Teacher's Guide and Further Reading Save it for later
We have this file available for download

Download a PDF version of the Teacher's Guide, or view them online below. Go to page 2 for the curriculum standards and resource list.

Lesson Plan #1: The Rise and Fall of the Whaling Industry

For almost 400 years, Americans chased whales to near extinction, traveling the globe to find and extract precious oil that was needed to fuel the growing American colonies, and later the expansion of the American frontier and the products of the American industrial revolution. Rapid population growth and economic expansion put ever-greater demands on the whaling industry resulting in
longer voyages, rising costs, and the depletion of its resource base. The discovery of gold in 1849 and petroleum in 1869 hastened the industry's decline.

Length of Lesson: 4-5 Days

Objective: To understand the impact of the whaling industry on the early United States economy           

Tasks: As a class or individually, research the questions below using the resource links of maps, timelines, and other tools. Compare the growth of the whaling industry and the growth and expansion of the United States. Use these topics as your guide:

  • Changes in whaling technology
  • Job creation and product demand from factories of the sea
  • Economic success of whaling
  • The consequences of overfishing and the effect of the discovery of petroleum


Part 1: Early America

Use the New Bedford Whaling Museum website and watch chapters 1 (The Essex, pt 1) and 3 (Loomings) of Into The Deep. Answer the following questions individually and then discuss as a class:

  1. What whaling skills did the Native Americans pass on to American settlers? Did Native Americans continue to work in the whaling industry after it moved to deeper water?
  2. Describe a typical whaler in the late 18th century. How were laborers paid?
  3. Where was the center of whaling activity and why? What were the significant whaling port cities? (HINT: From Old Dartmouth to New Bedford)
  4. What were the factors that led to Nantucket’s success? (HINT: chapter 4 Into The Deep: Nantucket)
  5. Who was the colonies’ biggest customer for whale oil and baleen?
  6. What were the primary uses of sperm oil and spermaceti oil?
  7. What accidental discovery pushed the whaling industry to deeper water and farther oceans of exploration?

Part 2: Whaling during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 and its aftermath

View Into The Deep chapters 4 (Nantucket) and 5 (Around the Horn) and review the timeline of the history of whaling in America and whaling ports of the 1850's. Individually answer the following questions and then discuss as a class:

  1. Why were so many whaleships destroyed during the Revolutionary War? 
  2. What happened to Nantucket’s whaling industry during war? How did this push the whaling industry to the mainland?
  3. How did the whaling industry help push America toward independence from England?
  4. Why did the British Navy prey on U.S. whaleships during the War of 1812? How did this strategy hurt the U.S. economy? How did the whaleship owners fight back?

Part 3: The Whaling “Golden Age” 1820-1860 and The Industrial Revolution

View Into The Deep chapters 5 (Around the Horn) and 9 (The Golden Age) for help with these questions:

1. What were the factors that resulted in the American industrial revolution? Divide the class into groups and assign each group one of these topics:

  • The changing American population
  • Immigration and urban growth 1840-1860
  • The expansion westward
  • Dramatic changes in transportation and communications systems
  • The emergence of the factory system
  • Advances in machine technology and machine tools

2.  What products and processes from the American whaling industry fueled this meteoric expansion? What whales provided what products? Where were the different whales found for these products?

3.  How did the increased demand for whale products change the whaling ships, their crews, and their voyages? Examine:

  • How did whaling vessels change? Describe the changes in technology.
  • How did the crews change? Describe a typical whaler during this period. How did they differ from whalers in the 17th and 18th centuries?
  • How did ship organization and payscale change?
  • Where were the whaling vessels going and how long were the voyages?
  • Read about harpoons and other whalecraft. How did harpoon technology change whaling?

4. New Bedford MA was one of the the richest places in the world in 1850. Describe what a whaling port would look like at this time. How had it changed from the colonial times?

5. Examine the location of American whaling vessels and whale populations and discuss how whaling exploration changed the United States geopolitically as it dominated the world’s oceans.

Part 4: The discovery of petroleum 1859, The Civil War (1861-1865) and its aftermath 

Several factors contributed to the severe decline in whaling during and after the Civil War. Watch chapter 13 of Into The Deep, (Zenith and Decline), answer these questions, and present your findings:

  • What was the impact of the Gold Rush in 1849?
  • What was the impact of the discovery of petroleum in 1859 that resulted in the development and refinement of abundant crude oil?
  • What new products during the Civil War spiked an interest in the baleen whale market and how did this change the route of whale fleets?
  • Did the Confederacy target whale vessels? In what ways were whale ships used in the war effort?
  • How did the the transcontinental railroad completion (1869) help end east coast whaling dominance?
  • What was the impact of diminishing whale stocks and major disasters in the Arctic in the 1870s?

