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Whaling in Lahaina

Whale flukes off Lahaina, Maui

Whale flukes with Lahaina in the distance [Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson].

Maui has long been known as a home to shores that annually teem with innumerable whales in the winter season. However, the ocean around this island was not always the peaceful whale breeding area that it is today. Maui’s town of Lahaina was once the busiest whaling port in the Pacific Ocean.

Whaling first began in Lahaina in the 1820’s when over 100 ships per year would rest in the Hawaiian port.  Sea captains, who spent year-long voyages harvesting whale blubber and whale bone at sea, would rest their ships and crews in Maui on their journeys back to mainland America.  Here on this stunning island, the whalers would increase their whaling stores by preying on the dozens of whales passing by the waters of Lahaina on their migratory paths.  The crews would restock their provisions in Lahaina and attempt to recruit new sailors and romance Hawaiian women before the final leg of their journey back to the mainland.

The ships’ crews stayed in Lahaina for weeks on end, bringing a raucous crowd to the Hawaiian shores by partaking in long stints of drinking and prostitution.  This was an unfortunate change for Maui residents who were displeased with the debauchery and gambling associated with the whaling crews.  Maui prisons often housed troublesome miscreants whom the resident missionaries and native chiefs strongly disliked.

By the 1850’s nearly 400 ships annually made their port in Lahaina.  The busiest season on record was 1846 when a total of 734 whaling ships came through Lahaina in a single year.  In just a few decades, the thriving city became known as the whaling capital of the world.

The 19th century practices of whaling were wasteful and crude.  Crews would strip whales of their bones and blubber, often throwing the carcasses back in the ocean to decompose.   Whales were hunted largely because of the oil extracted from their thick blubber when their meaty skin was boiled.  This liquid was used as fuel in oil lamps, an additive to soaps, industrial machinery lubricant and even mixed in margarine.

The strong and relatively flexible nature of the whale bone made it a popular precursor to plastic.  Whale bone and teeth were once used for items such as:  chess pieces, umbrellas, toys, piano keys as well as antiquated items like ladies’ stiff corsets, skirt hoops, men’s collar stays, buggy whips and even some early forms of typewriters.

Many of the whalers were not keen on the Hawaiian’s diet of primarily poi and fish; so the Hawaiians began growing potatoes and other vegetables and corralling and raising wild cattle for their beef.  During the peak of the whaling industry, Maui natives increased their farming, planting crops such as potatoes, coffee, sugar cane, pineapples and rice.  To this day, Maui is still home to various farms and has a diverse range of produce on the island.

The decades of whaling in Maui slaughtered sperm and right whales that numbered in the thousands.  However, after nearly half a century of rampant whaling in Maui, several factors led to a steady decline in the industry.  The California Gold Rush, which kicked off in 1849, inspired many crews to leave whaling for gold mining.  During the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) many Northern-based whaling ships were destroyed by the Confederacy.  Finally when the use of petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania, whaling was officially a dying industry.  By the end of the 19th century, kerosene and electricity were preferred for lighting;  and by 1925, whaling ships were almost entirely obsolete.

Though whaling has mercifully ceased, visitors to Hawaii can still venture into Lahaina to enjoy some of the most dynamic whale watching in the world.  Every year over 6,000 to 7,000 whales journey through the once erstwhile whaling port, allowing for tourists to get a glimpse of these wondrous rulers of the deep.  The ocean surrounding Maui is one of the most active breeding grounds and calving areas for whales, and the Hawaiian Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Maui is the United State’s only marine mammal preserve.

Whalers Village Museum. Lahaina Maui

Whalers Village Museum and scrimshaw bone carving images. [Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson].

If you are spending a vacation in Hawaii, you will not want to miss the Whalers Village Museum in Ka’anapali, which is open daily and costs only a few dollars per person.  The museum features a life-size model of a whaling ship, ornaments and artifacts made from whale teeth and bone, scrimshaw art (carvings on whale bone) and other historical collections related to the whaling industry of Lahaina. Tourists visiting Hawaii should definitely plan a trip to Maui during the winter season to witness whales swimming and splashing on the ocean surface for a full appreciation of these magnificent creatures.


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