A typical whaling voyage lasted several years, and several months might pass out on the ocean between whale sightings.
Sailors had a lot of time on their hands. They looked for ways to relieve their boredom and forget their feelings of homesickness. Many whalemen took up scrimshaw, and those who became particularly skilled were called “scrimshanders.”
Scrimshaw is a form of art in which engravings are carved into sperm whale teeth (or occasionally whalebone). Sperm whale teeth are a kind of ivory, like elephant or walrus tusks, and make good carving surfaces. Unlike other parts of a whale, the big cone-shaped teeth—up to two pounds each in some of the largest individuals—had no value but were small enough to stow away in the ship’s tight quarters. After the valuable parts of a whale were harvested, the teeth were free for the taking.
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