An antique diagram of common whaling tools used to butcher and process whales: Fig. 1. Blubber mincing knife. Fig. 2. Boarding knife. Fig. 3. Monkey-belt. Fig. 4. Wooden toggle. Fig. 5. Chain-strap. Fig. 6. Throat-chain. Fig. 7. Fin toggle. Fig. 8. Head-strap. Fig. 9. Blubber hook.

Illustration courtesy NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service

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  • Whaling ships of the 18th and 19th centuries used a variety of tools to butcher whales. Most whales were hunted for their blubber, which was boiled and turned into "whale oil," used as fuel for lamps and candles.

    The diagrams in this illustration display only a few of the tools used to butcher whales. The diagrams are dramatically out-of-proportion. The blubber hooks (fig. 9) are hand-held tools, while the monkey belt (fig. 3) goes around a strong man's waist. The head-strap (fig. 8) is long enough to loop entirely around a whale's massive head, reaching dozens of meters in length.

    After a whale was killed, its carcass was dragged to the side of the whaling ship. The tools displayed here (and many more) were used roughly in this following order.

    Figure 3 is a monkey-belt. The sturdy canvas belt was tied around a whaler's waist, and the other end secured to the ship. Once anchored to the ship by the monkey-belt, the sailor stood on a platform over the ship's side. The freshly killed whale dangled in the water beneath him, and he began the process of butchering it.

    Sailors began to cut strips of blubber from the whale while it was still buoyant. As sailors on deck heaved the heavy blubber, it peeled off the animal in long strips as the whale rolled around in the water. These meters-long long strips of blubber were called "blankets."

    Figure 2 is a boarding knife. Boarding knives were long, sharp swords whose use was usually limited to the ship's officers. Boarding knives were used to poke holes in blankets as the blubber reached the deck. A hook would go through the hole, and sailors would hoist the blanket as high as their ship's mast.

    Figure 4 is a wooden toggle, used to secure the blanket-holes. This prevented the bloody blanket from ripping or slipping off the hooks and crashing to the ship's deck.

    Sailors began cutting chunks of blubber off blankets almost immediately. Blubber still attached to the whale, as well as meat and whalebone (baleen) required more extended butchering.

    Figure 5 is a chain-strap. This circular chain had many uses onboard a whaling ship. One of its uses was limited to the sperm whale fishery. The chain-strap was tossed over the whale's narrow lower jaw, while whalers cut it away from the rest (more valuable) part of the animal. This was part of the long, bloody process of the animal's decapitation.

    Figure 8 is a head-strap. After the carcass' head was separated from its body, a head-strap was looped from the whale's jaw to the (severed) back of its head. Another chain was attached to the head-strap and the head was hauled on board. In sperm whale fisheries, this was the most valuable part of the animal. (In a sperm whale, whale oil comes from its enormous head, not its blubber.) In bowhead and right-whale fisheries, the head is valuable for its baleen.

    Figure 6 is a throat-chain. After the carcass' head was cut off, a hole was cut in its throat and the flat "toggle" of this instrument was dropped into it. Sailors pulled the long, strong chain and hauled the carcass, throat-first, on deck.

    Figure 7 is a fin-chain. After the carcass is on deck, a fin-chain is looped around a whale's fins (not its flukes—that is a different procedure). A rope tightens the chain, and the fin is hoisted above deck, much like a blanket.

    The two images labeled as Figure 9 are blubber hooks, one of the most familiar tools on a whaling ship. Blubber hooks were simply used for moving pieces of blubber. The blubber itself was far too slippery and greasy to move by hand or with tongs.

    Figure 1 is a mincing knife. Whalers used this two-handled blade to cut small chunks of blubber down to the skin of the whale. These pieces of minced blubber were tossed into a trypot, where they were boiled. Mincing the blubber exposed more of it to the boiling heat, and helped it melt faster.

    These tools provide a tiny glimpse into the whaling industry. The American author Herman Melville wrote about the process of butchering whales in great, grisly detail in his novel Moby Dick.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    anchor Verb

    to hold firmly in place.

    baleen noun, plural noun

    flexible, horn-like substance hanging from the upper jaw of certain whales, used to strain plankton from seawater when feeding.

    blubber Noun

    thick layer of fat under the skin of marine mammals.

    Encyclopedic Entry: blubber
    buoyant Adjective

    capable of floating.

    butcher Noun

    person who cuts, prepares, and sells meat and meat products.

    canvas Noun

    heavy, woven cloth.

    carcass Noun

    dead body.

    decapitation Noun

    removal of an organism's head.

    fishery Noun

    industry or occupation of harvesting fish, either in the wild or through aquaculture.

    fluke Noun

    either half of the triangle-shaped end of a whale's tail.

    hoist Verb

    to lift.

    massive Adjective

    very large or heavy.

    mast Noun

    tall, pole-like structure rising above the top of a ship, where sails and other rigging are held.

    novel Noun

    fictional narrative or story.

    sailor Noun

    person who works aboard a ship.

    sever Verb

    to separate or cut away.

    trypot Noun

    large iron pot used to boil blubber to make whale oil.

    whale Noun

    largest marine mammal species.

    whale oil Noun

    wax obtained from boiling the blubber of whales.

    whaling Noun

    industry of hunting whales.