1889 Beaufort Sea Whaling

In their search for the illusive bowhead whale American ships first sailed north through the Bering Strait into the western Arctic Ocean in the late 1840s. East along the north coast of Alaska was the Beaufort Sea that, at that time, was better known as the “forbidden sea”. This shallow sea was full of reefs and sandbars and during the summer the polar ice pack moved with the unpredictable winds and could easily crush a wooden ship.

In the late 1880s men at the whaling station at Point Barrow (Alaska) began to hear rumours from the east that bowhead whales were plentiful around Herschel Island ,Yukon (map) and in the waters off the Mackenzie Delta. Coincidentally, by 1889, technological developments – in particular steam engines – made whaling ships more manoeuvrable in the ice pack and less likely to be crushed.

With word of plentiful whales to the east and the technology to exploit this resource seven ships from the American whaling fleet ventured east from Point Barrow in the summer of 1889. The rumours were true and these ships returned to San Francisco after a successful hunt.

To take full advantage of this new and more distant whaling ground ships of the San Francisco fleet had to be prepared to spend one or more winters in the Arctic. The first ships to do this, the Grampus and the Mary D. Hume, sailed into the Beaufort in the late summer of 1890, wintered at Herschel Island, and during the summer of 1891 conducted one of the most successful whale hunts in the history of Arctic whaling. This success opened the floodgates and during the following years western Arctic waters were full of American whaling ships, with Herschel Island as their base of operations, pursuing Beaufort bowheads.

Winter in the Arctic meant keeping warm with locally made clothing and also having a steady supply of fresh meat. The local Inuvialuit, in exchange for guns, foodstuffs, and textiles, eagerly provided both but far less desirable "products" also found their way from the south. These included alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases.

By the fall of 1898 Herschel Island had been all but abandoned by the whalers. A new over-wintering site had been set up on the Baillie Islands off the tip of Cape Bathurst 170 kilometres northeast of Tuktoyaktuk. Ten years later low prices for baleen and whalebone made Arctic whaling unprofitable and the industry collapsed.