About This Artifact
It's not every day that you see a picture like this! The man featured in this photograph, Antonio Viera Soares, was the harpooner that struck this massive sperm whale, while whaling off of the Azores in May of 1965. The Azores is an archipelago of nine islands, in the North Atlantic Ocean, and part of the country of Portugal. The island chain was an important stop for New England whaleships of the 18th and 19th century, as it was a convenient place to refresh supplies, recruit crewmembers, and also to hunt for sperm whales, which frequented the deep waters off of the islands.
Azoreans adapted the whaling techniques of the American whalers and became very successful at hunting the sperm whale, from shore. Throughout the islands, you can still find the tall towers, called vigias, where men would keep lookout for whales. When whales were spotted, the men of the town would be called together by radio and a rocket signal to start the hunt. By the time this picture was taken, in 1965, the men of this village of Lajes do Pico, were using gasoline-powered boats called "gasolinas" to tow smaller whaleboats out to the whale. Once the whale was in sight, the gasolina would separate from the smaller whaleboats, so that the whaleboats could quietly sneak up on the whale. After the whale was harpooned and killed, the gasolina would help to tow it back to shore where it would be processed in the factory and made into items such as oil, vitamins, cattle feed, and fertilizer.
This particular picture shows the bull sperm whale, up on the ramp- about to be processed. He measured approximately 59 feet long! The complete set of 45 teeth from this whale is also in the Mystic Seaport collection.
Although Azoreans stopped whaling in the 1980's, the whaling culture is still very important to the people there, where whaling is remembered through art, museums, oral histories, film and festivals.
Questions for Further Thought
- Azorean whaling ended in 1984. Why do you think the tradition of whaling lasted so long there? Do you know of any countries that are still whaling? Why?
- Whale watching is now one of the most successful industries in the Azores. How has the Azorean perception of whales shifted over the last few decades?
- What can you tell about this whale, just by looking at the photograph? What details do you see?