A Whale’s Tale of the Phoenix Islands: Whales Through the Years

Following up on the theme posted in March 2012 this is the last guest post in this series from Erin Taylor on her research on 19th century sperm whaling in the Phoenix Islands. 

Early American whaling efforts targeted whales found directly off the New England coast. However, advances in technology, rising whale oil prices, and an increasingly depleted New England fishery pushed whalers beyond Atlantic waters and into the Pacific during the mid- to late-18th century and beyond. Whalers reached the central Pacific Ocean and Hawaii by the 1820’s.

Historic painting of a sperm whale hunt

This timeline is reflected in our own historic whaling research, with the first American whaling vessels arriving in the Phoenix Islands region by 1825. In our last post, we shared one of our research maps analyzing how vessel and whale movements looked when broken down by month. Below, check out another way to slice the data: by years, starting at the very beginning in 1825.

In the initial period of activity (1825–1833), whalers mostly sailed right along the equator, hardly venturing beyond 2 degrees S latitude. Activity was sparse, and in nine years, only five voyages ventured through the PIPA region, taking a total of nine sperm whales.

By the next period (1834–1842), word of these promising sperm whaling grounds had spread, and activity boomed, with the number of voyages increasing almost sevenfold. Sperm whale strikes were even more dramatic—between these two periods, the number of sperm whales killed increased by a factor of sixteen. The Phoenix Islands lived up to the promise of fertile whaling grounds.

The whaling industry in the central Pacific subsequently matured and was at its peak by the third period (1843–1851), which is evident by the many dots sprinkled on the map below. By this time, activity had spread even further south and throughout the Phoenix Islands than it had been in previous periods, with the number of voyages still doubling.

Snapshot of historic whaling in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area when broken down by time period; this map shows Time Period III (1843-1851), representing the age when American whaling in the central Pacific had matured and was at its peak. 

However, despite this ever-increasing effort, the number of sperm whales caught in the third period dropped by half. As has happened in so many other global fisheries throughout history and today, the whale fishery was showing signs of depletion. American whalers had hunted the sperm whale so vigorously over the previous decades that they were having a harder time efficiently harvesting a now-overexploited population.

By the last period (1852–1874), when whale oil was becoming obsolete and the price of voyages was becoming too great for such little return, whaling in the Phoenix Islands and surrounding region rapidly dwindled, mirroring the fate of the sperm whales themselves. By 1874, the last American whaling vessels sailed out of the Phoenix Islands.

When combined with future systematic surveys of whales currently in the Phoenix Islands, our maps and research on historic whale distributions will help PIPA managers develop a better understanding of the best conservation strategies to use to protect both the sperm whales of PIPA and the ecosystems they depend on.

Stay tuned!


A Whale’s Tale of the Phoenix Islands: Whales from Every Angle

Following up on the theme posted in March 2012 this is a guest post from Erin Taylor, New England Aquarium Conservation Department, on the Phoenix Islands Protected Area initiative. In a series of posts she has been sharing her research on 19th century sperm whaling in the Phoenix Islands. This careful examination of whalers' log books, maps and historic whale distributions may help researchers studying sperm whale populations in Kiribati today.

As mentioned in the last post of this series, researchers at the New England Aquarium are in the process of creating maps based on 19th-century whaling logbook data to try to better understand sperm whales in the Phoenix Islands and surrounding region.

Example of historic whaling logbook available through the New Bedford Whaling Museum

In the next few posts, we’ll show you what patterns are uncovered when we start to break down the data, highlighting the whales’ distributions from different angles—a task that, inevitably, leads to even further questions. Below, we share one of our maps analyzing whaling by months.

Migration patterns for sperm whales are not well understood. Populations in the Pacific Ocean are thought to inhabit the tropics year-round, with family groups of females and young staying in equatorial regions while males migrate to the poles. By taking a look back at how whaling changed throughout the months during the historic whaling era, we can begin to shed more light on sperm whale migrations.

The Phoenix Islands and surrounding Pacific Islands were said to be particularly important for whalers during the months of December to March, when schools of sperm whales were supposedly migrating through the area. Our maps generally support this notion, as the months of December to February feature the highest number of voyages of any other time throughout the year (check out the map of these months below). These three months also collectively had the highest number of sperm whales strikes at 91 whales, representing a full third of the total.

