A Fluke?

Representing Animal Death in Whaling Log Books

Martha Cattell

University of York

Figure 1

Fig. 1: Humpback Whales of South Eastern Alaska, ‘Whale Fluke diagram’,Fluke ID Catalog, http://bit.ly/2zIFcqV. Date of access:November 7 2017

Figure 2

Fig. 2: Duncombe Whaling Log-Book, Monday May 28th 1822, Hull Local Studies Collection, Hull History Centre, Hull, microfilm, L DMWH/3/2

Figure 3

Fig. 3: Wooden Whale Stamp, 7.5cm x 3.5cm, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007.1493

Figure 4

Fig. 4: Joseph Taylor, Logbook Of The Whaler 'Swan' For A Voyage To The Davis Straits, March-August 1817 (1817), ink on paper, 32 x 40 cm, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007.1494

Figure 5

Fig. 5: Sperm-whale stamp, mid 19th century, Ivory, courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, MA, 63.18.1. Photograph: Martha Cattell

Figure 6

Fig. 6: Neptune Whaling logbook, May 14th 1821. Hull Local Studies Collection, Hull History Centre, Hull. Microfilm. L DMWH/1

Figure 7

Fig. 7: Captain William Linskill, Dordon Hull, Log Book, 1827, 0057, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, www.whalingmuseum.org

Figure 8

Fig. 8: Robert Willoughby, The Gilder in the Arctic (19th century), oil on canvas, 84 x 130 cm, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007.1443

Figure 9

Fig. 9: John Ward, The Whaleship 'Brunswick’, oil on canvas, 1823, 85.5 x 112 cm, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007. 2303

Figure 10

Fig. 10: John Ward, William Lee in the Arctic, oil on canvas, 19th century, 68 x 98.5 cm, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007.1439

Figure 11

Fig. 11: Russian Greenpeace Poster, Greenpeace, 2007 https://www.coloribus.com/adsarchive/prints/greenpeace-kit-whale-9286555/ Date of access: November 7 2017

Figure 12

Fig. 12: Andrew Marvel, Hull, Log Book, 1821, Log Book, 1024-1, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, www.whalingmuseum.org

Figure 13

Fig. 13: Whaling Monument, Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, USA. Photograph: Martha Cattell

Figure 14

Fig. 14: Whaling Monument, Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, USA. Photograph: Martha Cattell

Figure 15

Fig. 15: “Humpback Whales of Southeastern Alaska 100-75% White Flukes,” Fluke ID Catalog, http://bit.ly/2z7H4K4 Date of access: November 16 2017

This paper considers the visual signs used to record animal death in Hull whaling logbooks. I pay particular attention to the depiction of whale flukes, which appear frequently within the Hull log-books, as well as their continued popularity as symbols of animal representation. I argue that the visual trope of the whale fluke has been transformed from a symbol of death and economic value, in the whaling logbooks, to a symbol that has, in recent times, become increasingly associated with conservation in the form of identification charts and activist posters. Using whale flukes as the main case study for this this paper, I demonstrate how animal representations are ‘framed’ by their context, and how a change in our understanding of whale flukes indicates a changed relationship between human and animal subjects.

Whale flukes are two lobes that compose a whale’s tail (Fig. 1). Unlike seals and walruses, whales are powered completely by their tails, which move up and down to propel them through the water.[1] During the 19th century, whalers paid close attention to flukes. For example, in his Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1835, 1839), former whaling surgeon Thomas Beale, a key source for Turner’s whaling quartet, described how the two flukes constitute a large triangular fin, resembling in some respects the tail of fishes, but differing in being placed horizontally; there is a slight notch, or depression between the flukes, posteriorly – they are about six or eight feet in length, and from twelve to fourteen in breadth in the largest males.[2]

Beale was interested in such details, and complied a natural history of sperm whales that is still often referred to today. Flukes in particular were also given close attention, as they were frequently used as a weapon by whales, to slap the water and overturn boats. In addition, flukes are often the last visible part of a whale, before it dives into the depths of the ocean. Flukes were therefore seen as key signs for whalers that a whale was in sight. For instance, Beale comments how whalers “employed in the look-out, [would] call loudly ‘there goes flukes’”[3] to signal the start of a whale hunt.

