Gemina Garland-Lewis is a National Geographic Grantee recording the stories of former whalers in the Azores who used 19th century techniques until ending their hunts entirely in the 1980s.
Greetings from my first week in the field! It’s been full from the start as I’m getting reacquainted with the area and the people of Horta, Azores (for those of you who aren’t quite sure where that is, I’m here on these little dots in the middle of the North Atlantic). My work here started four years ago as part of a larger project on different cultural connections to whales, and now I’m back again with the goal of documenting the stories and way of life of the old whalers on the islands of Faial and Pico. Whaling ended in the Azores in 1986 with the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling, and with it one of the more unique cultures I’ve come across. Several of the men who I spoke with four years ago have passed on or are getting very ill in their old age, making it all the more important to record their stories now.
A Storied Past
As a bit of background, whaling was introduced to the Azores by American whalers who came across the islands on their voyages. Azorean men would often be taken as crew on American whaling vessels, as is laid out in Herman Melville’s classic, “Moby-Dick.” Over time Azoreans began to develop their own form of whaling – a shore-based practice that relied upon the cetacean-rich waters surrounding their islands.
Their whaling canoes were modified from the Yankee whaleboat design to fit a seventh person, among other things. A lookout, or vigia, would scan the ocean from a high point on the island and send out word when a whale was spotted, in the early days through smoke signals and later through flares.
Whalers would run to their canoes and head out to sea, chasing after sperm whales. When encountered, a hand harpoon and lance would be used in the killing of the animal, and it continued this way until the last whale was killed in the mid 1980s. This speaks to what is the most remarkable aspect of Azorean whaling: they are the sole culture to use purely traditional methods for solely commercial gain. Whaling was never for sustenance, but instead an industry to sell products – mostly to the U.S. and Europe.
Even when more advanced hunting techniques were introduced Azorean whalers refused to use them, saying that it cheapened the hunt. What this means is that the old men alive today hunted whales with almost the same methods as American whalers in the early 1800s – they are truly the last of their kind.
The Boats Today
Today the old whaling canoes have been restored and sit in the harbor of Horta, used almost daily by the sailing and crew teams that are practicing for the whaleboat regattas held throughout the year. Earlier this week I joined one of the men’s sailing groups on the canoe Senhora da Guia for a practice session.
The boat’s namesake, Senhora da Guia, is the patron saint of whalers and as such this boat has always been my favorite. Although I’ve been on these boats before, it always strikes me when I’m sailing in one how much the whalers would have needed the perfect combination of strength and finesse to manage pursuing, killing, and returning with an animal as large as the sperm whale.
While not the most stable of boats I’ve ever been on, they definitely rank as some of the most beautiful and fun to sail. When winds were low the other day, Aires Nazare, one of the men I was sailing with, invoked Senhora da Guia to help us get home quicker, much like would have been done in the whaling days.
Memories Live On
This week also brought my first interview of the project with Carlos Natal Serpa, a 76 year old man who started whaling at the age of 14. Luís Bicudo, a local filmmaker and the grandson of a whaler, joined me for the interview to shoot some footage for a documentary he is working on.
Carlos Serpa was an incredible person to start off with, coming from a family of whalers and with many many stories across the years. He started whaling so young because he didn’t want to continue school, and with a whaler for a father the choice became either studying or joining his father’s boat. His father was a harpooner, a role specific to one man on each boat. On the rare occasions that his father couldn’t go with the boat, Carlos Serpa was given the opportunity to act as the harpooner. He describes the harpooning itself as a thrilling, but that the killing was hard – you had to know the exact place to throw the lance so that it didn’t hit bone and invoke more anger and pain in the whale.
With obvious sadness in his eyes, he recounted a story for me of a bad throw gone worse when the whale thrashed so violently that its tail struck down not but a few feet behind him in the canoe, breaking a fellow whaler’s legs and eventually leading to that whaler’s death. Despite stories like these, Carlos Serpa looks back on these days as wonderful times.
When I asked him about the whale-watching industry on the island today, he said that he thinks it’s natural for people to be curious about whales and that he understands the people who have made their living through this industry. Of course, when I asked him right afterwards if he would still go whaling if he could, he replied with a resounding “Sim! Sim! Sim!” – Yes! Yes! Yes! And as if he knew it was the most poetic way to end our talk, his last words to me were: “Foi uma vida maravilhosa” – it was a marvelous life.