What The North Water is right – and wrong – about 19th-century whaling life
The hunt, for example, ends in a few minutes. In reality, especially with the whaling of the Pacific, where sperm whales and deep-diving humpback whales were hunted, it could take hours or even days. The whales would die slowly, lacerated by harpoons and sharp shovels, torn by sharks and other predators.
And although The North Water portrays stripping the fat off the whale – a process known as “skinning” – it doesn’t capture all of its horrific work, nor the stench. Dead, the whale would be chained alongside the ship. There he would be butchered into 20-foot strips of flesh and fat using long, sickle-shaped blades. Sometimes pulleys were used to rotate the carcass of the whale as if to peel an orange (something not seen in the series). These bags of fat, weighing up to a ton, were carried on board and cut into smaller strips for storage in the “fat room”.
What happened next depended on where the ship was hunting: when whaling in the South Sea, as Moby-Dick shows, whale fat was grilled on deck in “test pots.” : Vast steaming cauldrons that left a telltale trail of dirt smoking for miles. Meanwhile, in the freezing northern waters, where decomposition was less of a concern, the grease was packed in the hold until the end of the voyage where it could be brought back to land. In the Arctic, right whales were chased – so called because, being large, slow, and fleshy, they were the “good” whales to kill.
Humans have hunted whales since prehistoric times. In South Korea, hand engravings dating back 8,000 years depict whales being roped by hunters from a dock. The Australian petroglyphs, on the other hand, which are probably almost as old, show a wide variety of marine animals, including whales, being hunted. In northern Europe, Basque fishermen began to market canned meat and whale products in the 16th century. They were the first to make whaling a business.