As early as 1889, European and American whalers pursued bowhead whales for their baleen and oil. These great mammals migrated through the Beaufort Sea, in close proximity to Herschel Island. The Island provided a safe harbour for the whalers and many ships would over-winter here.


Baleen, also called whalebone, is a tough, flexible cartilage-like substance found in the bowhead's mouth. An average size bowhead could have 700 pieces of baleen ranging from 6 inches to 12 ½ feet that is secured to the skull by thick muscle. The baleen acts like a sieve, filtering water and trapping shrimp-sized krill that is the mainstay of the whale's diet.


Due to its flexibility, baleen had many uses. The most common were stays in corsets that helped Victorian women attain a 12 inch waist. Baleen was also used to make buggy whips, parasols and umbrellas, fishing rods, caps, suspenders, canes, divining rods, bows, tongue scrapers, pen holders, paper folders and cutters, graining combs for painters, shoe horns, and hair brushes.


The whale's skin covers a layer of blubber that is rich in oil. It varies in thickness and can be up to 20 inches thick in some parts of the body. The blubber from an average size bowhead produced approximately 100 barrels of oil. The oil was used for fuel and lubricants. Some city streets and indoor lamps were lit with whale oil.
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