Part 5: Summary Discussion

Look at the photo gallery depiction of whaling in America. How did the whaling industry shape us as a nation? Did it help to forge a uniquely American identity?

Extension Ideas: Are there other industries that epitomize the identity of America? Examine the beaver trade in Colonial America, the Gold Rush of 1849, the expansion of the railroad, the petroleum industry, and others. Compare the benefits and costs to the American economy with that of the whaling industry. How are they similar? 

Lesson Plan #2: Moby Dick as American Allegory

Since America's founding, Americans hoped to rival the literary and artistic achievements of Europe, but it wasn’t until the United States emerged as an economic global power in the 19th century, with seemingly endless resources and ambition, that her literature began to take on a distinctly American voice. Moby Dick by Herman Melville is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of American literature.

Length of Lesson: 1-2 Days

Objective: To examine the whaling industry as the source of great literature and as an allegory of American identity in the 19th century in the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville. 

Tasks: As a class or individually, research the questions below using the resource links of maps, timelines, and other tools.


Part 1: Melville’s Life

1. Watch Into The Deep chapters 6 (Essex, pt2) and 10 (Herman Melville). Then read the biography of Herman Melville and answer the following questions:

  • Melville was onboard whaleships during the industry's golden years. Describe the three years Melville spent at sea and the specific adventures and islands that he visited. What positions did he hold on the ships? What experiences did Melville have on board that taught him the principles of democratic equality?
  • By the time Melville went to sea he was already familiar with the tale of the Essex. When the son of one of the few survivors of the whaleship hands him a complete copy of his father’s narrative, Melville is transfixed. What happened to the whaleship Essex in 1821 and how did the story influence Moby Dick?
  • Watch chapter 12 of Into The Deep (Moby Dick). Much of Melville’s first novel, Typee, came out of his experience of jumping ship for the Marquesas Islands and being captured by cannibals, the very thing that the crew of the Essex refused to do. What do you think Melville was saying?
  • Melville completed Moby Dick in 1851 when he was 32 years old. Why did it sink into obscurity? What was the current obsession in the United States? Watch chapter 14 of Into The Deep (The Grand Armada). When was Moby Dick "rediscovered"?

2. Research the description of life on a whaleship at the New Bedford whaling museum website. Then answer the following questions:

  • What kind of people worked on whaleships in 1821? In 1851?

Part 2: The rise of distinctly American literature

1. Discuss as a class what makes a country’s literature unique. Is it the unique experiences of its people? Is it something that grows with a nation as it forms?

2. As industrialization grew, so did its depiction in novels. What was the response in literature to the challenges and dangers of westward expansion and increased industrialization? Did writers fear for the loss of individualism?

 3. Choose one of the following writers and poets of the 19th century who wrote about their observations and experiences: James Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Jack London, and others. What did they write about? Choose one of their books and present a book report to the class. What does the book say about America during the 19th century?

Part 3: The subject matter of Moby Dick

1. Watch chapter 10 of Into The Deep (Herman Melville). What were the characteristics of whaling that made it such a good subject for a novel?

2. Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous openings to any work of literature. Watch chapter 12 of Into The Deep (Moby Dick) and discuss how the choices the crew of the Essex made influenced the voice of Ishmael in the novel Moby Dick.

3. An allegory is a figurative mode of representation conveying meaning other than the literal. It teaches a lesson through symbolism. Melville would see Moby Dick as an allegory of the human condition and a parable of the recklessly expanding American republic. Others would see the ship Pequod as a representation of the U.S. heading for disaster. Do you think that Moby Dick can also be read as a prophetic allegory of America in the 21st century?

4. How did Melville’s story of a powerful and driven Quaker captain of a whaling vessel obsessed with seeking revenge in his search for the great white whale that had once maimed him become an uncomfortable metaphor for 19th century America? What was the duality of the American nature that troubled Melville?

5. Watch chapter 14 of Into The Deep (The Grand Armada) and listen to the reading of the chapter of Moby Dick titled “The Grand Armada.” Herman Melville expressed concern about the extermination of the whale. How did Moby Dick transform the way people understood their relationship to other living creatures and to the earth?

6. Read the New York Times article "The Ahab Parallax" and then read the summary of the novel Moby Dick. How does Melville use symbolism in the novel?

