The natural wealth of the area, its sheltered harbours and its remoteness attracted the secretive early sealing and whaling operations. The first American whaling vessels probably anchored at New Island around 1774. The majority commenced their voyages from New Bedford, New York, Nantucket and other whaling ports of New England.
The island became a self-styled home of these Americans, hence its name “New”. Coffin’s Harbour and nearby Coffin Island are both named after the Coffin family, whose members captained many of the whale ships from Nantucket. The Coffins were some of the earliest pioneers of these waters and may even have named New Island.
The islands of Quaker, Penn, Fox and Barclay, lying close to New Island, are all named after Quaker families which operated whale oil businesses and sent whaling ships to the southern oceans. Neighbouring Beaver Island was named after the whaling vessel “Beaver”, which was recorded as being the first whale ship to double Cape Horn.
New Island, like many others, suffered from the depredations of these early exploiters. The colonies of penguins and albatross on the island offered a source of food in the form of eggs. Wildfowl, especially geese, were in abundance and records left by these whalers confirm that large numbers were taken for food. Captain James Weddell anchored at New Island in 1823 and recorded the excellence of its harbours and its value for supplies of wildfowl and fresh water. The damage continued with the introduction of pigs and American cottontail rabbits. The island’s fur seal colonies were exploited, although probably only in small numbers. The island also suffered deliberate burning by the whalers, who saw the thick growth of vegetation like tussock grass as a hindrance to their shore operations.