In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex - OIL from a WHALE

By 1904, when this photo was taken aboard a bark called Sunbeam, not much had changed in the method by which whalers removed spermaceti (high-quality whale oil) from the head of a sperm whale (cachalot). Spermaceti is located in the part of the whale's head known as the "case." Photo, by C. W. Ashley, circa 1904. Online via Mystic Seaport.


Towing a huge whale back to the main ship was slow-going. Rowers could travel about one mile per hour. Sometimes it was dark when the crew returned.

With a whale to butcher, the Essex—like other similar whaleships—became a factory at sea. The first job, to extract a whale’s oil, was to remove its blubber in twenty-foot strips. Those strips were lowered to the vessel’s blubber room where they were cut into smaller pieces.

Once the whale was completely stripped of its blubber, it had to be decapitated.

The head of a sperm whale (cachalot)—whose scientific name is Physeter macrocephalus—is around a third of its total length. The upper part of its head contains what is known as a case. This cavity is filled with a substance called spermaceti (literally translated, the seed of a cetacean).

Spermaceti is a clear, high-quality oil which partially solidifies when it’s exposed to air. In the 17th and 18th centuries, oil from a sperm whale was highly desirable. Among other things, people valued the way it burned without producing lots of smoke.

To get the head of a sperm whale on the ship’s deck, the crew had to use blocks and tackles. After cutting a hole into the top of the case, the men harvested the oil with buckets.

If whalers were lucky—really lucky—they would find something else in the body of the whale which was worth at least its weight in gold: a substance called ambergris.

Experts believe that ambergris develops in the intestines of whales as protection against undigested materials—like the beaks of giant squids—which can (and sometimes do) harm a whale’s digestive system.

A primarily ash-colored substance, ambergris—which means "gray amber" in French—was a key component of expensive perfume at the time the Essex sailed. It was also highly prized and, to whalers, extremely important as an enhanced source of income.

How did whalers breakdown a whale’s blubber, transforming it into oil which could be transported in barrels? They used “try pots” in a process called “trying out.”

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5197stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 14, 2015

Updated Last Revision: Jun 02, 2016

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"OIL from a WHALE" AwesomeStories.com. Dec 14, 2015. Jun 01, 2020.
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