The Old Men and the Sea

An alumna of Tufts’ conservation medicine program chronicles the end of the Azorean whaling industry
looking out on boat regatta
Former harpooner Jose Silveira Jorge watches participants in a whaling boat regatta in the Sao Mateus harbor. Nearly 50 years ago, Jorge was dragged under the waves by a sperm whale he had speared. Photo: Gemina Garland-Lewis
March 5, 2014


As I watched a whaleboat regatta with 77-year-old José “Do Silvino” Silveira Jorge, all I could think about is what his scar must look like. The former harpooner from the island of Pico in the Azores had just told me about the time nearly 50 years before when he was impaled on the tooth of a sperm whale after a hunt went wrong. The harpooned whale circled the boat, spun on its side and came under the vessel. Silvino landed in the whale’s mouth. He said his prayers as his quarry dragged him beneath the sea.

One of the Azores’ last living former whalers, Silvino told me that story in July 2012, when I visited the islands on a National Geographic Young Explorer’s Grant to chronicle the lives, in words and photographs, of former whalers. Eventually free of the whale, Silvino swam to the surface, where he was rescued by a motorboat. The hospital doctor knew that the whaler would survive when he saw that the tooth had gone through his abdomen like a needle stitch, missing his internal organs. Silvino spent a month in the hospital and was back at sea five months later.

This was my second trip to the nine volcanic islands about 900 miles southwest of Lisbon, Portugal. I had visited the Azores four years earlier as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, conducting research about cultural attitudes toward whales and whaling. American whalers introduced the industry to the Azores in the early 1800s—think Captain Ahab and his crew in the Melville classic Moby-Dick. Here, traditional hunting methods from the 1800s were used until the 1980s, when the islands’ whaling industry died. The Azoreans hunted sperm whales solely for commerce—not food—using the oil to manufacture items like margarine and soap and the bonemeal for fertilizer.

The development of vegetable oils, among other things, eventually dried up markets for Azorean whale products, and the last whale-processing factories closed in 1984. The factories have been turned into museums, the whaleboats refitted for sailing and rowing regattas, and the men who made their living on the sea gather at the old boathouses to recall the great hunts.

Manuel Garcia Tavares Jr., who worked at a whaling factory in Horta, Faial, pictured among the remnants of the whaling industry at the Reis e Martins warehouse. Photo: Gemina Garland-LewisI documented the stories of 30 whalers (and two wives of former whalers) from the islands of Pico, Faial and São Jorge. I sought to tell personal stories about these men whose livelihood was often cast in a negative light.

Hunting some of the world’s largest creatures from a seven-man canoe with a hand-held harpoon was not easy work. They would head out to sea once a whale had been spotted by the vigias, lookouts who were stationed on towers on the islands. The hunters used sail power until they got close to the whales, and then maneuvered close with long, heavy oars. Rowing took great strength, and the whalers’ hands bled from rubbing against the wood.

When I asked the men if they missed their whaling days, some scoffed and told me that was a thing of the past. More often, though, they fondly recalled their lives at sea. Alberto “Pe’leve” Macedo Brum dropped his crutches and climbed aboard an old whaleboat to show me his harpooner’s stance. “You get weaker, but your body doesn’t forget,” he told me.

Jose Louenco Azevedo, 96, the oldest former whaler living in the Azores. Photo: Gemina Garland-LewisAlthough many men talked about the prestige that came with being known as an accomplished harpooner, Manuel Homem da Silva said the worst part was killing the whales. “No one likes to kill another creature,” he said.

I heard heart-wrenching stories—about men dying at sea, the anguish of entire communities as they witnessed their livelihoods slipping away and, of course, what this industry sadly meant for some of the most awe-inspiring and now endangered animals on earth.

Yet it is the resilience of these old men of the sea that stays with me. In his native Portuguese, Carlos Natal Serpa told me, “Foi uma vida maravilhosa”—it was a marvelous life.

Gemina Garland-Lewis earned a master’s degree in conservation medicine from the Cummings School in 2012.