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Freeze Frame Scott Polar Research Institute

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Nineteenth Century Arctic Whaling Ships


  • The Freeze Frame collection contains images from the whaling ships Eclipse (based in Peterhead) and Maud (based in Dundee).
  • Whaling was a major industry during the nineteenth century. Whales were treated as commodities, the oil from their blubber was used in candles, soap, and margarine, and their baleen in umbrellas and fashion items.
  • Today alternatives have been found for whale products and so the whale is no longer viewed as a commodity but instead is an endangered species.

View photographs from Eclipse and Maud

Freeze Frame contains images taken on board the Eclipse (Captain Gray) 1888 and Maud (Captain Adams) 1898. These ships were both commercial whaling ships, the Eclipse based in the port of Peterhead, and the Maud in the port of Dundee. The two ports were fierce rivals; Peterhead had the best reputation for sealing whereas Dundee was beter known for whaling. The Gray’s of Peterhead had the longest connection of any British family to the Arctic whaling industry, with three generations of the family in the business. They were involved with whaling right up to its decline.

The photographs of Eclipse and Maud which are part of Freeze Frame were taken by Walter Livinstone-Learmonth. Whilst the practice of whaling was purely a commercial one, Livingstone-Learmonth sailed aboard the Eclipse and Maud for a different reason – that of sport.


Born in Australia to Scottish parents he was educated in Edinburgh. He travelled on board the Eclipse in 1888 and on the Maud in 1898, hoping to write a book about his travels, unfortunately he was unable to get a publisher. Relations between Livingstone-Learmonth and Captain Gray of the Eclipse appear to have been a little strained. Captain Gray is reported to have said of Livingstone-Learmonth that he ‘knows everything and has been everywhere. He knows how to shoot seals and bears before he has seen any of them’ (Smith 1993:88). Livingstone-Learmonth was a keen hunter and travelled on board these ships to shoot different species, on his voyage on board the Maud he shot 26 walruses and seals, and four polar bears. Some of his photographs depict him proudly standing over his spoils. Livingstone-Learmonth was purely there for his enjoyment and describing a harpooned whale as a ‘truly fine sight’, and the heavy thud of a dead Eider duck hitting the water as a cheerful one (Smith 1993).


The images depict some of the gruesome spoils of whaling which at this time was a major industry. Whaling in the nineteenth century can be difficult to understand from our contemporary perspective; today the whale has shifted from being a commodity to an endangered species and are viewed as something to be safeguarded and so are protected by numerous conventions and treaties, which when broken induce international outcry.


However, in the nineteenth century whales were viewed as a commodity, one of the prime reasons for the endangerment of whales today is a consequence of the actions of the whaling industry in the nineteenth century. During this period whalers travelled from Europe to hunt whales, which produced the raw materials required by the growing industrial cities. In Britain major whaling ports developed in Hull, Whitby, Peterhead, Dundee, and Aberdeen, the fate of these communities rested on the commercial success of whaling.

The key product of the whale was its blubber. This could be boiled down to produce an oil called ‘train oil’. This train oil was used to light street lamps, to lubricate machinery, and in soap, in later years train oil was also added to margarine. Whale baleen was another popular whale product, this is a bendy bone like substance which a whale uses to filter its food through. In the days before plastic this was a very popular product used in all manner of things, especially feminine fashion items such as umbrellas, corsets, and wide hoop skirts.

It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth century that these whale products were economically essential. Today we have found alternatives for these products and so whaling is no longer the commercial enterprise it once was. Had these products not been required the whales would not have been hunted on such a large scale, killing a whale is a long and arduous process not undertaken for fun or as a sport. Whaling ships were commercial enterprises and they had to make a profit, when it became more difficult to hunt whales and as their products became less in demand the whale trade went into decline.

Whilst we can understand the economic necessity of whaling in this period, many whalers were greedy and abused the whale as a resource. The indigenous people of Greenland and Canada had hunted the whale for many years in a sustainable and manageable way. Their technology and methods did not permit them to hunt the whale in large numbers, nor did they need too. Most importantly the indigenous people managed this resource so that there would be something for them and their families the following year. The whaling ships, which were commercial enterprises, failed to consider the long-term economic stability of their trade, and driven by profit vastly over fished resulting in a collapse of whale numbers.

One of the whaling ships prime mistakes was to move further north to hunt in the nursery fields. Mothers and their young would shelter around Lancaster Sound, as whales became scarcer at the usual hunting grounds the whalers moved northwards to new areas. In killing mothers and their young this reduced the whale population’s chance to recover its numbers. The practice of hunting young was frowned upon at the time but the whalers did not link this as a cause for the declining whale numbers.

