“Look sharp, all of ye! There are whales here-abouts!”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Diving from the ceiling—mouth open, teeth menacing—is the skeleton of a 46-foot male sperm whale, perhaps the most dramatic installation of a whale skeleton ever displayed. The beauty and wonder of being this close to the skeleton is breathtaking, in the words of many of our visitors.
The whale died on a Siasconset beach on Nantucket on January 1, 1998 after floundering for two days in the surf off the island’s eastern end. A heartbroken community watched as it beached for the last time on Low Beach.
It is especially appropriate for visitors to Nantucket’s Whaling Museum to see a sperm whale. As Niles Parker, former NHA Robyn and John Davis Curator has said, “this is the whale that put Nantucket on the map. During the height of Nantucket’s whaling era, men left the island in droves to hunt the sperm whale. It is because of this whale that the island enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most prosperous ports in America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”
Anchored beneath the dramatic whale skeleton the diminutive 28-foot whaleboat evinces the dangers of hunting the largest creatures on earth. Ours is a whaling-era boat, built in the late 19th-century in New Bedford. Whaleboats were built to be light, fast and maneuverable. The boat is equipped for efficient sailing, with a tabernacle to raise a mast and a centerboard. The boat also contains the equipment typically carried in American whaleboats, with tubs of coiled line, harpoons, lances, piggin (bailing bucket), drogue, and a hatchet to cut the line if the whale sounds deeper than the line can go.
On the portrait wall is a large range of portraits of the men and women who went to sea. Oil portraiture carried the day in the period before the invention of the photographic process in the mid-nineteenth century. This period corresponded with the heyday of whaling on Nantucket, as well as with a loosening of Quaker strictures against the vanity of images and portraits. Wealthy whaling captains and merchants were eager to have their portraits painted, often by itinerant portrait artists who visited the island and advertised studio time. Many of these artists, such as William Swain and James Hathaway, spent so much time on the island that they managed to capture a large number of the most notable whaling captains of the era, and occasionally their wives and children.
Beneath the portraits, the At Sea exhibit contains many of the day-to-day items that the whaling crews used. Alongside actual logbooks from the era, an interactive touch screen invites you to follow the voyages of seven different Nantucket whaleships in the era of the ill-fated Essex, through actual logbook pages in close-up detail, with entries from the mundane to the unnerving.