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A Naturalist’s Year Aboard a Yankee Whaleship

In 1912, a young naturalist named Robert Cushman Murphy was offered the opportunity of a lifetime – to spend a year on one of the last Yankee whaleships out of New Bedford, on a voyage to the Antarctic. Only recently married, Murphy had many regrets at leaving his wife Grace so early in their life together, but he saw that the chance to journey to the end of the world, to bring back new specimens, to record what he saw, was also the chance to launch a stellar career.

During the voyage, Murphy kept a journal, packing it with observations of his experiences on board, both as a naturalist and as a witness to a disappearing way of life. When he was not taking photographs and developing them in seawater, or skinning birds to take back to the American Museum of Natural History, he was watching his shipmates raid penguins’ nests or harpoon whales and boil down their stripped carcasses. This journal, recorded in the voice of a man who relished the world around him, was later published as Logbook for Grace and became a bestseller. Murphy himself went on to become a world authority on oceanic birds.

Eleanor Mathews, his granddaughter, has now taken this extraordinary diary, updating & supplementing it with never-before-published information and his own original photographs. She presents his voyage in a compelling third-person narrative, maintaining his voice while expanding the tale for modern readers. As a story of seafaring life, a portrait of the whaling industry still under sail, an account of a natural history expedition, and a love letter to an absent wife, it was described as “a book to set on the shelf beside Moby-Dick & Two Years Before the Mast.” Logbook for Grace has disappeared; but we can proudly offer Ambassador to the Penguins to replace it.

Ellie Mathews (born October 22, 1945, Port Angeles, Washington) is an author of fiction and nonfiction works including The Linden Tree (winner of the 2007 Milkweed Editions Prize for Children’s Literature). Her recipe for Salsa Couscous Chicken was the Grand Prize Winner of the 1998 Pillsbury Bake-Off.

Mathews holds a degree in geography from the University of Washington, 1976 with emphasis on cartography and graphic arts. In her first career she linked those interests with software development.

In the early 1990s she began writing. She has published fiction and nonfiction, has been honored with two fellowships and an arts commission award. Her book, Ambassador to the Penguins, A Naturalist’s Year Aboard a Yankee Whaleship about Robert Cushman Murphy’s 1912 journey to South Georgia Island, came out to starred reviews. Her memoir The Ungarnished Truth, A Cooking Contest Memoir about winning the Pillsbury Bake-Off was published in March 2008 by Berkley Books.