Travel Notes: The Nantucket Whaling Museum – a MUST!

I had the pleasure of a weekend in Boston recently between two working weeks and decided to go see something original and of which I had heard so much: The Whaling Museum on the island of Nantucket. Now, you may be asking yourself, how the hell did Fino even know that existed? What?!? Well, I loved Moby Dick as a kid and re-read it about 5 or 6 years ago. In the Introduction, the editor mentioned this museum and gave it rave reviews. Well, as I am a detail-oriented (or obsessed?) person, I never quite forgot that and just bade my time until now. Nantucket is a 1- or 2-h ferry ride from Hyannis, MA (normally a 90min drive from Boston but it took me about 2h 1/2 because of holiday traffic). Having already visited its sister island Martha’s Vineyard three or four times, I was curious to compare the two. Nantucket is a little more uniform and homogenous from an architectural perspective than Martha’s Vineyard probably owning to its Quaker origins. It is also basically just a one town island as the other inhabited bits (Cisco Beach, Scisconset (pronounced “sconset”), etc are probably less than 100 or 200 souls in all as opposed to MV where the towns of Vineyard Haven and Edgartown are both about the same size. Both islands are paradises for bikes. Now, I haven’t been to MV in about 10 years or more, but I don’t recall there being very many cars. Perhaps the one disappointing bit of Nantucket was the abundance of cars too often driven by drunk weekenders. The weekend crowd in Nantucket was clearly white, well-off, and relatively young looking for a romantic getaway weekend or just an excuse to get drunk and laid. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but my memories of MV seemed to be just a tad more diverse and much more relaxing weekend getaway then fratboy weekends but then times change right?

As for stuff to do, the beaches on Nantucket are fabulous, in particular I appreciated Surfside (only 10 min by bike from the city center) and Cisco Beach (wilder but nice surf and about 45 min by bike). The water at the east coast beach I visited, Sconset, was not as clean but the sand was beautifully white. I don’t recall that MV had beaches as beautiful as Nantucket. There is something intimately relaxing and enjoyable about just grabbing a bike and heading to the beach. I loved it.

Stuff made out of whale bone and such (sorry for the highly reflective glass 😦 )

So, I wasn’t on Nantucket for a frat weekend or even the beaches but rather for the whaling museum. Having read an abridged Moby Dick in high school and the full version at least two or three times, I have always had this fascinating with whaling at least from a metaphysical point of view. I think that whale hunting is a cruel practice and do not condone it. That being said, I have eaten whale liver sushi in Japan (invited as a guest – only gaijin at the table, hard to refuse – especially since they told me it was whale after I ate it). Anyway, the Whaling Museum was absolutely fascinating. There are about four special “animations” that were all worth enjoying: a movie about Nantucket that lasts almost an hour and features some breathtaking photography (old sale as you’d expect in the museum shop), a tour of the museum (there was only a couple of lawyers from Boston and myself. Actually, the tour guide was so deprecating that it got on my nerves sometimes and she kept getting herself lost in details but still, I would not have appreciated things like the light baskets had she not told me about them), a spoken history of whaling by an older lady who knew the stuff backwards and forwards, and – best of all – the story of the Essex Gam by a guy that looked old enough to have been there originally (he wasn’t). What is the Essex Gam you ask? It is a gruesome tale that actually inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. But before I get there, let me try to summarize what I learned about Nantucket and whaling in a paragraph for you.

Lower jaw of a small sperm whale

My understanding was that the native Indians harvested beached whales before white settlers arrived in Nantucket in the late 17th, early 18th century. At one point, a white guy saw a whale heading into a sound and set out to kill it rather than hoping for it to beach. Right whales were migrating along the southern coast of Nantucket making it rather easy to hunt them right from canoes launched from the beach. Apparently, whales aren’t completely dumb and after a few years, no longer passed so close to the coast causing the Nantucketers to venture further to find them. Eventually, they had to go out rather far and once they discovered and killed a sperm whale, the fortune of Nantucket for the next century was made. Sperm whales had the most precious and highest quality oil ever discovered primarily in their head cavities. Basically, they would dive deep in the ocean after their favorite prey, the giant squid, and the oil helped compensate for the bone crushing pressure down 4500 feet and more. So, whaling was born. What I learned that was particularly fascinating was that whale oil was the key lubricant for the industrial revolution – without the high quality spermaceti oil, the early machines would not have been nearly as efficient and technology would not have developed as fast. Due to this, Nantucket because a global center of commerce nearly overnight and was fabulously wealthy. Whaling missions changed in that they were tasked with bringing back a stated number of barrels of oil (800-1600 depending on the ship’s size) and so the voyage could last from one year to four or five years. The work was incredibly filthy, dangerous, and back-breaking. Things may have gone on indefinitely for Nantucket had three things not happened:  the 1846 fire which destroyed more than half of downtown Nantucket, a deep harbor whaling center was developed in New Bedford (Nantucket is surrounded by shallows and 100s of wrecks), and the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in the 1880s.

Full sperm skeleton plus whaleboat in the main room of the museum

So what was that about the Essex Gam and Moby Dick? Well, when whaling ships from Nantucket would cross each other in the open seas, they would hang out for a few days exchanging news and supplies in a meeting called a “Gam”. As one such gam was breaking up, whale was sighted and the Essex set chase. Only thing is that one particular whale was in a particularly bad mood and rammed the Essex twice, destroying the hull and forcing the surviving crew into two whaling skiffs. The harrowing adventure of the two boats through three months of open ocean (I learned that the most terrifyingly deserted piece of real estate on the planet is the Pacific Ocean between Polynesia and Hawai’i and the South American coast where there is nearly a thousand miles of nothing. Many of the crew starved to death. The survivors lived off the remains of the dead and eventually even picked lots…anyway, it was gruesome and brutal. There were only 4 survivors from the entire crew of about 70. Melville heard about the tragedy while on another whaling cruise and met both one of the survivor’s sons and Captain Pollard himself (in retirement on Nantucket after the publication of Moby Dick). I purchased In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex will review it once I have finished it. The telling of this story was a big highlight of my visit to the museum.

The museum itself boasts loads of treasures: a baby sperm skeleton (washed ashore on Nantucket in 2006 if memory serves), a whaleboat, a collection of harpoons and lances, loads of scrimshaw and other artifacts…I spent 4 1/2 hours there and was blown away by the quality and detail of the collection. I am not that much of a history museum buff actually, I prefer art museums. But, I’d have to say that this would be close to the best history museum I have ever visited. Well worth the trip to Nantucket in any case!

About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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2 Responses to Travel Notes: The Nantucket Whaling Museum – a MUST!

  1. Jon says:

    Good blog … I learned something new today

  2. Pingback: Chasing the Cachelot: The New Bedford Whaling Museum | Fino's Weblog

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