Mealtime on a Whaling Ship

Overview and objectives

Learning Center by Tricia Altschuller, Sarah Budlong, Sara Meirowitz, and Robert Rocha

Students will examine the role of food in survival, community building, the development of language and celebrations by using the reference materials provided. They will map out a whaling voyage from the late 1800s and take on the role of agent to determine the amount of food necessary to outfit a ship for a voyage. They will play the role of galley cook and create a daily menu for the crew. They will decide how to celebrate an event on their ship. Finally, students will compare and contrast the use of food on the ships to its use in their lives. Additional information for completing the lessons can be found by Internet searches.

Enduring Understandings:

  1. People must adapt the foods they eat to conditions they live in.
  2. Even in difficult situations, food becomes both celebratory and symbolic of the community.

Essential Questions:

  • How well did the food on the ship provide the calories a sailor needed to do his work?
  • How much food was on a typical whale ship?
  • Did mealtime help build a community aboard a ship?
  • Did whalers develop their own language to describe their food?
  • How was food used to mark special events and holidays, even if the ship was in the middle of an ocean?


Four class periods (based on 45-minute class periods)


  1. Students will utilize historical data to enhance their math skills
  2. Students will investigate how access to food shapes diet, cultural celebration and interaction within a group
  3. Students will gain a greater understanding of the challenges of surviving a long voyage on a whaling ship, especially as related to procurement of proper nutrition.


Learning Center Set-up

Life onboard a whale ship was a challenge for all involved. Along with being away from home for months or years, the crew also had to endure the limited variety of foods available to them on their ships. Meals were neither nutritious, attractive nor varied. Most food provisions did not keep for very long or were spoiled by insects. What was served was often lacking in flavor or could be difficult to chew.