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Traveling MA: A Wonderful Stay in New Bedford

We really enjoyed our stay in the fishing port of New Bedford. Our hotel, the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott, was located across from the harbor at 185 Macarthur Drive. I loved looking out our window at the boats on the waterfront and couldn’t wait to get down there and walk around.

This view of the harbor was taken from a balcony at the whaling museum.

Merrill’s Wharf

My husband and I walked down Merrill’s Wharf and had a friendly argument about the fishing boats harbored there. They were so rusty and beat up, I was convinced it was a boat junkyard.

Don’t judge a boat by its rust!

Luckily I was corrected by a friendly veteran who used to work onboard a navy ship that refurbished boats on location. When I asked him if the boats along Merrill’s Wharf were junked he answered, “Don’t you believe it!” He told me that their engines are sound, and the rust is only on the surface, not below deck. Furthermore, if they needed repairs they would be dry-docked.

“Boy, was I wrong,” I said, chagrined. He told me that I wasn’t wrong, just misinformed. “I’m married,” he said, “and I know the wife is never wrong!”

Even I could tell these boats were in working order.
I love these colorful floats.

We told him we planned to visit the whale museum in New Bedford. He highly praised it, saying they have this great 25 foot long whaeel. “Whaeel,” I thought to myself, “whaeel, whaeel, oh – whale!” (Yes, I’m a bit slow) He wished us a nice day, and we thanked him for talking to us and setting me straight.  Then we set off for the whaling museum.

The View Toward Town From Merrill’s Wharf

New Bedford’s Whaling History

In the mid-1800s, New Bedford and Nantucket were the whaling capitals of the world. Ironically, most whales weren’t caught off the east coast. The most oil-rich whales, such as sperm whales, lived in the Pacific Ocean. Whalers had to travel south through the Caribbean, along the coast of Brazil, around Cape Horn, and north to the Pacific–sometimes going as far north as the Bering Sea–in search of whales.

General Direction of the 19th Century Whalers’ Route

Often, whalers were gone for two years at a time. Why did they do it? Whaling was, after-all, one of the most dangerous jobs in existence–for men and whales alike. But in the days before kerosene and electricity, whale oil was in great demand. Though there were other fuels for lighting lamps, whale oil (spermaceti) burned the cleanest and brightest. During the Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1840), manufacturers needed whale oil to lubricate their machines and light their factories. Whale oil was also used in street lights, and in home oil lamps (for those who could afford it). The alternatives to whale oil (such as lard oil and coal oil) were cheaper, but also dirty, smelly, and less bright.

State Street Trust Company, and Walton Advertising And Printing Company. Whale fishery of New England; an account, with illustrations and some interesting and amusing anecdotes, of the rise and fall of an industry which has made New England famous throughout the world. [Boston, Mass., Printed for the State Street Trust Company, 1915]  Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

The New Bedford Whaling Museum

I’ve long been fascinated by whaling history and looked forward to visiting the New Bedford Whaling Museum at 18 Johnny Cake Hill.  We spent half a day there. If you live nearby, I can see that it would be worth having a membership, because the museum covers much more than whales and whaling history.  It also has programs and exhibits about New Bedford’s history, culture, and community. They even have cultural exhibits about other countries and their past or current relationships with New Bedford.

Part Of The 25 Foot “Whaeel”
Visitors can walk around the Lagoda, a half-scale model of a whaling ship.
Sperm Whale Skeleton
Angry whales often made quick work of these whale boats, and the men inside.

Enjoy Their Scrimshaw Exhibit

One of my favorite exhibits in the museum was its scrimshaw collection. Scrimshaw is the art of engraving or carving whale ivory. The museum has the largest collection of scrimshaw in the world. Their display is extensive and tasteful, and what I especially appreciated, non-judgemental. Remember, whales used to be thought of as nothing more than giant fish. People did not realize their intelligence or remarkable social structure. They were thought of as a natural resource to be harvested, and while we frown upon that now (and still have to fight against other countries’ whaling industries), back then they didn’t know any better. Nor did they have the luxury of electricity. So if you visit the museum, go ahead and enjoy their scrimshaw exhibit.

Whalers made scrimshaw aboard ship–to pass the time and make gifts for their loved ones at home.

Useful tools, such as walking sticks, utensils, and pie-cutters, were often carved of scrimshaw.

Historic District

The whaling museum is located in the historic district of New Bedford. They kept the cobblestone streets– lined with good restaurants and charming shops.

Though New Bedford is mostly industrial, it’s wharf and historical district are definitely worth visiting.  We met friendly people there, including a local who bought my husband a beer at The Black Whale (terrific restaurant on the wharf). You can also take a ferry from New Bedford to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard (upcoming blog!). I hope I’ve inspired you to visit.

4 Comments

  1. Steve Dahl Steve Dahl

    Karen, thanks for another fascinating entry in your New England journal of travels. Anything to do with the whaling industry is the furthest thing from my knowledgebase. I was reared in (landlocked) Kentucky. Very interesting information. And thanks so much for keeping your entries short/sweet/concise and loaded with awesome photos. I spent almost a year in Western MA on a work project and never had the time to visit the coastal regions. Your traveling has piqued my interest in the area! Thanks again!

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Thank you Steve! You made my day complimenting my “short/sweet/concise” blog entries! 😁 I figure if I get impatient, other people will too, so I keep ‘em moving.
      Thanks again!

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    Wow! Massachusetts people really say “whaeel” instead of “ale” with a W in front? It must be a real challenge to learn English as a second language in New Bedford.
    This blog post reminded me of one special “whale of a summer.” My early summer read was “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick. An excellent and engrossing account of whalers and whaling. Then I was gifted a Whale Watching experience aboard the Captain John. After reading Philbrick’s book, I was struck by how these magnificent creatures, Humpbacks in particular, could be so trusting and forgiving to grace us with their presence. We got to watch them cooperatively create ‘bubble nets’ to catch their lunch. My whale of a summer next included a surprise invitation to go to Nantucket for the day. While biking around the island I saw the homes of the sea captains mentioned in Philbrick’s book.
    Thank you for all of your beautiful pictures of scrimshaw! The genteel and delicate artistry sharply contrasts the barbaric duties required of these seafaring men described in my reading. Scrimshaw was possibly their escape to “walk in beauty” while surrounded by gore.
    You have inspired me to visit New Bedford instead of driving on through.

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Sounds like you had some great “whaling” experiences – I’m envious! I’ll have to check out Nantucket some time. I read In the Heart of the Sea too. It’s an amazing true story.
      Thanks for commenting!

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