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