Before geologists found oil in the Caspian and Gulf, it was whale oil that lit the lamps of London. Whale oil lubricated the instruments and machines that fueled the Industrial Revolution, and it was the key ingredient in everything from soaps and margarine to nitroglycerin and detergents.
Nothing in the whale carcass was wasted: the skin turned to leather, the cartilage was boiled for glue, and the bones shaped fashionable female corsets.
The seaside town of Whitby, Yorkshire, was the center of the whaling trade in Britain. Home to a fleet of 55 whalers, 2,761 whales were captured, killed and brought ashore between 1753, when the Whitby Whaling Company was established, and 1883, when whaling in Whitby ended. A whale’s vast jawbone – a gift from sister city Whitby, Anchorage, Alaska – forms a memorial arch atop West Cliff. When you stand below looking out over the choppy waters of the North Sea, it’s a poignant reminder of the epic scale of these marine mammals, as well as the significant risks Whitby’s whalers faced in hunting them.
The picturesque harbor of Whitby is still teeming with boats, but today there are many more yachts and tourist boats than fishing trawlers. Whalers, of course, are long gone, as are the tall ships built here that carried Captain James Cook on his famous voyages to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
However, the whales themselves still migrate along the Yorkshire coast in large numbers, and late summer and fall are the prime times for whale watching. Humpback whales, minke whales, fin whales and sei whales all swim in these waters close to shore, and at the same time, you will see porpoises and white-nosed dolphins, dozens of sniffing seals and countless sea birds that make their way between the two sea and cliffs.
Skipper Richard Cope has been fishing in Whitby since he was seven years old. He now sails on the immaculately maintained Offshore 105 Mistress Whitby for whale watching and fishing trips. With his recreational license, Rich can sail up to 60 miles from shore, enough distance to find whales.
“Sometimes we see just one whale. But if you are in a place where Northern Gannets dive in search of herring and sprat, this is an amazing sight in itself. It’s the northern gannets that indicate the presence of whales, says Rich. “There are maybe 50 northern gannets in a herd, diving one after another. And dolphins and whales are underwater, pushing food to the surface. “
I wonder how far it was possible to approach, hoping to be able to spot a whale without relying on binoculars or the camera zoom. Recalling a recent outing, Rich comments, “We had caught quite a bit of mackerel. The water was clear. A whale came out alongside us. We only hiked a few hundred yards and then there was a group of porpoises along the boat too! I’m a bit of a disbelief at first, but within an hour of boating along the Whitby Coast you realize how rich these waters are in wildlife.
All Whitby boat crews work long hours, especially during the summer months when the seas are relatively calm. The north cardinal buoy outside Whitby marks the edge of the reef, but there are also weather buoys. Buoys measure the height and frequency of waves and transmit the information directly to a mobile phone application. If the waves have a short frequency, the water is rough. In bad weather, the boats do not sail. It is still tiring and potentially dangerous work, but nothing like it was for generations past.
Guests gather on Whitby’s Quay at seven o’clock, around sunrise, when the work boats are already setting their nets and are leaving the sheltered harbor for sea. There are only six people aboard the Mistress. Whitby to allow for social distancing, and Rich goes through a full discussion of safety before setting sail. A stack of little lobster pots stand on the deck, and I cross my fingers that we grab enough for dinner.
Once out of the port, we followed the coast line. The Mistress Whitby can sail at a speed of 10 knots, which seems pretty fast. We baited the pots and dropped them overboard at the edge of the rocks, where the ledge gives way to the deep sea. This is where you’re most likely to get a catch, and with Rich’s license we would be able to bring home up to 10 crabs and two lobsters.
Fishing restrictions are strict. But Rich is adamant – and rightly so – that protecting fish stocks is important. There are escape hatches in the lockers so that the little creatures can swim freely, and every lobster we take on board has to be measured against the tonnage in the wheelhouse. If the lobster is too small, it has another chance and is returned directly to the sea.
A full-sized lobster has a curious V-shaped notch in its shell. The rich and other responsible fishermen like him will make that mark if they catch a buried lobster, a gestating lobster with its eggs stuck to its belly. You’re not allowed to land a buried lobster, but that doesn’t mean unscrupulous people won’t remove the eggs and try. Scraping the surface of a pincer before returning it to the water ensures that the lobster will be protected, even if it is caught by someone else again in a few weeks.
It takes around an hour of sailing along the coast from Whitby to Ravenscar, a resort that was intended to rival Skegness, but was never built. However, Ravenscar has an absolutely huge gray seal colony. The rocky beach is relatively inaccessible, which is probably why the seals love it so much. There are about 300 seals on the headland, barking, sniffing and farting.
The best way to see them is by boat, and Rich deftly maneuvers Mistress Whitby close enough to see (and smell!) Them, while avoiding underwater rocks. Young seals are certainly cuter than their baby elephant parents, but it’s fascinating how all of these unsightly-looking creatures immediately become so nimble the minute they slip into the water to swim.
You will be relieved to learn that the traps we dropped earlier today caught lobsters, two of which are certainly big enough to land and eat. It’s one thing to buy fresh seafood at the dock, but quite another to dine on something you yourself have carried on board. I’ve never cooked a lobster before and luckily I didn’t have to try.
Chef Andy Hill will take whatever you catch to nearby Raithwaite Sandsend and cook up a culinary masterpiece as you wash, change, and sip a celebratory drink at the hotel bar. My reward for the day is a perfect lobster thermidor, on my plate just hours after taking it out of the sea.
Rooms at Raithwaite Sandsend start from £ 135 per night, including breakfast. The hotel runs Mistress Whitby day charters from £ 120 per person. This includes dinner prepared by Chef Andy Hill of Raithwaite at the hotel restaurant, The Brasserie. www.raithwaitesandsend.co.uk