Sea shanties are trending… but what are they?

Image result for whalers clipartSocial media has been awash the last few weeks with the singing and playing of these earwormy (is that even a word?) songs called sea shanties.

 Melodies like The Wellerman and Drunken Sailor have been popping up in videos everywhere. And the trend all began with a postman named Nathan Evans, who started singing the songs in his bedroom in Scotland and posting them to TikTok.

Musicians all over the world have been jumping on board and adding their own parts to Evans’ vocals – even Andrew Lloyd Webber,  turned Evans’ rendition of The Wellerman into a duet with a piano accompaniment.

What is a sea shanty?

Sea shanties are a type of folk song historically sung by fisherman, whalers and merchant sailors to accompany the work they needed to do on board a sailing ship. The theme music to the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants is a great example of a sea shanty, which often uses the ‘call-and-response’, style in the song!

They’re believed to be around 600 years old, and the name itself is thought to derive from the French verb ‘chanter’, meaning ‘to sing’. They often used similar tunes to old Irish and Scottish folk songs and would typically have been sung a cappella – without instrumental accompaniment – across a crowded deck. Such songs were designed to match the rhythm of common jobs aboard a ship such as pulling rigs or mopping the decks; they synchronized the sailors and made their work more bearable / enjoyable.

A deep dive into The Wellerman and its link to NZ’s whaling history

The sea shanty which started this craze – Soon May the Wellerman Come – is thought to have originated in New Zealand and sung on whaling boats in the mid-19th century. The “Wellerman” refers to a supply ship (owned by the Weller Company) which brought supplies such as tea, sugar and rum to the men on the whaling boats. The lyrics describe a whale hunt. The whalers have harpooned the whale but can’t get it on board.

Whalers and sealers were among the first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand. The first shore based whaling stations were established in southern New Zealand in the late 1820s.

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Whale pots near the visitor centre on Kāpiti Island. Image: Courtesy Sue Jane

In 1839, the peak year for New Zealand whaling, approximately 200 whaleships were working in New Zealand waters. Kororareka in the Bay of Islands was the biggest whaling port in the southern hemisphere, with 740 ships visiting the port in 1840. The Kāpiti region had six whaling stations dotted around the area. Even Kāpiti Island  had a whaling station on it, as Southern Right Whales would use the channel between the Island and the Kāpiti Coast as they migrated north from Antarctica. Old whale pots used to boil the whale blubber to get the valuable whale oil, are still sitting on the island today.



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Toot! Toot! Join us for a special Storytime

Toot the Smallest Whale banner

Joy Ramirez, author of the new book ‘Toot the World’s Tiniest Whale‘ will be reading aloud her book at Central Library’s Preschool Storytime, with extra fun activities and colouring sheets for the children to enjoy.

Toot – The World’s Tiniest Whale is the debut children’s picture book from up-and-coming Auckland author Joy Ramirez. The story is packed with unique and loveable characters like: Toot – a whale the size of your thumb, Henry the Fifth – the royal goldfish, Lord Squigglebottom, and Princess Bambella. Check out the website for more info.


Wellington Central Library, Children’s Section

Friday, 2nd October, 10.30am


This free programme is perfect for 2 – 5 year olds and their caregivers. Bookings not required.

This Morning I met a Whale

Childrens Bookshop coverMichael sees something strange in the water near his house one morning and goes to investigate. A whale! So far up the river?

Amazingly he can hear the whale speak to him and when he has listened to the whale’s story Michael says he will help. At school his story is read out to the whole class but no one believes him until the head teacher comes in to tell them a whale has been seen far up the river and everyone goes to see but Michael is the only one brave enough to get close and help.

A story with a conservation message for us all. Find this book in our catalogue.