A Whaling Voyage2021-12-18T17:42:16-05:00

Introduction: This activity relates a sailing ship’s route to ocean currents. The routeis taken from a true account of a whaling voyage on the ship Lucy Ann in 1847-1848. The ship sailed from Long Island, New York, to the Pacific, searching in different parts of the ocean, called “whaling grounds” where whales were known to be found at certain times of year. Since whaling vessels of that time were powered by sail, captains had to take advantage of predictable winds and currents to reach their destinations as quickly as possible. As sailors traveled throughout the world’s oceans, they carefully recorded wind and sea conditions in logbooks, hour by hour. This information was assembled to plot the ocean’s prevailing winds and currents around the globe.

Whaling was an important industry for many New England coastal towns between 1750 and 1860. Whaling also contributed to the early development of Pacific ports on the west coast and Hawaiian Islands. Whales are not evenly distributed in time or place in the world’s oceans. Whalers in that era usually headed for feeding or breeding areas used by right or sperm whales, although they were not guaranteed to find whales there. During most of a whaling voyage, no whales were seen. The voyages often lasted more than a year, and besides regular struggles with foul weather, the killing and processing of a whale was very dangerous.

To find out more about the history of whaling, link to the Kendall Institute of the New Bedford Whaling Museum at http://www.whalingmuseum.org/kendall/index_KI.html

Whaleboat by Paul Giambarba published by Scrimshaw Press

More information about Martha Smith Brewer Brown can be found at http//www.newsday.com/extras/lihistory/5/hs508b.htm

For a teachers’ guide to studying New York women on whaling voyages, look at http://members.aol.com/TVHS1/guide.html

What to expect

Students need to understand and be able to use latitude and longitude to plot ship positions on the globe. (See SEA web lesson “X Marks the Spot Latitude and Longitude” for teaching this skill).

You may wish to enlarge the map of global oceans to facilitate plotting and measuring distances.

Students should have access to as many resources about whaling voyages as possible. Start with the internet link for Kendall Institute at New Bedford Whaling Museum and use books from the library. Many internet sites have incomplete and skewed information about this topic.

For this activity, students could work in pairs or individually and each could plot the entire voyage or just a section of it.

For a good introduction to ocean currents and activities for students in grades 5-8, see Ocean Currents, a GEMS guide published for the marine Activities, Resources, and Education (MARE) series by Lawrence Hall of Science.


  • List of ship positions
  • Map of global oceans
  • Map of ocean currents
  • Dividers or ruler for measuring distances



1. Introduce the topic ocean currents are extremely important to sailors and other seafarers. In the days of sailing ships, captains could save many days or weeks during a long-distance voyage by following ocean currents and taking advantage of their prevailing winds. Discuss with students how people discovered these currents. You may wish to share the story of Benjamin Franklin’s charting of the Gulf Stream in 1786.

2. Introduce the whaler’s mission the voyage was undertaken to find and take whales, in the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, and tropical oceans. Have students scrutinize the chart of whale distributions made by Matthew Fontaine Maury in 1851. A copy of this is viewable at http://lcweb.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/portam/img/whaleall2.jpg

3. Distribute the list of ship’s positions to students. Have them plot the route of the Lucy Ann on the global oceans chart, and on a large world chart of your choice, labeling each position with the date (see SEA web lesson “X Marks the Spot Latitude and Longitude” for teaching students how to plot positions). Remind students that this journey was only part of the Lucy Ann’s complete voyage of three years. Have them imagine (or mark out on a floor) living continuously for the whole voyage in a space about 25’ x 80’ with a crew of about 30 and all their supplies.

4. Have students measure distances between positions, using dividers or a ruler. On Mercator charts, one minute of latitude (but not one minute of longitude) equals one nautical mile, so the latitude scale along the sides of the chart may be used as a distance scale. Review the relationship of speed (also called rate), time, and distance S = D/T

Guiding questions

  1. How many days elapsed between each position?
  2. How long was this voyage in days?
  3. What is the distance between each position?
  4. How far did the ship sail during the entire voyage?
  5. What was the average speed from one point to the next? (Speed = Distance Time)
  6. What was the average speed for the voyage?
  7. You may wish to have students illustrate the events of the voyage as described in the brief entries from the log book. Students could make small pictures to be placed on the chart of the voyage, or larger pictures to be made into a scrapbook of the trip. Students could record one event from each day of their own lives for a month and compare their daily experiences with those of the sailors.
  8. Next, have students study the chart of ocean surface currents. These currents are for the most part driven by winds. Have students sketch and label the currents on the blank global ocean map. Ask them to color code cool currents (those moving from high to low latitudes) blue and warm currents (moving from low latitudes to high ones) red.
  9. Have students draw major ocean surface currents on a chart showing the voyage of the Lucy Ann, or make a transparency of the currents and project it onto the large chart showing a track of the voyage. Alternatively, students may use their individual ocean currents charts to answer the questions. Direct students’ attention to the currents for the following questions.

