Nantucket the island off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts was from the 1700’s to the mid 1800’s the whaling capital of the USA (and the subject of one or two dirty limericks!). It met a sharp decline after this as the whaling industry itself was in the decline (natural resources were being discovered elsewhere) and a great fire in 1846 fuelled by timber buildings and whale oil devastated the town and many people never came back. Nantucket has rebounded since those days but never quite like the numbers that once lived there.
Whaling was the mainstay. Men would set out in sailing ships and whaling boats to hunt the seas for whales such as the Sperm Whale (the largest of the toothed whales). Not that I agree with whaling, but they must have been hardy souls to head out there in pursuit of these huge whales in an at all costs hunt to try to make their fortune. Today the lifeblood of the town and island is thankfully tourism not whaling.
In the case of the poor old Sperm Whale they were particularly after a wax known as spermaceti. It is found in the cavity of the whale’s head, which when melted down formed a valuable oil that could be used in candles and as a lubricant; and also had uses in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
On the island is the excellent Whaling Museum which gives you the full story of whaling in the region including a multimedia presentation on the whale hunt itself with the dramatic background of a whaling boat, the grisly tools of the trade from harpoons to bone scrapers and a 46 foot male Sperm Whale skeleton with its menacing teeth it looks like a fearsome beast, which I am sure it was not (this one died of natural causes not whaling! It washed ashore in 1998)! If you go there, do not miss that presentation.
Nantucket is a nice place to visit with lots of historic buildings, good eating and shopping but to me it kind of has the feel of a Nautica commercial and isn’t exactly a cheap place to visit. Although the trip by ferry out to Nantucket was certainly a worthwhile experience, I much prefer to see whales alive and swimming in the ocean.
Today whale watching is a popular tourist attraction in Massachusetts from Cape Code to Boston. For me a whale watching cruise in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Boston provided a sighting of at least 10 Humpback Whales.
I for one am glad whaling no longer occurs in these waters as it is something special to watch these gentle giants in their natural habitat. You can’t help buy smile when you see one.