Whaling in Whitby
The Whale Bones
Atop the West cliffs of Whitby stands a monument to the town’s historic past – Whaling; the huge jaw bones of a whale, a monument to those caught by Whitby fishermen – standing at an impressive height next to the monument of Captain Cook.
It was in 1753, as Cook’s career was just taking off, that several Whitby merchants initially came together with just two ships to form the Whitby Whaling Company and set off from Whitby harbour to Greenland. The early whalers consisted of both local fishermen and a number of more experienced Dutch specialists.
Between 1753 and 1833 there were 55 whaling ships operating from the harbour and by 1768 a Whitby ship, Jenny, was noted as one of the two most successful whaling ships in the whole of the British fleet.
As a career whaling offered local men money and excitement hand in hand with danger; many men were lost to hazardous seas and the extreme weather conditions of the North.
Reports tell tales of many boats being upturned by seas, crushed by ice and men’s lives lost.
It is thought that Whitby’s whaling industry was responsible for the harvest of over 25,000 seals, 55 polar bears and 2761 whales. These were brought back to Whitby where great boiler houses built alongside the harbour rendered the blubber into oil.
On the fleet’s return to harbour those on land would pay close attention to the returning ships mast – if they were returning with a successful catch they would attach the whales’ jaw bones here as a communication that the ship was full. It is this tradition that is marked by the town’s monumental whale jaw archway, originally given to Whitby by Norwegian Thor Dhal and the artist Graham Leach in 1963 in recognition of the dangers faced by the whalers and as a tribute to Whitby’s famous whaling history.
The bone arch was replaced in 2002 as years of facing the harsh weather conditions had left the monument in a state of decay. The current whale bones were donated by Whitby’s sister town of Anchorage, Alaska. They were found abandoned after a legal hunt on Alaska’s northern coast.
Whitby’s whaling industry came to an end in 1837 after a succession of less successful trips.
The last returning whaling ship to enter Whitby was empty.
More information is available at Whitby Museum