Captain Joy’s Last Voyage

What a whaling captain’s logbook can teach us about sperm whales and our oceans.

TWO DAYS AFTER SETTING SAIL from New Bedford, Massachusetts aboard the Roman, Captain Robert M. Joy braced his leg against the pounding, rolling of the ship. Sitting in his cabin, he tried to ignore his unsettled stomach as he wrote an entry in his logbook. The whaleship was a brand-new vessel, and this was its first voyage, so Joy probably didn’t want to push the ship or his crew too hard through the heavy weather and blasts of snow. He had ordered only a few sails set, “reefed,” or partially rolled-up, to reduce the amount of canvas before the wind, and he surely had made certain that he had an experienced sailor at the helm. Probably pushing up the cuffs of his heavy coat as the crew slid about on the deck above, Captain Joy summarized the previous 24 hours, which he divided into three parts, as was customary:

Remarks on Monday Novm 30th 1835

First part begins with brisk gales from NW and squally with snow and haile single reeft the topsails stood
E b[y] S & ESE at 4 pm strong gales from NW with snow double reeft the top sail…Middle Part strong gale from WNW…Latter part more moderate but rouged [rugged] made some sail many of our green hands sea sick — and myself sick of the Sea — Lat by acc[ount] 39˚ 40’ [North] Long 65˚ 03’ [West]

Captain Joy would go on to write a similarly formatted entry every single afternoon that the Roman was at sea for the next three years and four months.

We don’t know if Joy was implying that he was seasick himself or maybe just tired of going to sea — this would, after all, end up being his last voyage. We do know that this was his seventh whaling trip as captain, that he had signed on for an expedition of multiple years, and that this voyage of the Roman was just one of at least 214 similar expeditions that departed New England ports in 1835. To satisfy the demand for lamp oil, candles, and small machinery lubrication, the Roman was bound to hunt sperm whales, to fill the ship with barrels of oil that the crew boiled out from the blubber and from the waxy spermaceti inside the sperm whales’ enormous heads.

Joy was leaving in the late fall to arrive off southern Chile’s tempestuous Cape Horn in the austral summer, when conditions in the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean might be more forgiving. Whalemen from New England had been hunting sperm whales offshore with harpoons and lances for over a century by the 1830s. Joy and the Roman’s owners believed that searching for sperm whales in the Atlantic Ocean would be a waste of time; the animals had become too hard to find. The captain sailed his ship directly to the Pacific after a stop in the Cape Verde archipelago.

map of whaling voyage

Voyage of the Roman, December 1835 to April 1839, showing interactions with sperm whales. Map by Mia Hines.

Over the course of this voyage, Joy and his crew remained at sea for months at a time in between anchorages. During daylight hours every single day, in nearly all weather, at least a couple of men stood aloft scanning the surface. In order to lower the small boats they used to approach whales and kill them, they had to find the animals first — so the crews’ eyes, ears, and noses were at all times on the alert. And each day Joy wrote in the ship’s logbook, noting their position, their whaling activities, and the weather, including the windspeed and direction, sea state, and rainfall. He added observations of other marine life and painted whimsical drawings in the margins, all of which developed — day after day, however brutal the mission — into an exceptionally beautiful, detailed account of their slow transect across the global ocean.

In order to lower the small boats they used to approach whales and kill them, they had to find the animals first — so the crews’ eyes, ears, and noses were at all times on the alert.

In the 1830s to 1850s, the height of whaling under sail, roughly 8,000 people, mostly young men, were out on the high seas each year searching for whales. This represented, as far as we know, the largest collective survey of the open ocean surface in the history of the human race — an intensity and style of observation that will likely never be replicated again. The logbooks from these trips, kept as internal documents to guide future voyages, share among fellow captains, and inform owners about where to send their ships next time, are a written record of this survey. They have now provided bottomless material for a range of researchers for nearly two centuries, records for scholars who are interested in our shifting relationship with the ocean and marine life, natural history, the history of marine science, whale migration, ocean management, and increasingly, climate change.

THIS SPRING, OUR SMALL CLASS of undergraduate and graduate students at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, transcribed Captain Joy’s last logbook as a project for a marine environmental history course. Mark Procknik, at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, just up the hill from the docks where the Roman left, recommended this one for us. But even he didn’t realize the wealth inside — it is a remarkably detailed document kept by an extraordinarily experienced and observant captain.

