

In this post we share an update by Crewlist Project Director, and New Bedford Whaling Museum Advisory Curator Judith Lund.

Thanks to about 37 volunteers ranging in age from Museum interns and the students in the Maritime History Class at UMass Dartmouth to retired folks, the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Crew List project is nearly complete.  So far, the names of crewmembers for almost 2200 voyages from 1855 to the end of American Whaling in 1927 have been entered into the database.  If you estimate 25 crew members at least for each voyage, that’s about 55,000 little lines in excel .  THANK YOU EVERYONE.

This is the sort of project the museum couldn’t have done without volunteer help.  Our information will be combined with the early years input by New Bedford Free Public Library some years ago, to provide the names of men who left New Bedford on Whaleships sailing form this port

The Museum is about to redesign its website.  This information, will be included in that design, available via the internet to whaling historians and to people trying to understand their own family history.   We will have this database up and running by Fall of.

Film ‘Finest Kind’ sheds light on commercial fisherman

In April 2010, Standard-Times reporter Don Cuddy went to Georges Bank aboard the New Bedford dragger Sea Escape to experience for himself the life of a fisherman. 

Although hugely important to the regional economy, the workings of the fishing industry remain largely unknown to the vast majority of people not connected in some way to the waterfront. Fishing vessels come and go but where they go, what they do and how they do it is still a mystery to those on the land.

From over seven hours of video and interviews with the crew as they toiled day and night to bring home a catch, Cuddy has produced a compelling narrative that affords a rare glimpse of a job that few people have seen up close.

With running time of 51 minutes, “Finest Kind” will be screened in the Museum’s Cook Memorial Theater.

Admission is free.


photo by Don Cuddy

Sculpture Exhibit Takes Shape

For the complete article by David B. Boyce go to

ARTicles: Notes on the Arts
October 30, 2010 12:00 AM

Many who have visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum lately, or just sauntered by its canopied main entrance, probably have noticed a giant orange squid wrapped around a square column near that access. It is the artwork of Erik Durant, a New Bedford sculptor, an MFA graduate of UMass Dartmouth, and currently coordinator of the Fine Arts Program at Bristol Community College, where he has taught since 2006.

Durant is one of eight artists participating in a show of outdoor sculpture titled “In the Unequal Cross-Lights — Contemporary Sculptors Respond to the Whaling Museum Collections,” organized by Lasse Antonsen, director of the University Art Galleries, and in collaboration with the UMD College of Visual and Performing Arts, the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, and the Whaling Museum. The eight artworks will be placed around the museum’s downtown campus, and will remain on view for a year.

Rick Creighton’s “Little Sailor Boy with Paddle Arms”, photo by Loring S. Weeks/

rest of the story…

Welcoming New Teen Apprentices

The New Bedford Whaling Museum will introduce its new class of Teen Apprentices during a brief ceremony on Monday, October 18, at 4:30 pm, in the Jacobs Family Gallery. The public is cordially invited to attend.

These twelve juniors and seniors, who attend high school in New Bedford, were chosen from a pool of sixty applicants.  They will be working after school, Monday through Thursday through May and will return in the summer for a six hour work day. Mayor Scott W. Lang, Museum President James Russell, returning Apprentice Ryan Wotton, and Robert Rocha, who directs the apprentice program, will address the gathering.

Overseen by the Museum’s Education Department, the Teen Apprentice Program provides a unique opportunity for local youth to learn a variety of museum skills and expand their scholastic horizons. It is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement/Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations (ECHO), the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, the Howard Bayne Fund, the Women’s Fund of the Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts, the United Way of Greater New Bedford, the City of New Bedford Community Development Block Grant Program, and Bank of America.

For more information, contact: Robert Rocha, Science Programs Manager, Tel. (508) 717-6849.

The first crew of Apprentices, at their Museum commencement in May.

The Teen Apprentice Blog: Greenhands
Check out photos from the Youth Apprentice Program on the NBWM’s Flickr Page.

Rare photos featured in “Old Houses of Old Dartmouth” lecture, Oct. 14

Bob Maker will present an illustrated lecture on the early architecture of Old Dartmouth (present-day Westport, Dartmouth, New Bedford, Fairhaven and Acushnet) at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on AHA! night, Thursday, Oct. 14, at 6:45 p.m. in the Cook Memorial Theater.

