Learn About The Bloody Whaling Trade At The New Bedford Whaling Museum

new bedford whaling museumIf you’ve always wanted to read “Moby Dick” but have never made time for it, grab your sleeping bag and head to the New Bedford Whaling Museum the first weekend after the New Year, for their annual Moby Dick Marathon. Each year, the museum, located an hour south of Boston, marks the date in 1841 when Herman Melville set sail from New Bedford on a whaling vessel bound for the South Pacific by staging a marathon reading of the 225,000 word classic.

Anyone can sign up to take a 10-minute turn reading from the book and those who make it through the entire 25-hour performance wins a prize. Visitors camp out on the museum floor, and some bring hardtack and grog in order to dine like 19th Century whalers.

I’ve yet to make it to the Moby Dick marathon, or the whaleboat races the museum hosts in the summer, but I visited the museum last week and loved it. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, thousands of men earned their living hunting whales for their valuable oil, which illuminated lamps and lighthouses and served other purposes as well. Nantucket was America’s first real whaling capital, but New Bedford eclipsed it in the early 19th Century.

The whaling trade made New Bedford one of the wealthiest cities in the country by the mid 19th Century. By 1857, the town boasted some 329 whaling ships, barks, and schooners, valued at $12 million, which provided employment for some 10,000 men in the area.

whale skeletonsWhalers made a living traveling on the high seas for years at a time. Melville deserted his ship after 18 months in the Marquesas (and later hooked on with other boats before eventually returning to Boston more than three years after he set sail from New Bedford), but it wasn’t uncommon for sailors to be gone from their families for 3-4 years at a time or longer. The low ranking crew members lived in deplorable conditions and were paid based on a profit sharing system that sometimes left them with little to show for years of toil under near-starvation conditions.

For example, the Whaling Museum Visitor’s Center shows a graphic about the earnings of a typical whaling vessel that was at sea for 2 years, 9 months and 22 days from 1853-5. The boat made a total profit of $75, 402, and of that, the merchant who bankrolled the enterprise made $19,793, the captain made $1,885, the chief mate $1,131, and the seaman brought home just $133 bucks a piece. Adjusted for inflation, that $133 is still only $3,442 for nearly three years of work!

But there were some perks for engaging in this bloody, thankless work. Some men preferred being out on the open seas to the bleak factories that employed so many in the 19th Century, and the opportunity to couple with comely lasses in the South Pacific was also a clear bonus.

The museum sheds light on the life of the whalers and the creatures they hunted, with some amazing visuals, like a huge replica whaleboat and some whale skeletons that kept my kids occupied while I read the displays. A series of displays showing all of the high and low tech spears and guns that were used to hunt the whales show how bloody and brutal the occupation was.

The development of kerosene from coal and advances in petroleum drilling in the mid to late 19th Century caused the gradual decline of the industry, starting in the 1860’s. The last whaling ship left New Bedford in 1925, but the town is still a busy port with a tidy, historic downtown.

The experiences Melville had at sea launched his career, though his first books, Typee and Omoo, were published as novels because few could believe that the adventures detailed were true. Americans haven’t hunted whales in many decades but the Japanese still hunt these beautiful creatures, under the dubious claim of scientific research, despite the fact that an international treaty banned the practice in 1987.

According to The Daily Telegraph, Japanese whalers intended to slaughter up to 900 whales this year but ended up hauling in 266 minke whales and one fin whale. (Whalers historically hunted fin whales but not minke whales.) The disappointing haul was due to bad weather and harassment by environmentalists, who actually succeeded in halting Japanese boats in 2011 after they killed 172 whales.

According to a display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, whales, though generally docile, did occasionally fight back, managing to sink ships on at least three occasions- the Essex in 1820, which served as the inspiration for Moby Dick, the Ann Alexander in 1851 and the Kathleen in 1902. Here’s hoping the whales figure out how to fight back against Japanese efforts to kill them for “scientific research.”

What To Do In New England’s Berkshires

moby dick arrowhead herman melvilleOne hundred sixty-two years ago, Herman Melville made an impetuous decision to move to the Berkshires after going on a picnic with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was taken with the region’s beauty and believed it would be a quiet refuge that would be an ideal place to write.

Melville penned Moby Dick at Arrowhead, the farm he bought in Pittsfield, but the book was a commercial disaster and he wasn’t able to support his family from his writing and half-hearted attempts at farming. He left the Berkshires to become a customs inspector in New York after a 13-year stint at Arrowhead, but retained his strong affinity for the region.

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The rural splendor that seduced Melville and others continues to bring creative types to the Berkshires from around the world, but the high cost of living means that it’s still difficult for starving-artist types to afford to stay for very long. There may be no other rural area in the country that has the combination of natural beauty and abundant cultural offerings as the Berkshires. The region’s proximity to New York and Boston makes it a popular, and pricey, weekend getaway.But you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy a short getaway in the Berkshires, especially if you visit during the week. On a recent trip to the region, we found a double room for $89 at the amiable Yankee Inn, just a few miles outside Lenox, a delightful town within spitting distance of a host of natural and cultural attractions. We liked it so much that we considered extending through the weekend, until we found out that our room rate would skyrocket to $259 per night.

Below you’ll find some suggestions for how to spend a short getaway in the Berkshires without breaking the bank. You can hit all of these places if you start in Williamstown, and proceed east and south to N. Adams, Adams, Hancock, Pittsfield, Lenox and Stockbridge.