The advent of steam had permitted the whalers to move further north and it was the noise produced by these steam ships that the whalers considered to be the problem. Whilst the ships would return to wind power when reaching the whaling grounds some whalers, including Gray, believed the engines were not switched off soon enough and that this forced the whales further north. They argued that whale numbers were not decreasing; they were just hiding further north. However, even whalers such as Gray were eventually forced to admit that whaling stocks had declined and the practices in the nursery fields were a cause of this. Gray stated in a report for the Scottish Fishery Board that due to the actions of earlier hunters who killed young whales before they had chance to reproduce, they had undermined the stability of the whale population.

By 1888 only 13 whales were seen in Lancaster Sound, eight of these were killed. Gray on the Eclipse killed two of these, whereas the Maud caught 3 smallish whales, 300 white whales, 1000 seals and 175 walrus. Things were slightly better in 1898 as the southerly winds prevailed, packing the ice further northward. More whales than usual were seen, the Eclipse caught four whales and ten bottlenose whales.

As the decline took hold, fewer and fewer whale boats travelled from the whaling ports, the end of European whaling in the Arctic is usually dated around the start of the First World War. Until then this dangerous but profitable industry had been a major employer in ports such as Dundee and Peterhead. Each whaling ship tended to employ 40-50 men, these would be made up of local men and men from the Shetland and Orkney Islands who were thought to posses the ideal qualities for a whaler. The life of a whaler was a difficult one; they would depart each spring returning every autumn, having spent many months living in tough conditions on board their whaling ships. The actual act of whaling was a difficult and dangerous one and many men lost their lives or were badly injured in the process.

whaling ships

A whaling ship was usually a square rigged three master boat of between 300 and 400 tons, typically painted black and white. Each ship would carry around seven whaleboats which would be suspended from the sides of the ship. After a whale was sighted the whaling boats would be lowered and from there the lead boat would fire a harpoon at the whale. This would not kill the whale but its barbs would hook into the whale, the rope leading from the harpoon would attach the whale to a boat. Further harpoons may have been shot out, attaching the whale to a number of boats. The whalers had to be cautious as once hit the whale would tend to dive below the surface and if sufficient rope was not let out the whale could drag the boat down with it. The whalers had to wait until the whale was truly exhausted before they could move in for the kill. To kill the whale a four-pronged lance would be speared into its heart or lungs. This process could take up to forty hours.

Once the whale was dead the work for the whaler was not over. First they had to locate their ship and tow the dead whale back. Once the whale was tied to the side of the ship then whalers would go about ‘flensing’ the whale, this was the stripping of the whale’s blubber from its body. Flensing would be done with knives and spades as the whale was spun so that the blubber could be removed from all sides, it would usually take around four hours to do this. Typically 20-30 tons of blubber would be removed from an averaged sized whale in pieces weighing up to one and a half tons. The blubber then needed to be stored in casks, or in later years tanks, this would require the blubber to be cut down into chunks which would fit. During flensing the ship would become wet and slippery from a mixture of blood and grease and it was not uncommon for men to be injured with their knife or the knives of others.

Whilst this work was tough it was usually accompanied by the cheers of the whalers, their wages depended almost entirely upon what was caught. Therefore, whilst the act of killing a whale was gruesome and difficult work it brought a sense of relief to the whalers, many of whom knew that the survival of their family at home rested upon a good catch.

The life of a whaler was a difficult one and further troubled by the risk of wrecking. Wrecks were common as the ships were squeezed between the ice. The combination of these risks is probably a major cause behind the large number of superstitions belonging to the whalers. Ribbons were thought to be especially auspicious and on departure women would give the men pieces of ribbon with knots tied in them to predict the number of whales caught. Traditionally ribbons would be tied on top of the mast to fade, on their return to port boys would race to the top to grab the weathered bundle.

By the First World War the whale was so rare that it was considered extinct in all regions of the Arctic accessible by boat (Lubbock 1937:V). Around this time whaling in the Antarctic began, this was undertaken on huge factory ships. In 1963 the British whaling industry finally came to an end as the last British whaler killed its final whale (Archibald 2004:145).

After the decline of the Arctic whaling industry the Eclipse was sold to Russians who changed her name to Lomonessoi (Hyde 1955:122). She served some time in the Russian Imperial Navy and at the end of the First World War was serving in the Arctic as a supply ship. Sinking in 1927 she was raised in 1929 and went to Siberia as a research ship.

Captain Adams continued to captain the Maud until his death in 1890.

Further Information

Archibald, M. (2004) Whalehuhnters Dundee and the Arctic Whalers. Mercat Press Ltd.

Lubbock, B. (1937) Arctic Whalers. Brown, Son and Ferguson Ltd.

Smith, R. (1993) The Whale Hunters.  Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd.


The Scott Polar Research Institute has made a catalogue of it’s Polar Art Collection accessible online. The art collection includes artworks made during whaling expeditions.