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Nantucket Whale Museum Preserves The History Of The Whaling Hub Of New England.

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New England Tales Of The Sea: Nantucket Whale Museum

Witness Interactive Show Of How Nantucket Rose To The Top As Whaling Capital Of The World Along With The Chilling Story Of The Essex Disaster

46-foot Sperm Whale Skeleton In The Nantucket Whaling Museum [Photo Credit: Kelly Gleason]

On the small island of Nantucket, 30 miles from Cape Cod, adventurous men made their living sailing dangerous journeys in pursuit of whales.  “Nantucket is a sand bar, 30 miles off Cape Cod, it has few natural advantages, there is no mining and farming is poor.  They are not connected to other parts of the mainland, but they are right along major shipping corridors of the Atlantic Ocean.  Seafaring was a logical early activity and the English settlers that came here in the late 1600s learned shore whaling and drift whaling from the native Americans”, explained Michael Harrison Chief Curator of the Nantucket Historical Association. 

The Nantucket Historical Association, or NHA, has been preserving Nantucket’s history since 1894.  Whaling in the past was a significant economic engine on the island and they began collecting things related to whaling, captains’ portraits, models of ships, and various tools and lances.  “In the 1920’s the NHA had the opportunity to purchase a candle factory building from 1847.  They purchased the building and in 1930 they established it as the Whaling Museum”, stated Michael.  “Over time the museum grew and in 2005 to 2006 they did a complete renovation of the museum and built a new addition.”

“The candle factory building itself is a rare surviving 18th century factory for making products from whale oil, it has a lever press, which is a large press for processing whale oil. It is the last surviving lever press of its kind in America if not the world”, said Michael.  “We have a really impressive collection of Nantucketers who went whaling, as well as a collection of whaling ships, implements and the lower jawbone from an enormous fully-grown sperm whale probably over 80 feet long.  The captain had the jaw bone brought on board after the whale was processed as proof of how large the whale had been.  We also have a whale boat and a full skeleton of a sperm whale on display.”  

Painting Of Essex Ship Wreck Depicted From 1820 [Courtesy/Nantucket Whale Museum]
Vintage Portrait Of Whaling Ship [Courtesy/Nantucket Whale Museum]

While the museum has a wide variety of artifacts on display, they also have an extensive interpretive program, including a multimedia show providing an overview of whale hunting and an Essex Gam twice daily.  “A Gam is a whaleman’s term for a social gathering”, explained Michael.  The story of the Essex is a harrowing tale of a Nantucket whaling ship that went on a whaling expedition and was attacked and sank by a sperm whale.  The tale of the Essex served as inspiration for Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick and the NHA holds all the remaining artifacts from the Essex disaster. 

Michael provided a brief summary of the disaster, “The Essex was a Nantucket whaling ship that sailed from here in 1819.  They had been out for a bit over a year and were in the Pacific, having sort of average luck catching whales, but the crew and captain heard that some whalers had really good success hunting whales out along the equator in a much more remote part of the Pacific.  So, in late 1820 they sailed out along the equator 2,000 miles west of the Galapagos Islands and were hunting whales there when a large male sperm whale attacked the ship twice knocking a hole in the bow.  The ship rolled over and they couldn’t salvage it.  

All of the men survived in three whale boats and they gathered up as much food and water as they could and rigged the boats up for sailing.  They then had a choice, they could sail down to the Marquesas Islands about 1,200 miles away and be there in 20 or 30 days, or they could head back to South America against the prevailing winds and a much longer journey.  They were afraid that they would encounter cannibals at the Marquesas and they knew that in South America, they would meet other whalers and friendly ships, so they chose South America, in the end that became their undoing.  They all became so weak from lack of food or water and did not pass any other vessels along the way, so they ended up resorting to cannibalism.  So, the irony is that in fearing cannibalism, they made a choice that ended up resulting in cannibalism.”

Timeline Portraying Relevant Order Of Events In Nantucket History [Courtesy/Nantucket Whale Museum]
Candle Factory Inside The Museum [Courtesy/Nantucket Whale Museum]
Comical Portrait Of Nantucketers Whaling [Courtesy/Rafael Medina-CC]

The Essex disaster was the first recorded time that a whale had attacked a whaling ship.  “It was very common for whales to turn on the small row boats and smash them, but it was unknown in the experience of American whalers that a full-grown whale would try to ram the mother ship”, explained Michael. 

Whaling was not for the weak of heart, it was back breaking labor and ships were often at sea for years at a time.  “The typical crew would be 20-25 men generally quite young, much of the crew would be in their teens to twenties.  The captain and mates of Nantucket vessels tended to be Nantucketers, but whaling was very dirty work and very arduous and many men who went to sea on one whaling voyage chose not to go on a second”, stated Michael.  “Capturing whales requires six men in a row boat launched from the mother ship rowing out to the whale and harpooning it.  The point of harpooning was not to kill the whale, but to capture it.  Once the whale was tired out, the men would row up to it and kill it with a 10 to 12 foot lance.” 

While the museum is focused on whaling history, the collection goes far beyond whaling.  There is a collection of clothing and textiles as well as journals of travelers from Nantucket.  The museum offers walking tours of the historic town featuring historic properties including a house that belonged to a whale oil merchant.  “While it is possible to bring your RV to Nantucket, it would be wiser to leave it on the Cape and take a boat over”, cautions Michael.  “The ferry trip for larger vehicles is quite expensive. It is easier to park at Hyannis, take a boat across and rent a car on the island.”  


Jared Langenegger

A graduate of New Mexico State University with BS in wildlife and fisheries biology Jared spent 15 years working in fisheries and parks management. He enjoys camping, fishing, hunting, painting, and wood working. 

Shady Knoll Campground

Make Sure To Stay At:

Shady Knoll Family Campground, combining the conveniences of a modern campground with all the age-old traditions that make camping fun. Its mid-Cape location is central to all of the Cape’s favorite attractions. 


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