On capturing and killing the whale, whaling logbooks were employed by the ship’s captain to record the animal’s death. The logbooks were also used to record each day’s weather, ice conditions (if in the Arctic), location, the ship’s morals, meals, and the number of other animals caught. [4] In recording the whale’s deaths, the books often featured a visual symbol, typically either whale flukes or a small body of a whale. The stamped flukes would be located in a small, pencilled box that contained the date of the whale’s death and, typically below the flukes, would be the size of the whalebone and amount of oil that the depicted whale produced. For example, in the 1822 log of the Hull Whaling ship Duncome, the drawing of the flukes is below the date of its death, “Monday May 28th”, and below the image it reads “Length of Bone (sic)”, listed as 75 13.[5] (Fig. 2) Enclosed within its lightly pencilled box, the relationship between the fluke and text recalls a gravestone; with the tablet-like shape, the identification of an individual, and it being a record of death. Here, however, that record commemorates the individuality of the whale in terms of its market value. Also recalling an obituary, the captain’s description of this particular whale’s death simply reads, “at 11 am Henry Denton struck a fish at Meridian Dead”.[6] The next day, after its death, the process of flensing the whale is described; and this is where the parallel with the obituary again stops, since no obituary would describe the treatment of a human body at the mortuary: “Got the fish alongside at 2[,] Began to flinch at 4[,] Done cleaned the Decks and set the watch”. The captain thus lists the practicalities of the whale’s death and the subsequent value that its whalebone will bring.

The fluke from the Duncome log-book appears to be drawn freehand. As such, it differs from other flukes that are present within the same volume, which tend to be generated by a stamp. This was the more common practice. For example, in other logbooks, such as the one for the voyage of the Swan in 1817, stamps were used (Fig. 3), creating a repeated uniformity, which, in turn, creates a more homogenised representation of death (Fig. 4). Although here made of wood, examples in the Nantucket Whaling Museum suggest that others were made from whalebone (Fig. 5) The bottom of the stamp is shaped into the form of a crude sperm whale, complete with eye, fin and jet of spray from its blow hole. The blackened residue of the engraved background indicates that it has previously been used. The materiality of whalebone in this instance adds a further poignancy to the stamped image, with the body of one dead animal being used to record the death of another.

In the Neptune ship roll 1821, a small sketch of a whale fluke has the words “lost” written inside its fluke, rather than the black pigment that would have, in other examples, signified the death of the whale; a lost whale which might bring to mind the lost whale in Beale that inspired the second of Turner’s whaling quartet (Fig. 6).[7]

The culmination of these symbols were often found on the back pages of the logbooks, where a chart of all the depicted whale flukes from the voyage were collectively displayed. For example, in the case of the 1827 voyage of the Dordon from Hull, under Captain William Linskill (Fig. 7), each whale caught during the voyage is marked by a fluke, with the name of the person who killed the whale over the top and the date this occurred. Along the bottom of each drawing of the flukes, the whalebone the animal provided is listed, differing according to its size.

In Killing Animals, the Animal Studies Group state how “killing an animal is rarely simply a matter of animal death”, and, in the case of the Dordon, the statistical representation of animal death translates the animals into their numerical and worth value, complicating it within the wider capitalism system of commodity capture and exchange.[8]

Whale flukes also appear in a large number of Hull School whaling paintings, often as small details (Fig. 8). For example, in Robert Willougby’s The ‘Gilder’ in the Arctic (19th-century), we see two flukes, one in the middle left and another in the central rear left, visible when one scans the composition closely. John Ward’s paintings also employ a similar device. For example, in The Whaleship ‘Brunswick’ (1823), a fluke is visible in the left rear of the composition (Fig. 9). In the ‘William Lee’ in the Arctic’ (19th-century) another larger example is in the middle left (Fig. 10). Representing one of the only parts of the whale regularly seen above water, the flukes were especially resonant with those who commissioned the whaling paintings, typically whaling captains and ship owners, who were familiar with the fluke as a form of representing animal death from the log books. Its frequency within the canvases therefore indicates a certain flattery in creating a scene that already suggests the whales are as good as dead.

