Naturally formed by the estuary of the River Esk, Whitby Harbour was the main source of income for the residents of Whitby for centuries. From traditional fishing to whaling, shipbuilding, and alum export, Whitby Harbour was the base for it all!
Originally known as the only viable ‘road’ into the town, Whitby Harbour was used as early as the 1300s by merchants from Northern Europe to trade goods with the wealthy Abbey. The wine was by far the most common import to the harbour whilst salt herring was the most common export. Today Whitby Harbour is a wonderful place to wander, shop, eat, drink and catch a boat trip.
A brief history of Whitby Harbour
In 1392, the first records were made of coal coming into Whitby Harbour from Sunderland. This import would prove to be invaluable later (the 1600s) when it was used to ‘finish’ off Alum which had been discovered locally. It would be Alum that really made Whitby’s fortune.
As the Alum industry took off, Whitby discovered that it needed larger cargo ships than it had to export the finished product. So, rather than buy these ships elsewhere, they began to build vessels of their own. Shipyards sprung up all along the West Bank of the upper harbour, and by the 1790’s Whitby was vying with Newcastle to be the second-largest producer of merchant ships.
Alongside Alum, Whitby also began launching whaling ships from its harbour around 1753. This was a joint venture of several of the town's merchants which saw approximately 25,000 seals, 55 polar bears, and 2761 whales brought back to Whitby shores. Once there the whales were taken to great boiler houses that had been built along the harbourside where their blubber was rendered into oil.
Unfortunately, by the early 1830s, the whaling trips from Whitby were becoming more and more unsuccessful and the final voyage to Greenland was made in 1837. The Alum trade also faded out not long after with the last mine closing in 1871.
Whilst it may sound like it was all doom and gloom for Whitby and its harbour by 1871, it certainly wasn’t. Fishing, which had always been an important industry was still blooming, and tourism had been growing steadily; part of which would be the heritage left from the harbours past!
West and East Pier Lighthouses
It would be incredibly difficult for anyone to visit Whitby and not see at least some of the glorious harbour that lies at the centre of this wonderful town. From the West pier to the East Pier, the swing bridge and the cobles, everything about Whitby has a nautical feel.
Whitby Harbour has two lighthouses. Both are set upon the end of their own piers. The West pier was built in 1831 out of local sandstone and stands at 73 feet high. The East followed later in 1855 and stands at a slightly smaller 55 feet high. Both have amazing walks that approach them and in the summer months, you can climb the West lighthouse to the top.
With 81 steps that go clockwise around a central column, the ascent to the top of the West lighthouse is probably not for the faint-hearted. However, once there you will have a fabulous view across the harbour in the company of seagulls gracefully swooping by. Look down and you should be able to make out the image of a whale skeleton that has been moulded into the ground.
Captain Cook and Whitby Harbour
The Whalebone Arch on the West Cliff does not stand alone. Rather, next to it is a statue of arguably one of the greatest seafarers of all time; Captain James Cook. Though not born there, his links to Whitby are absolutely infamous and the town and harbour celebrated them splendidly.
When Captain Cook moved to Whitby from Staithes where he had been an apprentice to a draper, he was already in love with the sea. However, this love only grew as he gazed out every day from his lodgings on Grape Lane directly at the harbour. He soon joined the Royal Navy where he advanced quickly and was promoted to command.
Before Captain Cook made his first voyage in command, however, he learned his trade sailing on vessels from Whitby Harbour to the Baltics. Two of the ships he also sailed on and commanded were also closely linked to Whitby harbour as they were built there.
The Endeavour, the most infamous of Captain Cook’s ships, can be seen again in Whitby Harbour as it is moored there permanently! OK, it is not the original, of course, but it is a faithful replica that has been transformed into a fabulous Captain Cook experience. You can see everything from Captain Cook's quarters to the galley, the doctors office, and even where the crew would go to the toilet! It is an unmissable harbour experience that we highly recommend.
