Where is Whale Rock?

Whale Rock is located approximately 45 yards off Nantucket’s North Shore, west of Steps Beach and east of Sachem Springs at the end of Hinckley Lane. It may be exposed at low tide but is generally just underwater. Despite being so close in, it has been a notorious hazard.

In May 1847 both the Inquirer and the Weekly Mirror reported that the whaleship Flora had been ashore on Whale Rock and experienced damage. In 1873 another vessel, this one a three-masted bark also named Flora, went aground on the sandbar “near Whale Rock, off the Cliff.”

George L. Carlisle, in an excerpt from his memoirs printed in the Inquirer and Mirror, related how in the late 1870s, he and friends were sailing by night from the mainland when they ran aground on the inner bar “with the Cliff dead ahead.” “We had struck in front of where the big Charles O’Conor house now is and within thirty feet of Whale Rock, about the only rock of size along the coast.”  (Seacrest, a mansion located on the Cliff just above Steps Beach, was built in 1881 by Judge Charles O’Conor, later occupied by Ambassador Breckinridge Long, and demolished in 1962.)

Diarist Charles Dyer observed in 1869 that, “The Cliff is evidently wearing away, and the great Rock is certainly farther from the shore than previously.”  In 1882 the Nantucket Journal reported that a human skull had been found protruding from the eroding Cliff. It was speculated that it might have been that of Thomas Macy, one of the first English settlers on Nantucket. According to Historian Obed Macy, his ancestor Thomas Macy had been buried on his homestead land on the Cliff “somewhere in the vicinity of Whale Rock.” More skeletal remains were dug out of the bluff and, together with the skull, reburied “further inland.”

Writing earlier, in 1849, Charles Dyer related how “a long time ago” Nantucket girls would “go in bathing” off the North Shore in the vicinity of “the whale rock around which Grandmother Coleman used to swim until one of the company was drowned, which put an end to the girls going swimming.”

The fatality did not prevent Nantucket boys from going into the water off the North Shore.  A writer who signed himself “Yorick” in a letter to the editor of the Inquirer and Mirror on April 29, 1911, reminisced of how during his boyhood days, “after the ballgame we usually went to Whale Rock for a swim. Not a bath, mind you, but a swim in the altogether, sans clothes, sans even tights, and with only the dry beach sand for a towel.”

In June 1972 Alvin “Toppy” Topham appeared before the Board of Selectmen and reminded them that there is “a large rock known as Whale Rock which is underwater part of the time and creates a hazard for boats traveling off the beach.”  He requested a warning buoy. The selectmen agreed and referred the matter to the Harbor Master. These days a buoy is put out on Whale Rock in June and taken up in the late fall.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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