As I've mentioned before I grew up on Martha's Vineyard where the Whaling industry made a huge mark on the lives of those living on the Vineyard. Below is some basic information about the Whaling Industry. Perhaps your character has this in his or her past? Or perhaps they are in one of the many industries produced by the whaling industry. Have fun with the information and let your imaginations run wild.
The whale fishery is chiefly carried on by the people of Nantucket and New Bedford. The first people in America who undertook this business, were the inhabitants of Nantucket. This is a large island lying to the south of Cape Cod. It consists chiefly of sand, and affords hardly any soil that can be cultivated. The inhabitants who first settled upon this island, used, occasionally, to put off to sea in their boats, when they espied a whale near the shore, and attack him with their harpoons. The capture of so enormous a creature was a prize of great value to these people, and their success in these attempts induced them to make a regular business of it. Accordingly, they set up a very tall mast on the island, on the top of which a person stationed himself, to look out for whales. When he espied one, he gave a signal, and the whalemen, who were all prepared with their boats, put off in pursuit. This business was profitable for a time, but at length, the whales being thus constantly hunted, kept away from the coast; and the Nantucket people, finding their prey become scarce, were forced to build large vessels, and go farther out to sea, in quest of them. By degrees they extended their voyages to the utmost parts of the Atlantic ocean, and even into the south seas. In this manner they have become the most expert and enterprising whalemen in the world; and their island, which, by nature, was barren, inhospitable, and uninviting, has become a spot of great industry and wealth.
The whale ships are generally from three to four hundred tons, and carry large crews, and are well provided with boats, lines, and other apparatus for taking and cutting up the whales and extracting the oil. When a whale is espied, the whale boats are manned in pursuit. In every boat there is a very long and strong line, made fast to a harpoon. The harpoon is an iron spear, sharp and barbed, like an arrow; so that, when struck into the whale, it may keep its hold. The men are also armed with lances or spears, to kill the whale after he is struck with the harpoon.
A boat's crew consists of a harpooner, a boat-steerer, a linemanager, and other men to row and attend to the general management of affairs. When the boat approaches the whale, the harpooner strikes the harpoon with all his force into him; but if the boat should not get near enough for this purpose, he throws the harpoon at him; and such is the skill of these men, that the harpoon seldom misses, although thrown from a considerable distance. The whale, finding himself wounded, dives at once under water, pulling the line attached to the harpoon after him, with great velocity. The line lies coiled up in the bottom of the boat, and is allowed to run out as fast as the whale pulls it. The boat, meantime, is rowed swiftly after the whale, yet the line is drawn over the edge of the boat with such swiftness, that a person is employed in pouring water upon it, lest the friction should set the boat on fire. A hatchet is always at hand to cut the rope, in case of its getting entangled. A large whale will sometimes run out two or three miles of rope. All the boats are now seen rowing with all their might towards the spot where the whale is expected to rise; for these animals cannot remain long under water, but must rise occasionally to breathe.
When he appears, they strike him again with the harpoon and lances. Again he starts off with the boats in pursuit. After being greatly fatigued with the chase, and being severely wounded, he spouts up water mixed with blood; and the boats surround him and dispatch him with spears. As soon as killed, the whale is towed to the ship, and made fast by tackles, placed at the nose and tail. They then proceed to strip off the blubber.
The skin of the whale is black, and very thick; between this and the flesh is the blubber, or fat, from which the oil is extracted. The blubber is cut into long strips, which are hoisted into the ship, cut into smaller pieces, and thrown into the hold; from which it is afterwards taken, and the oil extracted by boiling it in large copper vessels. The oil is then put into casks and stowed away in the hold; thus the whaling ships sometimes come home completely laden with oil.
On the island of Nantucket, and also at New Bedford, are numerous spermaceti works. This valuable substance, which is so well known for its use in making candles, is found in the head of the spermaceti whale. The oil which this whale produces, is not so abundant as that afforded by some other whales, but in quality, is much superior. It burns with a bright flame, and does not occasion any disagreeable smell.
The spermaceti, in its crude state, is found in the head of the whale; and a single one contains several tons of it. The seamen call it the brains of the whale. It is contained in membranous cells, and is first taken out, and freed from the oil, by draining and pressing. Afterwards, it is more completely purified by steeping it in a ley of alkaline salt and quicklime, which dissolves the remainder of the oily matter into a soapy liquid. The brains then, being washed with water, appear of a silvery whiteness, and the large lumps are cut into shivers, with wooden knives, and spread out to dry. It is then melted and run into candles, or cast in round cakes, for other purposes.
Another product of this fishery is the whalebone, a substance well known for its elasticity and toughness, and in great use for making umbrella sticks, and for other purposes, when strength and flexibility are required. This substance is taken out of the head of the common whale, and is found attached to the jaws, occupying the place of the teeth in other animals.
Source: Scenes of American Wealth & Industry in Produce ©1833