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More Stories From Former Whalers in the Azores

Gemina Garland-Lewis is a National Geographic Young Explorers 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 the field! The last week has been a busy one, with five interviews with whalers, visits to historical whaling sites, and a taste of the present-day whale-watching industry here in the Azores.

First I’d like to take a moment for some basic housekeeping – I realized my phrasing about when whaling ended here caused a bit of confusion in my last post,  so I just wanted to quickly clear that up. Whaling ended in the Azores in 1984 when the last whaling factory closed – though the last whale killed was in 1987, when some old whalers from Pico took to the sea in protest. The moratorium on commercial whaling was put forth by the International Whaling Commission in 1982, though not fully implemented until 1986. Portugal (to which the Azores belong) was not an IWC member at the time, so the islands were not bound by the moratorium.

Seen from a distance, these whale-watching boats evoke a sense of the past as I imagine how similar the whaling canoes would have looked when out to sea. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Phew. Alright, now to the stories:

I’ve had some incredible experiences this past week hearing the memories of the whaling days – it’s always amazing to see how much more animated these men become once we’ve gotten past the basic introductory questions and get into the thick of it. Here are some of the men I have to thank for sharing their histories…

Velmano Silveira Carvão, age 81 and from a family of whalemen, worked on the whaleboats out of Lajes do Pico from 1945 to 1959, when he moved to Canada. From his post behind the counter at the shoe shop he’s owned since 1987, Senhor Carvão recounted for me the stories of the three times he’d seen men entangled in the rope attached to the harpoon flying out to sea as the whale tried to flee after being hit. Two were never seen again, he said, and when the other was found he was already dead. He said that seeing death around him never scared him because he was too excited to be out whaling.

Velmano Silveira Carvão, 81, sits at the counter of his shoe store in Horta, Faial, while telling me of his whaling days. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

In perhaps the most entrepreneurial of stories I’ve heard, he talked about a time when he gathered the discards of the whale after the factory used what they wanted, boiled it down himself, and gathered enough oil to fill two barrels (200 liters/barrel), which he then sold off to buy 24 pairs of soccer shoes for his team on Pico, 12 for games and 12 for practice. When I asked him why he moved to Canada if he liked whaling so much, he leaned close to me and said, with a touch of resentment, “My wife!”

(There was a a significant amount of people who emigrated from the Azores following the 13-month eruption, starting in 1957, of Capelinhos volcano on the island of Faial. One of the major whaling ports was destroyed during this time, so a lot of whalers left for the open doors that were offered in Canada and the U.S. (in Massachusetts, specifically) to victims of the disaster. Luís da Silva Matos, another whaler who left after the eruption, claims that whaling was easy compared with how hard life was in Canada in the beginning. Now that’s saying something…)

A fisherman sits at the old whaling port in Capelinhos, looking out towards the volcano. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Manuel Correia, age 83, was an “unofficial” whaler on and off for twenty years. I first met and worked with Patrão Manuel four years ago, and with his unabashedly silly faces and hand gestures he is by far one of my favorite people to speak to. He added an interesting piece to the stories I’m gathering, as he fell into the category of men who had other primary jobs but went whaling on their days off. He recalled waiting to hear the rocket flare that signaled a whale sighting, then running down to Porto Pim Bay in Horta with a bag of bananas and water to see if any of the whaling canoes were down a man.

Patrão Manuel, 83, shows me his great smile on the ramp of the old whaling factory at Porto Pim. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

With wide eyes and a big laugh, he recounted for me a time when he was on one of the motorboats used to help tow the whaling canoes out to the whale and back to port. This motorboat Isolda was the last of 22 boats to approach a particular whale that day. A whaleboat from Lajes do Pico was preparing to harpoon the whale when Isolda’s noise scared the whale and it dove. He said the men from Lajes were so angry “they wanted to harpoon us!”

One of the most interesting topics we discussed this week was what these men thought about whaling in today’s world. Without hesitation, all of them said whaling was the best time of their life and that they would go again if they could. Most also had respect for the current whale-watching industry here, though, as one man said, “seeing them is not the same as killing them.” None of them have been whale-watching, however, and it’s making me want to put a trip together for all of them. Luís da Silva Matos, nearly 84, said he doesn’t understand why some countries are still allowed to whale and Portugal isn’t. He thinks it would be more democratic if everyone was allowed to whale.

Luís da Silva Matos, 83, gestures as he recalls a whaling story. In front of him are postcards of the whaling days in his area. On one he found a photo of his uncle. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

José Edvino da Silveira, age 70, thought the Azores should start “whaling” tourism, where people would buy tickets on the motor boats that accompanied the whaleboats to sea and watch a hunt happening. In response to this suggestion, Luís Jorge Borges, a fellow whaler present, age 77, said he didn’t think there was any future in whaling tourism, but thought fisheries would be helped if we started hunting whales again – recalling all the stomach contents of sperm whales he’d seen vomited after harpooning (a natural response by whales to help them flee).

José Edvino da Silveira, 70, shows us around the old whaling port in Salão. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Whaling here was such a drop in the bucket of what commercial whaling was on a global scale that I think it’s hard for these men to have any sense of the real damage that was done, or understand there isn’t a market for whale products anymore and that countries still hunting whales use them for food (as was never practiced here). They all feel like the younger generation respects them and the whaling history of the islands, but as Senhor Borges said, “it is being forgotten.” I look around me at the Portuguese people working with me, and they’re all young. I think if nothing else, that alone says something important. We may have grown up while whaling was ending, and we may not wish to see it again in the future, but we still believe these men have stories that are worth hearing.

Luís Borges stands outside the old mess hall in the whaling town of Salão, Faial. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

 Read all posts by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

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