The presentation will focus on the Museum’s Palmer & Worth collection, which contain rare photographs of more than 200 buildings dating from the 1680s to the 1840s, compiled in an unpublished volume donated to the Old Dartmouth Historical Society in 1907 by Herbert and Anna Cushman.

Howland-Tripp house, east side of Pine Hill meeting house road, about 3/4 miles south of Head of Westport. Photo by Fred Palmer, c 1905 (#2000.100.80.77)

“Some of these buildings are still standing, many are not, and in many cases these photos are the only known images of some of our area’s earliest buildings,” said Mr. Maker, who lives in New Bedford and has done extensive research on many aspects of local history.

Beginning in 1904, photographer Fred W. Palmer and historian Henry B. Worth collaborated to document the earliest extant buildings in the original township of Old Dartmouth. Predominantly exterior views, the photos are currently held in their original form as nitrate and glass negatives in the Adaline H. Perkins Rand Photo & Digital Archive, located in the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library.

Henry Worth meticulously researched each of the buildings Palmer photographed, combining information from many sources with his own extensive knowledge of architectural styles and construction techniques.

Conceived by Mr. Maker, the Palmer & Worth project was conducted in the Museum’s Departments of Digital Initiatives, Photography, and the Research Library. This program is supported in part by grants from the Dartmouth and Fairhaven Cultural Councils, local agencies which are supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.

View many of these photos through our flickr set.

For more information, contact:
Arthur Motta
Director, Marketing & Communications
(508) 997-0046, ext. 153

Call for Papers: Place-Based Learning Symposium: December 1-3

Call for Papers: Place-Based Learning Symposium: December 1-3

Place-Based Learning connects students to their immediate surroundings and heritage. This method, sometimes called “pedagogy of place” allows individuals to teach and learn through observation and doing, using personally relevant resources as the context for their academic growth.

Place-Based Learning brings forth several questions. How does Place-Based Learning compare to other models of teaching? Is it the best method to reach today’s youth? How do we evaluate its effectiveness? Can informal learning centers be leaders in the creation and promotion of effective Place-Based Learning programs?

In an effort to explore best practices by leading educational and cultural institutions nationwide, the New Bedford ECHO Project invites proposals for presentations and papers on Place-Based Learning to be delivered at a symposium held in New Bedford, MA on December 1-3, 2010.

The symposium will focus on four main themes:

  • Leveraging regional success stories on a national scale
  • Successful Place-Based Learning programs and partnerships
  • How standardization of the current educational system creates disparities in the educational attainment of native/underserved/minority students
  • Value and shortcomings of Place-Based Learning including assessment and evaluation

The New Bedford ECHO Project (NBEP), a combined effort from the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Ocean Explorium, works locally with the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, and our ECHO partners in Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Mississippi to address the educational needs of our respective populations. Through its focus on history, culture, arts and environment the NBEP, allows students and educators alike to engage in a variety of content and context based teaching and learning opportunities. Examples include the Whaling Museum’s popular history, language arts and culture based school programs, the Ocean Explorium’s Enviro-Lab, which allows school and youth groups a chance to go out into Buzzard’s Bay for hands-on research and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park’s “From Hampton to New Bedford: A Network of Freedom” program which is a set of curriculum-based activities and materials that brings the story of the Underground Railroad to life.

Submissions should broadly fit into one or more of the above themes. Presentations should be submitted as an article for review and publication in symposium proceedings. All submissions should follow the style outlined in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2001, 5th edition).

Submit proposals to: Sara Meirowitz c/o New Bedford ECHO Project at 18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, MA 02740. Web: Proposals should be submitted in abstract form (less than 100 words) and are due by August 31, 2010. Honoraria and travel stipends may be available.

Sponsored by the New Bedford ECHO Project and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations) is a major, federally funded educational and cultural enrichment initiative, administered by U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Innovation and Improvement. Locally, the New Bedford ECHO Project is a unique collaboration between the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Ocean Explorium. Initiatives include cultural exchanges, collections sharing, internship and apprentice programs, and ocean learning activities.