Guiding questions

  1. When was the ship helped by prevailing winds and currents?
  2. When was it slowed?
  3. Considering the expected locations of whales (see Maury’s chart) should they have taken a different route?
  4. Where should they go on the next leg of their voyage to take advantage of winds and currents and find whales?


Students should be able to:

  1. Plot correct positions on a chart using latitude and longitude
  2. Be able to calculate a ship’s distance and speed using charted positions
  3. Draw in major ocean currents on a map of world oceans
  4. Locate some of the major whaling grounds in the mid 1800’s
  5. Describe some events on a whaling voyage from the 1840’s


1. Students can compare ocean routes of explorers with maps of ocean currents. Early explorers did not have knowledge of the currents. How do their routes compare with trade routes from the sailing ship era? A map and introduction to ocean currents can be found at http://www.onr.navy.mil/focus/ocean/motion/currents1.htm

2. Ocean currents are instrumental in moving heat around planet Earth. Students can investigate ocean currents and their influence on climate.

3. The history of whaling is rich and tightly intertwined with the biology and natural history of whales. Students can investigate any of a wide range of whaling topics and relate them to ocean habitats, US history, and the development of the petroleum industry.


Source of ship positions and notes “She Went A-Whaling The Journal of Martha Smith Brewer Brown,” edited by Anne MacKay. 1993. Published by the Oysterponds Historical Society, P.O. Box 844, Orient, N.Y. 11957.

Voyage of the Whaleship Lucy Ann, 1847-48

No. Date Latitude Longitude Notes


31 Aug 1847

41 12’ N

72 18’W

Departed from Orient, N.Y.


18 Oct 1847

16 20’ N

22 25’ W

Cape Verde Islands in sight


30 Oct 1847

6 57’ N

22 04’ W

Gam with shipPeru of Nantucket Recently struck and lost a whale


15 Nov 1847

8 22’ S

30 22’ W

Off Recife, Brazil


25 Nov 1847

20 40’ S

28 57’ W

Near Trinidade Island, Brazil


30 Nov 1847

27 05’ S

26 17’ W

A few days of light winds


29 Dec 1847

42 26’ S

45 22’ E

Sailing around Cape of Good Hope


1 Jan 1848

43 16’ S

52 23’ E

Near Prince Edward Islands


3 Jan 1848

44 55’ S

58 00’ E

Near Crozet Islands


5 Jan 1848

44 30’ S

65 38’ E

Gale with rain and hail


10 Jan 1848

43 20’ S

87 20’ E

Crew member, age 15, dies of tuberculosis


13 Jan 1848

42 40’S

93 10’ E

Took a whale


14 Jan 1848

42 50’ S

93 00’ E

Cutting in the whale


15 Jan 1848

43 23’ S

95 15’ E

Lowered boats for whale without success


19 Jan 1848

44 50’ S

101 35’ E

Caught 2 porpoises to eat


23 Jan 1848

43 40’ S

120 76’ E

Have had several gales


31 Jan 1848

43 42’ S

147 49’ E

Sighted Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania)


1 Feb 1848

44 09’ S

149 00 E

Crewmen punished for gambling


12 Feb 1848

33 46’ S

174 40’ E

Very calm. Jumped rope for exercise.


15 Feb 1848

32 35’ S

179 58’ E

Yesterday calm; today rain and a gale


23 Feb 1848

27 37’ S

163 28’ W

Seeking whales in the South Pacific


2 Mar 1848

29 27’S

159 00’W

Head winds force course change from NE to ESE


8 Mar 1848

15 35’ S

156 59’ W

Very hot; battling bed bugs


9 Mar 1848

4 49’ S

157 49’ W

Tacking NW and SE into head winds


25 Mar 1848

2 11’ N

149 50’ W

Pumping 800 strokes a day


2 Apr 1848

7 31’ N

148 15’ W

Many days of light or head winds


15 Apr 1848

21 20’N

157 50’ W

Arrive Sandwich Islands (Hawaii)

Map of global oceans

 Map of global oceans


Current Map

Current Map

Current Map Courtesy of Bigelow Labs Ship Mates Project

Copyright 1998-2008 by Sea Education Association, all rights reserved. Compiled and edited by Pat Harcourt & Bill Meyer.

This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation (Proposals # TEI-8652383, TPE-8955214, and ESI-925324), the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Foundation, the Donner Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily of the Foundations.

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