Human Journey

Rivalry at Sea: Conversations Among Former Whalers

Gemina Garland-Lewis is a National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee recording the stories of former whalers in the Azores who used 19th century techniques until ending their hunts entirely in the 1980s.

Greetings from my last week in the field! It’s been an incredibly busy time since my last update, with twelve more interviews in the past week. After sorting through all the new stories I’ve heard, I’d like to focus this time on what I feel is the most unique aspect of whaling here: a solely commercial hunt using solely traditional methods (in a time when other countries had developed grenade harpoons and factory ships for whaling), and the stories of rivalry that came out of this combination.

Francisco Xavier Simas, age 83, shows me the painting inside the whaleboat house in his town of Ribeiras on Pico. Today the men gather here to play dominos, sit outside and chat, or just watch the happenings around them. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Without fail, every person I’ve interviewed got into whaling either because of male family members who were whalers or because of money (or both). There was no history of whaling in the Azores when American whalers introduced the practice to them in the 1800s, so for them it has always been a commercial industry and never for food. For them, “whale” meant (and continues to mean) only the sperm whale – everything else was put under the general term “finback.” The ones whose families were very involved with whaling often started around age 14, while others who needed extra income might start in their 20s, or in rare cases even later. I always ask what their favorite (and conversely, least favorite) part of whaling was, and this week I had several men reply to this with “we didn’t go whaling for fun, but because it was a necessity.” For them, this is what they had to do to provide for their families in a time where there weren’t many options, and in the cases where it wasn’t enough, they left. The main industry that arose in place of whaling was the tuna fishery, which many men left for because it was better paying.

Anibel Gonçalves Garcia, age 81, was one of the whalers who told me he didn't go for fun. The scent of onions filled the garage we spoke in, as he had just hung his harvest up to dry. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Payment for whaling was commission-based off of barrels of oil produced from the whales a company brought in. Normally each boat (of which there would be several to a company) caught 10-12 whales per year, more in rare cases. Of the seven men in a whaleboat, the official and the harpooner would receive two shares to the five rowers’ one share (though some whalers have told me their companies paid equal shares to all during the last years of whaling). Pay was only given one time per year, which meant that all monetary transactions (unless there was another source of income) were credit-based. Shop keepers would tally up purchases from each family and at the end of the year they would be paid what they were due – a system based very heavily in trust.

Manuel Silveira de Simas, age 92, after excusing himself for being in his pajamas, had a great wealth of stories to tell me from his many years as a whaler. When he left whaling to open his own shop, he regularly sold on credit to people, knowing all to well the hardships of receiving payment as a whaler. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

One man I spoke to this past week, José “Mudo” Cardoso Gonçalves, was the only man I’ve met who was actually angry (and still angry, 46 years after he left the industry) about the way the payment system worked and left saying he wanted nothing to do with whaling anymore. More common responses are that people liked whaling and would have stayed on if it paid better, and that generally they miss it. Not José Mudo. He and two other men were fired from their company after going to complain about their pay and how it was distributed. When he was invited back several years later, he said he had no interest in ever going whaling again.

José "Mudo" is celebrating his 95th birthday on the day I write this post, August 22nd. While he still had some good stories for me, it was clear he wanted as little to do remembering whaling now as he did with going whaling again when he was younger. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

What this meant for the men while they were out whaling was that rivalry was often fierce. The islands are small and it was rare that one whaling company would have a whale to themselves, at least not without some trickery involved. There were both outright races towards whales (which often ended poorly) and some more subtle methods of misleading other boats so that they wouldn’t follow you towards a whale. Recil Brum Silva of Lajes do Pico, age 81, told me one of the more intense rivalry stories I’ve heard so far. He remembered a day when they went out after a big whale, arriving near when it had been spotted to find boats from another company there already. When the whale resurfaced near Recil’s boat, the other company came at them and actually ran into them just as Recil threw the harpoon. “All hell broke loose” is how he describes it – the men were hitting each other with paddles, yelling, and swearing at each other. The whale, however, wasn’t moving much – he thinks he damaged the spinal cord with the harpoon. Among the chaos around him, he brought the sail down.

Soon after things calmed down, another boat from Lajes do Pico came towards them, thinking it hadn’t been a good harpoon by Recil and wanting to try to harpoon it themselves. They stayed under sail, which was a bad idea in this case, and ended up running over the whale (which was still attached to Recil’s boat), causing their harpooner to fly into the water, harpoon still in hand. The whale moved its head and pulled their boat down with its mouth, then came up and starting squeezing the bow of the boat inside its jaws. The men in this boat jumped ship as they saw their boat cracking open in front of them, save the official who was too scared to let go, shouting that the whale was going to swallow him. Recil wouldn’t cut the line to the whale because he knew the whale was injured and wasn’t making any huge movements. All the men were brought to the safety of the motor launch, including the scared official, who suffered only a broken nose from the ordeal.

Recil Brum Silva, a whaler at 14, stands outside the house he lives in with his wife in Lajes do Pico. He was the harpooner for "Barbeiro", a man I interviewed a couple weeks ago, who referred to him as "crazy one." Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

More discrete rivalry often worked out better for all involved, such as for Almorindo Pimentel de Lemos of Calheta de Nesquim, age 67. His main job was as a harpooner, but when his wife fell sick for a few months he took a job as a vigia so that he could spend more time on land to be closer to her. Almorindo had spotted whales off the coast and sent the rocket for the Calheta whalers to go out. Their boats were soon joined by boats from nearby towns of Ribeiras and Lajes, but were still able to harpoon and kill the whale they had spotted first. During this time he received a call from a fellow vigia working with them in Topo, on the island of São Jorge, saying that he had also spotted a whale. Almorindo didn’t want to tell his boats over the radio  because then the others listening in on that frequency would know of it as well, so he told one motor launch to tow the whale they had caught to the factory in Cais do Pico and the other to bring the whaleboats back to Calheta, making sure the manager of the company was waiting for them when they came in to tell them the news of the whale off Topo. In secrecy they headed back out, going around the island in the direction where they would not pass other whaling towns, hugging the coastline the whole way so the other vigias wouldn’t see them. They were able to get to and kill the whale with no one else the wiser.

Almorindo Pimentel Lemos, a whaler from 1970 until the end of whaling in his village in 1981, brought his copy of the February 1976 edition of National Geographic - featuring an article on the future of the Azores and a photo of him as a young whaler. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Stay tuned for my last update from the field next week, where I’ll have some stories to share from the Semana dos Baleeiros (Whaler’s Week) festival in Lajes do Pico this coming week!

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Read All Posts by Gemina Garland-Lewis

Gemina is biologist, photographer, and explorer currently based in Boston, MA. She graduated from Colgate University in 2008 with a degree in Biology and Environmental studies, and is currently working on her Masters in Conservation Medicine at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Gemina was a 2008/09 Thomas J. Watson Fellow, traveling to seven countries to study different cultural attitudes towards whales and whaling. For the last three summers she has worked as a trip leader and photography teacher for National Geographic Student Expeditions, taking high school students to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Italy. Gemina is currently in the Azores for her project as a National Geographic Young Explorer, where she will be recording the stories and images of ex-whalers.
  • Altaire Cambata


    Your photos and your story are lovely and exciting. I had no idea that whaling existed on the Azores, and I really enjoyed your piece, and its layers of stories. I like how you took the time to add context to each of your photos, as well. That is so important, I feel, when too many photographers shoot first and ask questions later…

    Good luck with your projects!

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