Summary Discussion: Great literature is relevant regardless of the time in which it was written. Why is Moby Dick so timeless? What other books do you consider "great?" What literature of today will continue to be read in the future? 

EXTENSION IDEAS: The New Bedford Whaling Museum sponsors a Moby Dick marathon every year. Pick up a copy at your library or go to Google Books and read aloud excerpts from Moby Dick. What do you think the following characters represent?

  • Ishmael
  • Moby Dick
  • Ahab
  • Starbuck
  • Queequeg, Tashtego, and Dagoo
  • Pip

 Lesson Plan #3: The Whaleship Essex and Maritime Culture

The Essex, a
technologically advanced Nantucket ship relentless in her ambition to bring in ever larger catches, was one of the finest examples of American whaling prowess when she set sail for the Pacific in 1821. The disaster that befell this ship occupied American imaginations for much of the 19th century and inspired people to question man’s relationship with nature. The diverse collection of men on ships such as the Essex ventured into unknown waters often for years at a time. Whaling required physical and psychological strengths unlike any other profession. These men not only discovered new lands and new species of whales, but also the limits of the Earth's natural resources.

Length of Lesson: 1-2 Days

Objective: To understand the maritime culture of American whaleships as an example of the meteoric rise of the United States in the 19th century.

Tasks: As a class or individually, research the questions below. Use these topics as your guide:

  • Different whales, different waters
  • Extracting whale products
  • The people who sailed the seas


Part 1: Exploring the world for whale

Using the list of resource links below, research and discuss these questions:

1. Look at the timeline of the history of whaling in America. Where and when did whaling begin?

2. Look at the map of whaling ports and whaling populations 1790-1924.  

  • Where were the important whaling ports of the United States?
  • How did sea routes change from the time of colonial America up to the 20th Century?
  • How did this impact the ports?

3. Watch chapter 4 of Into The Deep (Nantucket). How was Nantucket different from other whaleship ports? What were the forces that ultimately moved the whaling industry away from Nantucket?

4. Watch Into The Deep chapters 1 (Essex, pt. 1), 6 (Essex, pt. 2), 8 (Essex, pt. 3), and 11 (Essex, pt. 4). Describe the disaster of the Whaleship Essex.

  • Who were the people who survived?
  • Do you think cannibalism was justified in this disaster?
  • Were there any other cases of whales attacking boats?

Part 2: A day in the life of a whaler

Review Into The Deep chapters 3 (Loomings) and 7 (The Hunt). Then individually answer the following questions and then discuss as a class:

1. A unique and poetic language took hold onboard the whaling ships. Knowing what the following terms and phrases mean will tell you much about the life of a whaler. What do the following phrases mean:

  •  Thar she blows!
  • Stove by a whale
  • Flensing the whale
  • Life of the whale
  • Trying out the oil
  • Nantucket sleighride
  • Chimney’s afire!
  • Give it to him!
  • Fin out!
  • Bible leaves

2. On long voyages, there were often periods of long inactivity. What did a whaler do in his spare time? Take a look at the web book You Wouldn't Want to Sail on a 19th Century Whaling Ship and read about life on a whaleship at the New Bedford Whaling Museum site. What is a shanty? A scrimshaw? Then listen to Bonnie whaling shanty and Wings of a gull whaling shanty

3. An average whale was 40 to 60 tons, sometimes up to 85 tons. Typically a large whaleship carried fewer than 30 men. Describe the different crew members, their tasks on the ship, and their specific skill set for this dangerous and dirty work. 

Part 3: Industrial technology and whaling

1. Divide the class into five groups and research the characteristics of a typical whaleship in each of the centuries 16t through 20th. Look at the photo gallery of the depictions of whaling in America and compare and discuss the differences.

2. What types of whales were hunted and what products did they provide?

3. Review chapter 7 of Into The Deep (The Hunt) and individually answer and then discuss as a class the following questions:

  • Describe the arduous steps of the whale hunt and then the extraction of oil on a factory ship.
  • After 1750, whale vessels were transformed into floating factories by the addition of onboard brick and iron try-works. How did this technology change the whaling industry?
  • Imagine a ship as your home for three years or more. Describe these parts of a ship: captain’s cabin, steerage, blubber room, forecastle, the hold, and the try works.

4. In 1848 the era of Arctic whaling was launched giving new life to the industry. What new challenges did these icy voyages encounter? What new products were introduced?

