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Visiting historian studies early whaling

(May 2, 2000)   —   An Australian historian, visiting the East Carolina University Maritime Studies Program, is doing research about the state's early whaling industry.

Dr. Mark Staniforth, a maritime archaeology professor at Flinders University of South Australia in Adelaide, has been doing research on the practice of shore-based whaling that began along the North Carolina coast in the middle of the 17th century and continued until around 1917.

Shore-based whaling involves hunters in small, open boats who usually wait and watch for the whales from shore or in small inlets before casting off in pursuit. The practice was common in earlier years on Bogue and Shackleford Banks and near Cape Lookout in Carteret County and on the Outer Banks of Dare and Currituck counties. It continues today in such places as Canada and Washington state.

"It is one of those things that is not well documented," said Staniforth. He said shore-based whaling was a very small industry compared to open-sea whaling in New England that involved large ships and many sailors. "I wanted to get a sense of what sorts of activity went on here and where the sites were because I don't think anyone has really gone looking for the locations of this activity."

Staniforth said that one of things he learned was that shore-based whaling existed in the mid-17th century in North Carolina's northern coastal area. Some of the earliest sites were at Powell's Point in Currituck County and on Colington and Roanoke Islands along the state's Outer Banks.

These sites, he said, are the most interesting to him because they are less known than the whaling sites near Beaufort. He said the material he collects will go into a book he is writing about shore-based whaling.

The book will cover this method of whale hunting as it was practiced around the world. Shore-based whaling, according to Staniforth, is universal. It was being done in Newfoundland in the 1500s and has been conducted in almost the same way -- with harpoons, little boats and rowing -- into the 20th century.

"The actual technology hasn't changed much," he said. While this type of whaling has disappeared in most locations in the lower United States, it continues in Canada by Inuit whalers. North American Indians along the coast Washington state also continue the tradition.

At least one or more of the tiny islands in the Caribbean preserve the tradition as well. Staniforth said his visit to eastern North Carolina has been a great help to his research. He noted that ECU's library has been useful and that the faculty and students in the Maritime Studies Program have been helpful.

"There has been an enormous amount of work done by the Maritime Studies Program over the last 20 years and the best way to gain access to the materials is to come and spend time here," Staniforth said. After leaving ECU this week, he will travel to Newfoundland to continue his research there.


Contact: ECU News Bureau | 252-328-6481