Snapshot of historic whaling in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area when broken down by months; this map shows the months of December to February, representing the time of year with the heaviest whaling activity and highest number of sperm whale kills in this study. 

Further, whaling activity during December to February was widespread throughout the region. This is in contrast to the activity of June to August, which stays largely clustered near the equator between 0 and 2 degrees S. It is possible that this expansion away from the equator during December to February and contraction towards the equator in June to August could be indicative of yearly whale movements, with the other months representing transitional periods. However, it’s difficult to be sure of the reasons behind these patterns without a better understanding of sperm whales in PIPA, which can be achieved with further study.

Keep an eye out for our next post, which will reveal another method of breaking down whaling data: by years!


A Whale’s Tale of the Phoenix Islands: Piecing Together Sperm Whale Life History in PIPA

Following up on the theme posted in March 2012 this is a guest post from Erin Taylor, New England Aquarium Conservation Department projects assistant, on the Phoenix Islands Protected Area initiative. In a series of posts she will share research on 19th century sperm whaling in the Phoenix Islands. This careful examination of whalers' log books, maps and historic whale distributions may help researchers studying sperm whale populations in Kiribati today.

In the previous post in this series, we discussed how historic logbook records kept by whalers can provide a good picture of American whaling and sperm whale distribution in the Phoenix Islands during the 19th century. But these logbooks aren’t able to tell us everything about sperm whales in PIPA, and unfortunately, the whales don’t keep daily logbooks themselves—so it remains that ultimately little is known about sperm whale life history here and, in general, globally.

Though we only understand a little about these magnificent predators, we do know enough to understand that sperm whales are an important component of marine ecosystems. They are a creature of extremes: sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales, and they have the largest brains and longest intestines of any animal on the planet. Their enormous heads house the most powerful sonar system of any animal, which they use to find food (namely deep sea squid) and navigate in the vast ocean. Further, sperm whales are one of the most ‘cosmopolitan’ species, as their range extends across most of the world’s oceans—including, of course, through the Phoenix Islands.

This map of global sperm whale habitat (red) clearly shows their cosmopolitan nature. Sperm whales
are found in all oceans from the equator to the poles, preferring ice-free waters with depths below
1000 m—an order that the Phoenix Islands fit to a T

(Map: Taylor BL, Baird R, Barlow J, Dawson SM, Ford J, Mead JG, Notarbartolo di Sciara G, Wade P, Pitman RL (2008) Physeter macrocephalus. IUCN 2009. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.2. via)
Sperm whales also make some of the longest and deepest dives of any mammal, with the ability to hold their breath for up to 90 minutes and reach depths of over 3000 m. This behavior is part of what we suspect makes PIPA such lucrative habitat for sperm whales. The majority of PIPA’s area is comprised of ocean floor averaging over 4000 m in depth —perfect for a sperm whale pining for some deep sea squid.

Another aspect of sperm whales emerging in research is the importance of social life to sperm whales’ biological success and population vitality. In the tropical Pacific Ocean, groups of females and young sperm whales form clans with unique cultures (adult males migrate to the poles alone or in small bachelor schools for most of the year). Each clan has distinctive foraging behavior, movements and vocal patterns. (These series of loud clicks are called ‘codas’—listen here.) Because of these unique family structures and cultures, every individual sperm whale is an important member of its family and plays a special role, much like our own human families.

Sperm whale | Photo: cianc via

It is suggested that this highly social nature made sperm whales particularly vulnerable to heavy whaling efforts in the 19th century and in modern times. Capturing a sperm whale is not like picking a random jellybean out of a jar of thousands that ultimately leaves the jar’s composition relatively unaltered. Rather, by removing a sperm whale from its ecosystem, the whalers were removing a unique, irreplaceable member of a family with a specific role, an act that may have resulted in the unraveling of the social fabric on which that clan so greatly relied. These complicated dynamics cause sperm whale clans to be affected by threats like past whaling efforts—and current climate change—in different ways, making these impacts that much harder to study and understand.