5. What changes in ship and harpoon technology from Norway in the 1860s drove the whales to near extinction? What harpoon technology is used today by the few countries who continue to hunt for whale?

Part 4: Diversity on board the whaleship

1. Divide the class into groups. Each group will research and present the role each of these groups played in the whaling industry. What were the cultural and economic forces that drove them to take part? Review chapter 9 of Into The Deep (The Golden Age) and research the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library.

  • Native Americans
  • African Americans
  • Women (onshore and off)
  • Native Islanders

Summary Discussion: Read the interview with Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. He said that “Nantucketers were the true astronauts of American history” and that whaling was “an endeavor that inspired the defining characteristics of American.” What do you think he means? Based on what you have learned, do you agree or disagree with his statements? Discuss as a class.

Lesson Plan #4: Whales and Ocean Ecology

The systematic exploitation of whales over the last four centuries has had a profound influence on marine biodiversity in the world’s oceans. In the 21st Century, scientists are just beginning to understand the impact of these depletions on the world’s ocean ecosystems while governments try to enforce stricter international fishing policies to support sustainability.

Length of Lesson: 1-2 Days

Objective: To increase awareness of the threats that human behaviors and economic needs bring to the Earth’s fragile ecosystems, and to promote sustainable alternatives to this model.

Tasks: As a class or individually, research the following questions using the resource links below. Use these topics as your guide:

  • Economic growth versus sustainability in ocean fisheries
  • Ocean ecosystems at risk


1. How do we know that the oceans were once teeming with whales?

Individually answer and then discuss as a class the following questions:

  • Dr. Tim Smith is head of the World Whaling Project. Read an interview with Tim Smith and find out what his project is all about.
  • What is the Census of Marine LIfe? What historical data does the Census uncover to find out how many whales were hunted?
  • Review the map of whale populations 1790 to 1924 and use the websites above to research and reconstruct what ocean life was like using a few examples below:
    a.   right whales before 1620
    b.   right whales around New Zealand before oil hunters arrived in the early 1800s
    c.   sperm whales before and after the golden age of whaling 1820-1860
    d.   sperm whale status today 
    e.   what happened to the Arctic Bowhead in the 17th and 18th Centuries
  • Research and find out how scientists are using whale DNA samples to determine genetic diversity and past abundance of a whale species.
  • How does knowing the historical population values of whales and the geography of whale routes help us with contemporary ocean management?

2. Divide the class into three groups. Research and compare the collapse of the American bison, the passenger pigeon, and the sperm whale in the 19th Century.

  • Compare and discuss the economic and cultural forces that led to these declines.
  • Compare the attempts at preservation and conservation for these species.
  • How can habitat loss and marine ecosystem depletion prevent the recovery of a near extinct species?

3. Have any of the great whales been hunted to extinction? Research the example of the Eastern North Pacific gray whale.

  • How did protection and monitoring save it from extinction?
  • Are there other success stories in the management of whaling?
  • Explain how taking just a few female whales could doom a fragile population like the western Pacific gray whale or the northern right whale to extinction.

4. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946. Since 1950 whaling operations have killed almost 2 million baleen and toothed whales. No longer hunted for oil, whales are still hunted for scientific research and as a source of food. Pro-whaling countries claim that some species of whale, like Pacific minke and Atlantic humpback, have recovered enough to lift the global hunting ban.

Each student research the topics below. Then divide the class into two sections, one pro-whaling and one against whaling. Debate the issues.

  •  What is the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and why was it established?
  • What was the IWC1986 Moratorium?
  • What are the current limits on whaling?
  • What are the loopholes around these limits?
  • What is the IWC definition of species recovery?
  • Why do many scientists disagree with their definition of recovery?
  • What are the pro-whaling countries and what is their policy on whaling?
  • Should indigenous cultures, especially in places like the Antarctic where they use traditional techniques, be allowed to hunt for whale?

5. Read the New York Times Magazine article by Charles Siebert called Watching Whales Watching Us. Then answer and discuss these questions:

  • What is the Eastern Pacific gray whale’s conservation success story?
  • What have neurological studies of whales revealed?
  • Listen to the whale vocalizations from Into The Deep. What have scientists discovered about the dialects of whales?


Summary Discussion: The history of the whale tells us that its fate is dependent on the behavior of humankind. What new human behaviors are necessary for the sustainability of whales as well as the complex web of life that they are part of?

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

What impact do you think the whaling industry had on America and its economy? How do you think it shaped us as a nation? What do you believe is currently the industry that epitomizes the identity of America?

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Rosalind P. Walter
  • NEH