Our aim at first was to simply transcribe the logbook into a searchable typed document so that researchers could better access the material. Though nearly a thousand of these whaling logbooks have been digitized online, they are nearly all just scans of the pages: No software yet exists that can read handwriting like Captain Joy’s nor understand his misspellings, abbreviations, and contexts.

As our class transcribed the logbook, life aboard the Roman came alive: the days of sighting breaches and spouts in the distance, the excitement of seeing another ship to exchange news and letters, and even the days with “nothing worthy of note.” At their first anchorage in Peru, three sailors jumped ship. A few weeks later, on May 4, 1836, Captain Joy recorded the death of a crewmember with business-like brevity: “Mr. Abizer Lebaron Sailor aged 23 years died with a strangulated hernia — so ends light air & squally saw Black fish” — by which Joy meant they saw pilot whales. Another day one of the mates fell from aloft into the sea, miraculously surviving with only “brused shins.”

Captain Joy diligently recorded whale sightings, interactions, and killings in his log book. Illustrations by Captain Joy.

injured whale drawing

Entries were often accompanied by illustrations like this one of an injured sperm whale. Today, most Americans see an illustration like this as horrific and tragic.

drawing of albatrosses at sea

In addition to logbook notes about weather, ocean conditions, and whales, Joy included observations of other marine life.

In addition to offering glimpses of life at sea in the nineteenth century, this logbook, which is rich with astronomical, geological, and natural history observations, paints a detailed picture of what Captain Joy knew, what he cared about, and what he saw. He regularly calculated his longitude using the difficult lunar-distance method. He described the path of a comet. He drew profiles of islands and recorded the details of a tsunami while at anchor in Hawai‘i. He noted ocean conditions such as sea state, currents, depth, and even when the ocean appeared especially green. One day he extracted the brain of a sperm whale, writing in the logbook instructions on how to locate the organ within the carcass and the measurement of its volume: “about the capacity of 2 ½ or 3 gallons.” Captain Joy recorded sightings of albatrosses, boobies, and two types of petrels. He recorded when his crew saw or caught pilot whales, orcas, mola mola (ocean sunfish), and sea turtles. One day near the equator, in strong winds and rough seas, they caught 420 fish, perhaps mahi-mahi.

In more recent decades, environmental historians have examined logbooks to trace cultural shifts in our perception of marine life.

As we dug further into Captain Joy’s logbook, we began to study researchers’ use of these documents over time. The idea of studying logbooks began as early as the 1840s, credited to Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury of the US Navy. Maury, who would later side firmly with the Confederacy and the institution of slavery during the Civil War, is arguably the founder of oceanography in the United States. In 1834, the year before Captain Joy left aboard the Roman, Maury published a paper in the American Journal of Science and Arts that used logbooks from previous voyages to quantify the best time and latitude to round Cape Horn. He went on to assemble collective global maps of seasonal wind direction, wind speed, and ocean currents. Over time, he collected 567 logbooks, or at least summaries, from which he and his staff created maps to help whalemen know where and when to sail to find sperm or right whales, the two major types that they could capture under sail.

In the late 1920s, as the last American whaleships sputtered out of New Bedford, a naturalist named Charles Haskins Townsend, director of the New York Aquarium, took Maury’s data and added information from another 695 voyages. Townsend made a new, more readable set of maps for sperm and right whale abundance and range.

Around the same time, a nostalgia for life at sea aboard sailing ships was percolating in parts of the United States. Historians began to pour over the logbooks to learn about historic navigation, whaling technologies, and the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the men and women who sailed on these voyages. For example, on Joy’s last voyage we can be nearly certain that he had a crew that included White New Englanders, Native Americans, and free Black men. He also probably picked up a few people when they stopped in the Cape Verdes and later a few more in the Pacific Islands.

In more recent decades, environmental historians have examined logbooks to trace cultural shifts in our perception of marine life. These shifts are apparent in Captain Joy’s casually painted cartoons of sperm whales belly up with blood coming out of their spout holes and their mouths, bleeding into an artistically brushed ocean of blues and greens. Today, most Americans see a cartoon like this as horrific and tragic.

