As Cecil the Lion’s death reminded us, trophy sport hunting for animals is a barbaric act that should be left in the past.
But there was a time when men rode the open waters hunting the largest and most beautiful creatures on earth, and it was admired. Historically, the job as a whaler was revered mostly because of the courage it required and the essential resources it provided.
”… Oil was needed for light and lubrication; baleen was needed for skirt hoops and corset stays. That whales had to die to provide these things is a fact of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century life …” Richard Ellis wrote in Men and Whales.
Whaling is now unnecessary and forbidden is most parts of the world, however Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to hunt the creatures for trade or research purposes.
In places like New England, one can learn about whaling history while getting almost as close to whales as those early whalers did without disturbing the creatures. As we reach the peak of New England’s whale-watching season (which runs from June through October), get swallowed up in the region’s rich and complex whaling history and see the peaceful creatures in their natural habitat.
Nantucket Island, Massachusetts
Early whalers set sail in search of the enormous beasts from Nantucket, and now their descendants occupy the island. The Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum is home to a 46-foot sperm whale skeleton that was washed ashore in 1998, as well as a fully equipped whaleboat and a scrimshaw gallery.
The Whaling Museum just launched a walking tour to accompany the biography and upcoming Ron Howard adaptation In the Heart of the Sea and includes stops at the boarding house where Essex first mate and survivor Owen Chase once hoarded food because he developed PTSD from being starved and resorting to cannibalism on the ship in the 1820s. Moby Dick fans can walk in Herman Melville’s footsteps at Nantucket Island Resorts’ historic Jared Coffin House. One of the oldest hotels on Nantucket, the Jared Coffin House hosted Melville during his time in Nantucket. The tour also takes you to places memorializing captain of the Essex George Pollard Jr., the same guy who ate his cousin while marooned in the South Pacific. Rescuers found the captain emaciated and sucking on the finger bones of his dead shipmates.
If you want more gory details, learn about the history of ships and shipwreck victims at Egan Maritime Institute’s Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum.
Whale tales are abundant in and around Nantucket, as are whale tails. Like the diverse legends told on the island, no two whale tails are alike. Naturalists have been cataloguing individual whales over the years, based on their distinctive tails. Learn about these creatures by whale watching with Sheer Water Excursions on a 47-foot catamaran led by captain Blair Perkins, who grew up on Nantucket. The trip takes six hours and naturalists from the Whale and Dolphin Society are on hand to answer any questions. Tours cost around $165 per person.
For history buffs, Sheer Water Excursions also offers a new daily whaling history tour on their 26-foot restored Crosby Launch boat every day from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Guides explain what the harbor might have looked like during the 1800s. The hour tour costs $45 per person.
New Bedford, Massachusetts
Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, begins in this Southeastern Massachusetts town, which was a whaling hub in the early 19th century. The New Bedford Whaling Museum lets you experience what recruitment was like for new whalers. One exhibit takes you to meet historic whaling agent Jonathan Bourne (1811 to 1889) in his Counting House office as he signs you up to board his best vessel, the Lagoda (it’s just his recreated voice, not a ghost). The museum is filled with artifacts historically used to process blubber (it took around three days to carve up a whale) like cutting spades, blubber hooks, mincing knives, bailers, strainers and casks.
The museum also houses four whale skeletons including a rare Blue whale and North Atlantic Right whale, and the world’s largest whaling ship model. Open April through December daily from 9-5 p.m., the museum’s admission is $14 for adults.
Bar Harbor, Maine
Melville described humpbacks as, “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales,” and the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. can prove it.
At sunset, when schools of herring and plankton move to the surface, take a tour to see feeding whales and watch the sunset over the bay. Note, the sunset tours are only available until September.
Stop by the equally significant Thirsty Whale for a pint and live music after a long day at sea.
The Mystic Seaport is home to one of the best maritime museums in the U.S. Climb aboard four historic ships and shop in a 19th-century village or watch ships being restored using old tools and methods. The museum has the world’s last wooden whaleship, the Charles W. Morgan, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. The newest exhibit within the ship, “Voyaging in the Wake of the Whalers,” has old journals and ship logs from the whaling, fishing, and shipping industries on display.
Jenie Skoy is a travel & food writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah, who would rather be based on a sailboat bound for places with glorious food and exotic men who love to tango.