Station: [11] Whaling

M: Vis vincitur arte.

F: Skill conquers power. The painting, which bears this motto, shows a whaling fleet in the Arctic Ocean.

M: In earlier centuries, Föhr was a poor, barren island. To feed their families, many of Föhr’s men went to sea. In the 15th century, they were involved in the herring fishery around Heligoland. And from the 17th century, whaling was the most profitable business for skilled seafarers.

F: It was a seasonal activity: at the end of winter or in spring – depending on the weather – the seamen left the island on fishing smacks and sailed to the ports of departure: Amsterdam, Hamburg or Altona, for example, later also Copenhagen. From there, the whaling ships set sail towards Spitsbergen and Greenland in the Arctic Ocean, where they hunted whales amidst the ice floes.

M: Once a whale had been sighted, the whalers approached as close to it as possible in a small rowing boat – a sloop. Then they targeted it with their harpoons. The ropes attached to the projectiles were up to a thousand metres long – almost 3,300 feet. The injured whale would attempt to escape, dragging the sloop along with it. Once it was exhausted after several hours of this, the men were able to row in closer for the kill.

F: On the wall above the display case you can see some of the equipment used for this type of fishing. The two objects in the middle were harpoons used to hunt the whale to exhaustion, as just described. At the top is a lance used to dispatch the animal, while the tool at the bottom is a blubber hook.

M: The dead whale was now dragged in close to the side of the ship. Long strips of blubber were sliced from the flesh, hauled aboard in sections and packed into barrels below deck.

F: The whalers were mainly interested in the enormous mammals’ layer of blubber. Whale oil was especially prized for use in oil lamps, which were common back then. Whale oil burned with a bright flame and produced neither smoke nor soot – unlike the much cheaper rapeseed oil, which was often used on the island at the time. Kerosene, or paraffin, a crude oil product, hadn’t yet been developed, and nor had electric lighting. So whale oil was in great demand.

M: Another material derived from whales is baleen – plates made of a horny substance in the whales’ mouths. Some whale species use them to filter krill out of the water. Baleen also had its uses for people. The plates were flexible and were used as boning in women's corsets or crinolines, but also turned into carriage springs, or made into small round boxes.

F: Elaborate ivory carvings were made from the teeth of other whale species.

M: Commercial whaling in the 17th and 18th centuries almost led to the extinction of these large marine mammals. For the population of Föhr, however, whaling provided a degree of modest prosperity.

Fotos: © Dr.-Carl-Häberlin-Friesen-Museum