Meanwhile, interest in logbooks to examine historical whale distribution and ecology has continued. In 2012, Timothy Smith, Randall Reeves, Elizabeth Josephson, and Judith Lund published a foundational study that not only updated the work of Maury and Townsend but created an interactive framework for further research for anybody to use. Working in part with funding from the Census of Marine Life, they added information from almost 200 new voyages until they had data from about 10 percent of the over 14,000 American offshore whaling voyages from 1780 to 1920. They created new maps that show when whalers saw no sperm or right whales, when they saw them, and when they killed them. And they incorporated logbook information for sightings and kills of humpbacks, bowheads, and gray whales.

For unknown reasons, the record of Joy’s final voyage never got into the Maury, Townsend, or Smith data sets, but these logbook studies help to place his voyage in context. Captain Robert Joy was a high-liner, one of the most successful whalemen in the United States. “That career, 1817 to 1839, is right through the strong developing era of Yankee Whaling,” says Michael Dyer, curator of maritime history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “Joy was one of the great whaling masters.”

Scroll through a digital scan of Captain Joy’s logbook, courtesy of The Internet Archive.

For this final voyage, Captain Joy sailed in and out of Hawai‘i for two years, spending the summers and early fall in the northwestern Pacific and then the winters and springs just south of the equator in waters north of the Marquesas Islands. This path of the Roman appears to be nearly identical to his previous two successful voyages. The collective data suggests, however, that Joy and his crew probably would’ve seen just as many whales if he stayed in one region all year round. A groupthink pervaded the industry throughout the nineteenth century that sperm whales had predictable migration patterns, like humpback or gray whales. The modern understanding, however, based in part on studies of logbooks, is that sperm whales are far more nomadic. Although today’s biologists are starting to find some potential patterns in a few local sperm whale populations — such as matrilineal groups tending to favor warmer waters, while large solitary males tend to go toward the colder pole waters — sperm whales seem to generally move around the oceans based on their prey of large squid and fish.

At the height of open-boat whaling, hunters killed more than 5,000 sperm whales a year, on average.

Regardless, Captain Joy and his crew did very well for themselves on this voyage, killing and boiling out the oil from 90 sperm whales (and injuring, if not killing, about 40 more that got away), the majority of which were females and small juveniles. Although the number of sperm whales killed by hunting peaked with industrial technologies in the 1960s at over 20,000 whales a year, Captain Joy’s last voyage on the Roman was near the height of open-boat whaling, during which hunters, mostly American, collectively killed more than 5,000 sperm whales a year, on average, many of which were females and young. This had devastating impacts on whale social groups all over the world, as well as on the vast ecology of the ocean as they removed these deep-diving apex predators.

Nineteenth-century whalemen systematically hunted new regions, operating on the idea that they were chasing the whales around, rather than exterminating local groups. Yet even Captain Joy revealed in his logbook a few moments of concern about their impact on sperm whale populations. Two voyages prior, it took him two years to fill his ship along this cruise track. The next one required two-and-a-half years. This voyage, all told, would take nearly three-and-a-half years. On August 16, 1838, sailing near the international dateline at about 30˚ north latitude, what were known then as the “Japan Grounds,” Joy wrote: “these 24 hours brisk winds from E & some squals saw fin backs Jumpers & porpuses but No Sperm Whales. O dear whare are all the whales gone to are they all Killed of[f] or Not.”

RESEARCHERS DON’T HAVE a firm grasp of just how well sperm whales are doing these days — they believe populations are rebounding globally since a whaling moratorium took effect in 1985, but no one is out there anymore regularly recording whale sightings across the world’s oceans. In the absence of modern information, in recent years conservation biologists have turned to whaling logbooks to inform management decisions, with an eye to enabling whale populations to return to pre-Industrial abundance and ranges.

This past spring, for example, researchers used logbook data from the western Indian Ocean, overlaid with a cobbling of modern sperm whale population records and current boundaries of marine protected areas (MPAs), to improve understanding of the whales’ habitat preferences. “These are some of the most detailed records of animal distribution,” said Tom Letessier, lead author of the study and research fellow at the Institute of Zoology in London, about their decision to use logbook data. “The whalers were remarkably conscientious.”

Their study revealed that sperm whale ranges have shifted significantly over time in the western Indian Ocean. The animals have moved away from the coast, which might be in response to anthropogenic factors such as hunting. And it turns out that modern marine protected areas in this region do not always overlap with where sperm whales used to live, presumably parts of the ocean that were once their preferred habitat.

