100 Mile Museum: Nantucket Whaling Museum
By: Joanne Briana-Gartner, April 6, 2012
JOANNE BRIANA-GARTNER - A 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale greets visitors to the Nantucket Whaling Museum, a reminder of the extreme lengths 19th century whalers went to get oil.
There are worse things than having your five-year-old son be obsessed with Moby Dick.
Sure, when he dresses as Captain Ahab for Halloween you might have to explain to a few folks who he's supposed to be.
And when he's in the back yard pretending to harpoon whales, it might seem a little less than politically correct.
But mostly it just means you'll be reading lots of abridged versions of this classic American adventure story. A far cry easier than reading the original 135 chapters (plus the epilogue).
It also means taking some great field trips. After all, New England was once a whaling capital, and it has the memorabilia to prove it.
An authentic experience
New Bedford is easy to get to, only a 45-minute drive from the Upper Cape. They have the Lagoda, a half-size model of whaling ship that visitors can board; the Whaling City also hosts the annual Moby Dick Marathon each January (this year we watched via the museum's live stream).
But what about a visit to the Nantucket Whaling Museum? It's equally impressive and a trip to Nantucket this time of year allows you to stay in some sweet downtown accommodation for a fraction of what the summer tourists pay.
Housed in a refurbished 1846 candle factory, the museum in open on weekends until April 30 and daily after that.
Visitors to the museum are greeted by the 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale, the most coveted of all the whales sought by whale ships. You can’t help but notice how the whale's flippers are comprised of skeletal digits that look suspiciously like human fingers? A little creepy, to be sure.
Beneath the suspended skeleton is a whaleboat. Imagine being part of the six-member whaleboat crew, charged with the possibility of being dragged miles away from your ship by a whale twice the size of your boat.
The museum offers changing exhibits as well as permanent displays of Nantucket history, a scrimshaw gallery, a replica candle factory, and a discovery room for families.
The view of the harbor from the rooftop observation deck gives a good feel for what a Nantucket whaling wife might have seen when she scanned the horizon looking for her husband's ship.
Call me Captain Danger
If you meet a docent in the basement of the candle factory, he or she will offer to tell ye the story of the whaling ship Essex. Do yourself a favor and listen.
The Essex, a Nantucket ship, met its end after a collision with a whale in 1820, a story that provided the inspiration for Moby Dick. Unfortunate survivors of the wreck resorted to cannibalism after exhausting their supplies of seawater-soaked food.
The home of George Pollard, captain of the Essex during the ill-fated voyage, is within walking distance of the whaling museum and identified by a plaque on the side of the house.
Pollard captained a second ship that also sank, following which he retired from the sea to become Nantucket's night watchman.