Having thought about the framing of the fluke as a symbol of animal death and commercial value within the context of 19th-century logbooks and Hull School paintings, in the second part of the paper I want to turn to contemporary visual uses of flukes to explore how changing contexts have altered its meanings. A recent Russian Greenpeace poster shows a large whale’s flukes with blood around its base, which stains the surrounding ice background red. The caption below the flukes reads “there is a little left” (Fig. 11). The image is comparable to the logbook depictions, especially considering how the flukes were sometimes depicted in a fleshier reality with blood present around the base. For example, as in the log-book of the Andrew Marvel from Hull (1821) (Fig. 12). In the Greenpeace poster, however, the flukes are no longer associated with the whale’s material value, but reduced to a dismembered body part of a threatened species. This is not a symbol of success and value.

A second, interesting contemporary reinvention of the image can be found on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, a former whaling port. Here a memorial plaque reads “dedicated to the whales and to the people who pursued them”. This is accompanied by a large sculpted whale tail that descends into a grassy patch of land (Fig. 13 and Fig. 14). This monument makes the whale fluke a source of memorialisation, giving it a very different resonance to those represented in the logbooks and Hull School marines.

Whale flukes are also now often used to identify individual whales; an individuality rarely seen, in the nineteenth century, outside the context of the demonised, but individualised Moby-Dick. For example, a website belonging to University of Alaska Southeast has an online flukes ID catalog, where whales spotted in the wild by the general public can be identified by referring to an online database, allowing them to discover a “unique” assigned “identification number”.[9] Through its grid like structure, and the numbering below, the images, however, again recall earlier whaling log-books (Fig. 15). This time, however, the number is used to highlight the individuality of the animal, and to make an empathetic connection to it, rather than to emphasise the amount of bone or oil that it has produced. Like Victorian whalers, however, our contemporaries in whaleboats similarly scour the horizon, hoping to see a fluke. Whale flukes, then, are never simply representations, but symbols, each interacting with each other, across different contexts and across the last two hundred years.


  1. Lyall Watson, Sea Guide to Whales of the World (Boston: E P Dutton, 1981), 36.

  2. Thomas Beale, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (London: John Van Voorst, 1839), 24.

  3. Beale, Natural History (London: John Van Voorst, 1839), 44.

  4. Little has been written about whaling logbooks especially in relation to the artwork that you can find within in them. For more, however, see Pamela A. Miller, And the Whale is Ours: Creative Writing of American Whalemen (Kendall Whaling Museum: David R Godine, 1979) and Michael P. Dyer, O’er the Wide and Tractless Sea: Original Art of the Yankee Whale Hunt (New Bedford: New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2017).

  5. Duncombe, Hull, Whaling LogBook, Microfilm, Monday May 28th 1822. L DMWH/3/2, Hull Local Studies Collection, Hull History Centre, Hull.

  6. Duncombe logbook.

  7. It was not just the whale fluke that was used to represent the death of the whale. Some logbooks are more elaborate in their depiction, or use a different stamp such as the whale’s whole body. See James Ward, Ship Sapphire, Whaling Log-book, 1836, Log 418, Phillips Library, Peabody and Essex Museum, Salem. Neptune, whaling log-book, May 14th 1821. Hull Local Studies Collection, Hull History Centre, Hull. Microfilm. L DMWH/1.

  8. These were not the sole representation of death. For example, before a whaling voyage, women would tie the number of whales they hoped their lovers would catch into a ribbon, again reducing the whale death to statistics. This is something that George Manby highlights when he states “I was very much amused with this last process, as there were interwoven in the rope, at distances of two or three feel pieces of ribon of various colours. These decorations I was informed were the gifts of the men’s sweethearts; on some, I observed pieces that had undergone the useful office of garters; this at once elucidated the ‘magic spell’, as they were intended to animate the powers of the harpooner, who derives fame, and consequently, the approbation of his lass, in proportion to the number of whales he is able to strike and to capture”. George William Manby, Journal of a Voyage to Greenland, in the Year 1821 (London: Whittaker, 1823), 10; and The Animal Studies Group, Killing Animals (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 4.

  9. University of Alaska Southeast, ‘100-75% White Flukes’, Fluke ID Catalog, http://www.alaskahumpbacks.org/flukeIDcatalog.html. Date of access: August 26 2017.