Thar She Blows! Whales in Massachusetts

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.

Nantucket MA USA
Nantucket has a certain style about it
Nantucket USA
Set off on a whalers journey

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.

Mother & Baby Sperm Whale
Mother & Baby Sperm Whale (photo: Gabriel Barathieu)
Going on the Whale Nantucket
A whalers life
Sperm Whale weather vane Nantucket
Sperm Whale weather vane

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.

Spermacetti Oil Sperm Whale
Spermaceti Oil

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.

The impressive jaw of the Sperm Whale
The impressive jaw of the Sperm Whale
Sperm Whale & Whaling boat Nantucket
The scale of the Sperm Whale is huge
Sperm Whale drawing and skeleton
Sperm Whale – this diagram gives you an idea of the size of the head cavity containing Spermacetti
Sperm Whale Whaling Boat
Imagine being in rough seas in a relatively small boat hunting such a massive creature
Sperm Whale Nantucket MA
Hunter and the hunted
Sperm Whale Teeth
A fearsome array of teeth
Old Scrimshaw art from whale teeth
Old Scrimshaw art from whale teeth on display in the museum

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.

Nantucket Houses
Nantucket Houses
Old buildings abound
Nantucket at night
Goodnight Nantucket

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.

Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale nostrils are fascinating
Humpback Whale Boston
Humpback Whale fluking
Humpback Whale
Humpback Whales actually sleep on the surface
Humpback Whales actually sleep on the surface
Humpback Whales Boston MA
Humpback Whales take a deep breath before submerging for a number of minutes
Humpback Whale "fluking" of the coast of Boston 2013
Humpback Whales start fluking just before taking a deep dive

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.


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