Whales are in Whitby’s blood. From 1753, when the first ships left the east coast harbour for Greenland, Whitby men have braved the seas in search of some of the world’s largest and often most elusive creatures. At the height of the industry,
30 years either side of 1800, there were at least 55 boats bringing back the carcasses
of whales to be rendered in huge boilers on the quayside.
The men engaged in this bloody trade risked their lives every time they sailed. Their ships were threatened by mountainous seas and crushing arctic ice, as well as by the practicalities of grappling with an animal that was often much larger than
the ship they were on.
Now, whales swim free from the threat of Whitby sailors pointing a harpoon at them, but it’s still possible to sail from the town to shoot minke whales – with a camera – on board whale-watching boats run by Whitby Coastal Cruises.
Get close to whales
Two boats, Kerrera and Esk Belle III, currently take a
total of up to 60 passengers
for weekend whale-watching trips that last two-and-a-half hours and will go up to three miles offshore.
Another boat, Specksioneer, (a specksioneer was a whaling boat’s chief harpoon-firer) is currently being refitted and will return next season for longer excursions further off the coast.
In the autumn, whales move south along the east coast of Yorkshire, following the shoals of mackerel and herring. Robin Petch, local whale-watcher and chairman of the national charity Sea Watch Foundation, which works to improve the conservation and protection of whales, dolphins and porpoises in British and Irish waters, is one of the qualified skippers who will take visitors out in the boats. He and former trawler skipper Bryan Clarkson are both experts in finding whales off the Whitby coast. Minke whales, with their distinctive pointed heads and curved back fin, are spotted most often – they can be up to 10m (32ft) long. Other recent sightings have included sei, fin and humpback whales.
A shore thing
There can never be guarantees that whales will appear to order when you’re out at sea of course, though if you don’t manage to spot one there are other, smaller cetaceans to look out for – harbour porpoises and bottlenose and white-beaked dolphins also frequent the waters here. And it’s also possible to spot them from the shore; take your binoculars and head for a cliff-top – near Whitby Abbey on the town’s east cliff is ideal – on a day when the sea isn’t too rough.
After your whale-hunting adventure is over, head to Whitby Museum in Pannet Park on the west side of the town to learn more about the history of whaling. Founded in 1823, the museum retains a 19th-century air but is packed full of fascinating objects; look out for the harpoon gun and the many and varied lances, spears and knives, all with long wooden handles, that were used in the whaling industry.
Intricately detailed models of ships and examples of scrimshaw – bone or walrus ivory decorated by sailors in spare moments – rub shoulders with items collected from the Inuit peoples of the Arctic and products made from the whales themselves, including women’s stays stiffened with whalebone.
Finally, to get an idea of just how big a whale can be, head for the junction of East Terrace and North Terrace, overlooking the harbour, where the jaw bones of a bowhead whale are set up as an archway. They were donated by the people of Alaska (Whitby is twinned with the Alaskan capital Anchorage, along with six other places around the world) in 2002 to replace a set from Norway erected in 1963. The first jawbone arch was put up as early as 1853 and today serves as a reminder of the town’s controversial past.
HOW TO GET THERE
Whitby is 20 miles north of Scarborough on the A171,
on the east coast of Yorkshire. Northern Rail trains run from Middlesbrough to Whitby;
the Yorkshire Coastline
bus X40 runs from Leeds.
FIND OUT MORE
Whitby Coastal Cruises
The cruises leave from Brewery Steps in Whitby Harbour, close to the west end of the swing bridge.
Whitby YO21 1RE
14 Pier Road,
Whitby YO21 3PU
A Whitby institution, the famed Magpie has wonderful fresh fish served in a former Whitby merchant’s house.
Hudsons Bed and Breakfast
30 Hudson Street, West Cliff,
Whitby YO21 3EP
In Whitby’s conservation area, between the park and the harbour, Hudson’s is a welcoming and attractive B&B.
Abbey Lane, Whitby YO22 4JT
Climb the 199 steps to the ruins of the abbey on the east cliff to explore its long history and see the award-winning visitor centre.