Tradewinds and Whalers

The Charles W. Morgan built in 1841 is the last of an American whaling fleet that once numbered more than 2,700 vessels. The ship currently restored and anchored at the Mystic Seaport Museum Mystic CT. It was crucial for this fleet to utilize the trade winds to their advantage,

Ships like the Morgan often used routes defined by the Tradewinds to navigate the oceans.

Known to sailors around the world, the Tradewinds and associated ocean currents helped early sailing ships from European and African ports make their journeys to the Americas. In later years, the trade winds also drove sailing vessels from the Americas deep into the Pacific on whaling voyages. Islanders from Nantucket Island, who had taken to whaling because their soil was too poor for farming, killed their first whales in the early 1700’s. They divided their island into three and a half mile sections, each with a mast erected to look for the spouts of Right whales. Early on the U.S. whaling industry concentrated on hunting the New England and Newfoundland Canadian coast for Right, Blue and humpback whales. Later they found that Sperm whales, the largest species, had a prized spermaceti organ in their heads. This organ contains a dense waxy substance that burns with a bright flame. By the 1840’s New Bedford, just shoreward of Nantucket Island was the homeport of over 700 whaling ships and was known as the “City that Lit the World.”

Elladikdik iuṃwinTūṃur ekūtañtañin eṃṃaan. “Under the windstorms of Tūṃur, a man is reduced to inchworm at sea.” Thus, goes the proverbial Marshall Islanders’ nautical saying that describes that time of the year when the sea begins to churn from the east and diminish a man, his craft and his course on the sea to that of an inch worm tossed about by its mountainous swells. The initial rising of the star Tūṃur (Antares) just before dawn in the Marshall Islands marks the winter solstice – when the sun reaches its northernmost point above the equator. Thus, begins of the windy season around the world and across the Pacific.

Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport
The initial rising of the star Tūṃur (Antares) in the constellation Scorpius in the Marshall Islands just before dawn

Herman Melville romanticized Pacific whaling.

As an author, I admittedly like to romanticize the past. Herman Melville in his novel Moby Dick, romanticized the whaling period of American history. Aside from the beauty of this great American Novel, not much good came from whaling. They killed thousands of magnificent mammals during these years. They stripped them of their fat and left mother whales and their calves as shark meat at sea. They estimate that sail powered sailing ships killed around 300,000 sperm whales between the early 1700’s and the end of the 1800’s.

The 20th century advent of modern fishing vessels, diesel powered engines and exploding harpoons brought the toll to nearly 3 million. The only positive 20th century development was efficiency — they no longer wasted the meat. Yet, as one whale species became depleted, the whalers switched to another. By the time of the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium of commercial whaling, blue whale populations had depleted 90% and sperm whale populations were a third of what they once were. Bowhead, gray and right whales were nearly extinct.

The future of whaling under the International Commission

The moratorium was not a first-time event, and it was a long-time coming. In 1939 27 countries signed a convention for the regulation of whaling. However, there were no enforcement mechanisms. In 1946 15 whaling nations formed the International Whaling Commission. It prohibited killing gray, humpback, and right whales. It limited seasons for other whales. But again, it had no enforcement. In 1970 the United States prohibited import of whale products and added all commercial whales to its Endangered Species List. However, even under the Whaling Commission’s moratorium whaling continued to some degree. Japan, Norway, and the USSR did not join the commission, and it did not cover beluga and narwhals.

Whaling’s future

Several populations of southern right whales, humpbacks in many areas, grey whales in the eastern North Pacific and blue whales in the eastern North Pacific and central North Atlantic have begun to show signs of recovery. Populations of many other whale species are also increasing. Though we may never return to unregulated whaling, When, if ever, will it be time to resume regulated commercial hunting? A major impediment to this is the accepted conservation state of each species. Conservationists and whaling nations do not currently agree on which species remains on the endangered list and the current state of endangerment is still not clear. Ship strikes particularly along the east coast of the U.S. and in the Mediterranean are increasing. Entanglement is also an increasing problem. Current research suggests that over 300,000 whales and dolphins die annually due to entanglement in fishing gear with unknown numbers entangled in marine debris. One hopes no responsible decision on the resumption of hunting is made until such threats are thoroughly assessed and mitigation efforts implemented.

A balance between commercial fishing stocks and whaling

Conservationists argue that we should not be kill whales because of their high intelligence. Whales have spindle neurons which is a type of brain cell well known to exist only in certain other species of high intelligence such as humans, great apes, bottlenose dolphins and elephants. The fundamental principle of the animal rights movement is that animals have basic interests that deserve recognition, consideration and protection and we, as humans, have an obligation to do what we can to avoid animal suffering.

It is estimated that humans consume 150 million tons of fish per year. Yet whales, seals and walruses consume four times more. This effect on Iceland fisheries is considerable. They estimate that every minke whale reduces the annual catch of cod and herring by five tons. At some point, as whale populations recover it may be possible to consider again regulating whale hunting to bring these two industries into balance.

How do these commerce-friendly winds form?

When I arrived with the Peace Corp in the Marshall Islands in 1970 and was provisioning for my year’s long assignment to Namorik Atoll, I purchased several cases of canned whale meat. I forgot to pack a can opener and ended up opening the cans with the tip of my machete. To my uninformed taste the Japanese product was quite good. Namorik lies a few degrees north of the equator in what is known as the doldrum zone. The Tradewinds form between about 30 degrees north and 30 degrees south of the equator, in a region called the horse latitudes. They call these the horse latitudes because they are subject to these periodic doldrums. Doldrums occur during the summers of the northern hemisphere and during the winters in the southern hemisphere. They called them the horse latitudes because the crew would release the horses to the sea as they suffered from stillness and drought. This is when the trade winds stop blowing and the sea turns into a sheet of glass. It is also when albatross and other birds with long wings drop out of the sky and look for any place to rest.

The doldrums were the subject of the Ryme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

Water, water, everywhere

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.

The poem is about the unlucky killing of an albatross by a disaffected sailor.

The Earth’s rotation causes air to slant toward the equator in a southwesterly direction in the northern hemisphere and in a northwesterly direction in the southern hemisphere. This is called the Coriolis Effect.

The Coriolis Effect, in combination with an area of high pressure, causes the prevailing winds—the trade winds—to move from east to west on both sides of the equator across this 60-degree “belt.

The ten-degree belt along the equator is called the inter-tropical convergence zone.

As the wind blows to about five degrees north and south of the equator, both air and ocean currents come to a halt in a band of hot, dry air. This 10-degree belt around Earth’s midsection is called the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, more commonly known as the doldrum zone. In the summer this band drifts north deep into the Marshall Islands bringing rain, stagnant air and variable winds. It is an appropriate time to sail between the islands.  During the winter the band drifts back south to the equator once Tūṃur makes his appearance just before dawn and the cycle repeats. Let’s hope that over the hundreds of future years these magnificent animals again have their day under the sun.

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