In the 16th century, the French, Spanish, Portuguese and Basques frequented the waters of the Atlantic sea, the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Île aux Basques was named after them as a testimony to their passage.
During the whale migration, the Basques enter the estuary to hunt them and produce the oil needed to light European homes. The First Nations, seeing these huge ships on the horizon, compared them to “floating islands”.
Each ship holds 50 to 100 sailors, provisions for four to five months, and equipment for hunting, flensing and processing whale blubber into oil.
Upon arrival at the site, the sailors unload equipment, supplies and tools on the shore. They set up temporary camps for the duration of the fishing season.
Carpenters and coopers assemble chalupas and barrels directly on the island. The ovens, also called “tryworks”, are equipped with tile roofs to protect them from the weather.
The capture of these marine mammals requires a lot of energy and technique. The boats are equipped with oars and sails. The whalers harpoon the whale until it becomes exhausted and dies. However, one sudden stroke of the tail can wipe out all their work.
After it is killed, the huge mammal must be hauled ashore and promptly flensed. The baleen, or whalebone, is kept for the manufacturing of umbrellas and corsets.
The blubber is cut into blocks and heated in large pots that rest directly on stone stoves. A gap is kept open to feed the fire.
Once the blubber has been transformed into oil and filtered, it is transferred to barrels that will fill the cargo hold and be shipped to the Basque Country.
After the fishing season, the Basques abandon their chalupas to lighten the ship's cargo. They leave the island with about 2000 barrels of whale oil, each weighing 180 kg.