As a first step towards understanding more about these impacts and sperm whales in PIPA, we used logbook records digitized by Smith et al. to create GIS maps. The map below represents over 2,000 entries from the logbooks of 122 American whaling voyages that sailed between 1825 and 1874, concurrent with the height of Yankee sperm whaling in the Pacific. Each entry represents a day of whaling activity (or one whale ‘encounter’). These records show where and when whales were sighted or harpooned (noted as being ‘struck’ or ‘caught’), as well as instances when there were no whales to be found. 

Studying these patterns is critical for developing a greater understanding of the life history of sperm whales in PIPA and our maps reveal some interesting patterns. One clear pattern is that the whaling activity seemed to be heavily focused in the northern regions of PIPA and just beyond its northern border, close to the equator. 

In the next post, we’ll show you some of the surprising patterns that emerge when we break down the whaling data by months and by years. 

Learn more about how Aquarium researchers are connecting this historical research to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area here


A Whale’s Tale in the Phoenix Islands: "Whar" She Blows?

Following up on the theme posted in March 2012, this is a guest post from Erin Taylor, New England Aquarium Conservation Department projects assistant on the Phoenix Islands Protected Area initiative. In a series of posts she shares research on 19th century sperm whaling in the Phoenix Islands. This careful examination of whalers' log books, maps and historic whale distributions may help researchers studying sperm whale populations in Kiribati today.

Imagine you are a 19th century American whaler. You have a boat, you have a crew, you have a vast ocean stretched out in front of you. Now it’s time to find a whale—the needle in a very, very big haystack. Where in the world do you go? Flash-forward to today, and you would have a variety of instruments available at your fingertips to answer this question: GPS, radars, navigation software all now exist to make finding whales and sailing around the ocean ‘a breeze.’ But clearly, 19th century New England whalers were not so technologically fortunate.

Source: New Bedford Whaling Museum, via comlmaps.org
Instead, the historic whaling industry came to rely on wisdom from vessel logbooks kept by whalers during their long voyages. By studying these vital logbook records, whalers came to know of promising global whaling grounds, including the ‘on-the-line’ grounds that stretched through the Phoenix Islands. For anybody looking for sperm whales in the 1800’s, the message passed on from the logbooks was clear: head to the Pacific. Considering modern research generally confirms the presence of sperm whales (in particular females and young males) in equatorial waters of the Pacific year-round, placing your faith in logbook records as a 19th century whaler wasn’t a bad bet.

So what exactly was in these logbooks? Generally, logbook records documented the daily happenings of whalers at sea. This included where (via coordinates) and when (via dates) whales were sighted or hunted—or where and when they weren’t. If a hunt was successful, the logbook record featured the number and species of whales killed that day.

Though logbooks were initially used only for economic purposes by those in the whaling industry, scientists also started to utilize the wealth of information contained in these records in the mid-nineteenth century, at the height of global open-boat whaling efforts. In the 1840’s, Matthew Fontaine Maury, a commander in the U.S. Navy, was the first to use logbook data to create whaling maps, resulting in visualizations of global whale distributions that were invaluable for studying whale life history. Diligent economic record keeping turned powerful scientific tool.

Map by Matthew Fontain Maury (source: Boston Public Library http://maps.bpl.org/id/m8753)
Maury’s efforts were continued in the 1920’s by Charles Haskins Townsend of the New York Zoological Society. Townsend gathered the logbook records of over 1,600 American whaling voyages carried out between the late 18th to early 20th centuries to create his own maps displaying global whale distributions and migrations—maps that were much more user-friendly and comprehensive than those of Maury’s study.

Map by Charles Townsend of the "On The Line" whaling grounds that followed the equator in the Central Pacific. 
After these two initial efforts, studies capitalizing on historic logbook records fell largely dormant until a new study led by Dr. Tim Smith of the World Whaling History Project emerged just last year. Smith et al.’s study brought new life to this field of research by creating whale maps with modern Geographic Information Systems technology. Looking at both current and historic maps, one can clearly see just how important the regions surrounding the Phoenix Islands and central Pacific in general were for sperm whalers year-round, as these areas are thick with dots denoting sperm whale activity.