A similar study, published in 2021, used logbook data to help understand population baselines in and around the Phoenix Archipelago in the central Pacific. The hope is that the data can be used to measure the impact of two large MPAs in the region on whale population resurgence.

Nineteenth-century whalemen systematically hunted new regions, operating on the idea that they were chasing the whales around, rather than exterminating local groups. Illustration: South Sea Whale Fishery by William John Huggins, 1825/Alamy.

Knowing past whale ranges and abundance has other applications for modern conservation as well. Since their study, Letessier says that they’ve received interest from managers developing plans to help reduce whale-ship strikes. By looking at historical distribution, managers working to shift shipping lanes can plan not only for where whales are today, but also where they were in the past, in the hopes their populations will expand and return to the habitats they previously occupied, presumably for millions of years, before humans began hunting them.

BACK IN MONTEREY we had one final task for our transcription project, which was to offer our data to a study that is using whalemen’s logbooks to determine past climatic conditions. Although whalemen’s daily descriptions, like that of Captain Joy, might seem arbitrary to modern readers, mariners had a specific vocabulary: a “fresh breeze” versus a “brisk gale” can be calibrated to more quantitative figures to get a genuine sense of the wind, currents, and general weather out at sea. That makes them useful to researchers.

“When you’re talking about extreme events, the one-in-fifty-years storm or the drought of the century, in many regions outside North America or Europe, we don’t have records that go that far back,” said Caroline Ummenhofer, a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who is co-leading the study with Timothy Walker, a maritime historian at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “Whaling logbooks fill in gaps with historic wind observations that we couldn’t get any other way.”

Ummenhofer explained that their interest is foremost in relative, comparative changes, such as latitudinal shifts in wind direction and strength, which can reveal how much our climate has already been altered and assist with modern modeling efforts. “We know that wind patterns are changing, whether that is the monsoons or other major wind systems around the world,” she said, “but out over the oceans we don’t have any good way of putting that into long-term context.”

“Whaling logbooks fill in gaps with historic wind observations that we couldn’t get any other way.”

Theirs is one of a couple of ongoing climate studies relying on logbook data. For example, researchers from NOAA and volunteer transcribers from all over the world have contributed to another study called Old Weather, which examines historical shipping logbooks for their past observations with a focus on the extent of ice in the Arctic regions. Paul O’Pecko, librarian and vice president at Mystic Seaport Museum, said that he has seen an increase in researchers coming to his collection to study logbooks for weather. Even for historians, he said, “climate change has been a huge concern over the last ten years.”

AFTER FILLING UP his ship with whale oil in the Japan Grounds, Captain Robert M. Joy celebrated with his crew as they flung overboard the brickworks used to boil blubber. He returned to Honolulu, fitted out for the return passage, and then sailed safely around Cape Horn to home, arriving along the coast of southern New England in a thick fog and light winds on April 6, 1839. In his final entry in the logbook, Captain Joy concluded:

At daylight saw Block Island bearing from N to NW 4 Leagues dist[ance] at 7 AM took Capt Moses T Crumwell from the Pilot Boat Hornet of Holmes Hole & Kept of[f] for Buzzard Bay with a fine WSW wind so ends this Voyage after an absence of 40 months & 10 days with a full ship and all hands well thanks to the all wise being for the same.

He signed his name with a great flourished scroll underneath.

In July of the following year, Captain Joy, then 47 years old, turned over his logbook to one of the owners of the Roman. During his retirement on Nantucket, the next generation of whalers sailed still farther to the tempestuous North Pacific and the Arctic, searching for right whales and bowheads, because trying to find sperm whales alone was no longer commercially viable. Just a few years before he died in 1862, ground petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania, which, along with the Civil War, would mostly put an end to whaling as he knew it.

Today, the logbook of Captain Joy’s final voyage sits on a shelf with over 2,500 others in a temperature-controlled room at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Carefully crafted by a veteran captain and a polymath, Joy’s last logbook is exceptional, but it is far from unique: His chronicle of the 1835-39 voyage of the Roman is just one of thousands of historical whaleship logbooks that have offered seemingly endless information and perspective to researchers, their value only expanding as we continue to try to understand the history of our oceans, the life it holds, and our human potential for change.

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