Whitby Harbour Today
If you visit Whitby Harbour today you will see there is a small, but vibrant, fleet of fishing vessels and a host of splendid yachts. You may even see the swing bridge open which takes place in the 2 hours on either side of high tide. It is a great sight to see the 75-foot road move slowly complete with its streetlights.
There are arcades, shops, restaurants, fish and chip shops and a lifeboat museum lining the harbour. There are also boats galore in Whitby Harbour including their lifeboat, rowing boats, tall sailing ships, The Endeavour (a replica), yellow boats (for tours), and many more.
The water, however, is not the only place you can experience everything Whitby Harbour has to offer. For example, along with the approach to the West pier extension, there is a gloriously fine ornamental gate dedicated to the town's generations of seafarers, plus capstans and mooring posts from days gone by.
You should also take a walk up to the West Cliff of Whitby where you will find the huge jawbones of a whale. These are a monument to those whales caught by Whitby fishermen, and a symbol of successful whaling trips. The jawbones, you see, would have been attached to the returning whaling ship masts to let the people of Whitby know they were not returning empty-handed.
Take a boat trip from Whitby Harbour
Take a trip on one of Whitby’s famous yellow boats. These are owned and operated by Whitby Coastal Cruises who offer you a variety of experiences. There are three-hour coastal cruises that take in the sights of Ravenscar’s seal colony, and Robin Hood's Bay before swinging out to sea and returning. Or why not try a stunning twilight or sunset outing? After all, Whitby is one of only two towns where you can see the sun both rise and set in the sea!
Or try Yorkshire Coast Boat Trips and experience the North Yorkshire Coast from a totally unique perspective. You will set sail in comfort between the seaside towns of Whitby and Scarborough. This journey is a great way to make memories together. A one-way journey takes over 1 hour. Why not use Yorkshire Coast Boat Trips to travel between Yorkshire's historic ports?
For more boat trips and further information, check out our Whitby boat trip article here.
Crabbing in Whitby Harbour
No trip to Whitby harbour would be complete without a bit of doggering as it is known by locals, or crabbing to you and me! It involves little more than a simple handheld single line, bait, and a bucket. Oh, and plenty of patience waiting for those fairly timid crabs to bite!
There is a designated spot in the harbour for fishing, and doggering, where you will see 99% of the people trying to catch crabs. You should always fish for your crabs here and treat the ones you catch with respect. Ensure your buckets have shade for the darkness dwelling crustaceans, and gently lower them back into the water after no longer than an hour.
Where to eat and drink around Whitby Harbour
With so much to see and do around the harbour of Whitby, you will no doubt want to eat and drink close by. If so, we have some fabulous recommendations of places to do just those things that we think you will love.
With fantastic views across the harbour, the Abbey Wharf restaurant is a dining venue not to be missed by those who want to enjoy Whitby’s nautical glory to its fullest. They serve delicious freshly cooked meals seven days a week and provide traditional ales, world beers, wines, and a good selection of spirits for those who are thirsty.
The best harbour views are available on the Abbey Wharf's balcony where you can enjoy your meal al fresco. However, you will also be able to gaze out in wonder from the main restaurant and mezzanine level upstairs. For those who don’t want to eat in but would rather eat their fish and chips whilst wandering the docks, there is also a takeaway option located just inside the entrance.
The Duke Of York
A traditional pub at heart, The Duke Of York offers you everything you could possibly need for a great harbour stay. They have accommodation available and offer a place for you to eat, and all in nautical surroundings.
The pub itself has splendid harbour views and all over its interior are pictures and memorabilia related to the sea. From Whitby whaling to harpoons, and onto bronze propellers, you will see it all here! Much of this history can also be tied to Whitby families whose ancestors still drink in the pub.
Accommodation wise there are six en-suite letting rooms all with glorious views over the harbour. Tate Hill is immediately in front of this ancient inn which is where Dracula’s ship crashed to shore. Each room also has a TV, and tea and coffee facilities; breakfast is not however provided.