Daily locations of vessels from a sample of American whaling logbooks mapped using GIS software and published in Smith TD, Reeves RR, Josephson EA, Lund JN (2012) Spatial and Seasonal Distribution of American Whaling and Whales in the Age of Sail. PLoS One 7(4):e34905. 
These maps reveal many important patterns in the historic migrations and distributions of a number of whale species and will feed into plans for current whale research and conservation objectives. Stay tuned for what GIS maps of historic sperm whaling in the Phoenix Islands reveal as we ask questions about why this region might have been historically such a whaling ‘hotspot’.


A Whale’s Tale of the Phoenix Islands: Connecting New England to the Pacific

Following up on the theme posted in March 2012, this is a guest post from Erin Taylor, Boston University student and 2012–2013 Intern to the New England Aquarium Conservation Department on the Phoenix Islands Protected Area initiativeIn a series of posts she will share research on 19th century sperm whaling in the Phoenix Islands. This careful examination of whalers' log books, maps and historic whale distributions may help researchers studying sperm whale populations in Kiribati today.

New England may seem a world away from the remote, tropical island nation of Kiribati, especially during these cold, gray months. However, a look back in time reveals a deep connection between the two areas. This is because Kiribati, and the Phoenix Islands, were at the center of vigorous efforts by 19th century New Englanders, particularly those of New Bedford and Nantucket, to hunt what were then considered monsters of the sea—whales.

Chasing Sperm Whales

Sperm whales are what brought Yankee whalers to this region. These whales were prized for the gallons of highly valuable spermaceti found in the head of each whale. Spermaceti could be turned into high-grade oil for lamps and wax for candles. This pursuit turned into a global industry, which was a major fuel for the growth of a young United States.

Archibald Thorburn, 1860–1935 | Public domain in United States, via Wikimedia Commons

The Hunting Grounds

Hotspots for whaling were known as whaling grounds. Whalers shared with each other these locations where abundant whales were likely to be found. This information was invaluable, as voyages required a large investment of time and money, with trip lengths typically lasting three to five years. Whalers did not want return from voyages empty-handed. Kiribati and the Phoenix Islands were part of what were called the “on-the-line” whaling grounds—a prominent hotspot that stretched along the equator in the central Pacific.

Map showing the Pacific whaling grounds | Map courtesy The National Archives, Kew.

Though New Englanders began venturing into the Atlantic Ocean to pursue sperm whales beginning in 1712, it was not until the late 1780’s that they rounded the tip of South America and sailed into Pacific waters. It took another quarter century for American whalers to establish ports in Hawaii and for the first vessels to reach Kiribati waters.

Word of the lucrative whaling potential in the newly discovered on-the-line grounds did not take long to reach the New England coast. By the 1840’s, 600 American vessels were operating in the central Pacific. Estimates suggest that throughout the 19th century whaling era in the Pacific, a thousand whaling ships passed through the Gilbert Islands of Kiribati and the neighboring Tuvalu.

Currier & Ives, 1850s | Photo in Public Domain in United States, via Wikimedia Commons

After peaking in the 1840’s and 1850’s, American whaling efforts declined due to a variety of factors, including increasingly scarce whale populations, a shift away from whaling to agricultural and mineral industries in the US, and the destruction of the labor force and whaling fleet during the Civil War. By 1870, the whaling industry had essentially died out in the region.

Devastating Consequences

Unfortunately, the aggressive efforts by New England whalers effectively decimated the populations of sperm whales in the waters surrounding Kiribati and the Phoenix Islands. Though nearly a century and a half have passed since the last Yankee whaling vessels sailed out of the on-the-line grounds, populations have not recovered to original levels. Recent expeditions indicate this once-abundant marine giant is now just a rare sight.

In an effort to understand the reasons behind the slow recovery and the status of sperm whale populations in Kiribati today, the Aquarium is studying historic whale distributions in the Phoenix Islands using records kept by whalers in their vessel logbooks. By studying where whalers found whales—and where they did not—we can learn a bit more about baseline populations and compare them to the scarce populations seen today.