Williamstown- Home to Williams College, one of the country’s finest liberal arts colleges, this handsome, walkable town has more going on than many cities with ten times its population. With the Williamstown Theater Festival, The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art in town, there’s always something going on in this classic New England town.

mass moca MASS MoCA- The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the coolest museums I’ve ever been to, even though most of the exhibits went right over my head and reminded me of something that might have been discussed on an episode of Sprockets (see video). Three things I love about this place: 1) it’s located in a restored 19th century factory complex that’s an attraction in and of itself, 2) my kids loved the dinosaurs, Legos and opportunities to do arts and crafts projects in the museum’s Kidspace, and 3) the museum café is one of the best of its kind anywhere, with good food, drinks and ice cream at reasonable prices.

Bike the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail- A scenic 11-mile bike/recreation path that begins next to the visitor’s center in Adams, and winds its way through Lanesborough and Cheshire. If you want to get your adrenalin flowing even faster, the region is also well known for its whitewater rafting.

Mt. Greylock State Reservation- Mt. Greylock’s peak is the highest point in Massachusetts and it’s a great spot for a scenic drive or hike. Melville is said to have loved the view of Greylock from the window of his home in Pittsfield.

pigs cute onesIoka Valley Farm- My boys, ages 2 and 4, loved the farm animals, slides, games and hayride at this family farm, which was established in the 1920s. It’s not dirt cheap at about $30 for a family of four, and I found their syrup for sale at a supermarket in Lenox for a lower price than they sell it for at the farm, but if you have young kids, you’ll want to bring them here for some low-tech, educational fun.

Melville’s Arrowhead- This is a great place to learn more about Melville’s fascinating life story and there’s a replica whale and whaleboat in the yard that makes for a great photo opp (see above).

Lenox- Classy little Lenox has a great, walkable little historic core that boasts some classic old New England homes, a great little bookstore, a host of expensive restaurants and the Old Heritage Tavern, a great place for dinner and drinks that’s a rare bargain in these parts. While in Lenox, you might also want to hear some live music at Tanglewood or take in a show at Shakespeare & Company.

kennedy park lenoxKennedy Park in Lenox- Right next to Lenox’s lovely 18th Century Church on the Hill, you’ll find Kennedy Park, which is a beautiful, quiet place for hiking, jogging and mountain biking. There are 15 miles of shady, wooded trails – my favorite is the Red Neck – but all of them are quite pleasant.

Stockbridge- This is yet another enticing little town that’s perfect for a leisurely stroll. And if you like Norman Rockwell, who lived in the Berkshires for the last 25 years of his life, you’ll want to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum.

See How the Other Half Lived- The super rich have been summering in the Berkshires for a very long time, and there are a host of posh estates you can tour, or if you’re frugal or have a short attention span, gawk at from the outside. Check out Naumkeag in Stockbridge, and homes built for Edith Wharton (The Mount) and J.P. Morgan’s sister (Ventfort Hall) in Lenox.

ventfort hallSee How the Other Half Lives- You might get kicked out, depending on how you’re dressed, but stop by the Wheatleigh in Lenox to see where those with some serious cash stay and eat when in the Berkshires. Room rates range from $715 for basic rooms to $21,000-$35,000 per night for use of one of their 19-room “palazzos.”

[Photos by Dave Seminara]

USS Constitution To Set Sail Again

USS Constitution
The USS Constitution will set sail once again to commemorate the battle that made it famous.

The U.S. Navy says the famous warship will set sail Aug. 19, the 200th anniversary of her victory over the British frigate HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia. This victory during the War of 1812 boosted the young nation’s confidence as they fought an empire that had the largest navy in the world at that time.

The USS Constitution will be towed out of Charlestown, Massachusetts, at 10 a.m. Once it reaches deep water at 11:30, the crew will unfurl her sails and go under her own power for a time, weather permitting. The ship is so large that it needs a decent wind to move at all!

The Constitution will be back in Charlestown harbor by 3 p.m. and reopen for its regular tours by 4.

The ship was one of the United States’ six original frigates. Built in Boston, it carried 44 guns and was launched in 1797. The ship saw regular service guarding shipping lanes against pirates and defeated four British ships during the War of 1812. Its thick hull deflected most of the cannonballs shot at it and earned it the nickname “Old Ironsides.” She continued to serve her country until 1855.

[Photo courtesy Journalist 2nd Class Todd Stevens, U.S. Navy]

Video: Great White Shark Drafts Sea Kayaker

There have been a number of great white sightings in Cape Cod of late, but first-time sea kayaker Walter Szulc, Jr. got a closer look than most while paddling at Nauset Beach on Saturday. He safely made it to shore, and the beach was closed. On Sunday, three great whites were spotted in the region, the largest reaching up to 18 feet in length. [UPDATE: Scientists are now disputing the species following Szulc, which may have been a harmless basking shark, but have confirmed the presence of great whites in the region].

Scientists say the sharks are drawn to the area because of the growing seal population, and are monitoring beaches via aircraft. Researchers are tagging the sharks to aid with further study, as they’re on the endangered species list. The following YouTube clip shows a close encounter of the worst kind.


Iconic Road Trips: New England’s Coastal Drive

I met up with a childhood best friend of mine a few years ago in Boston. From there we drove to an ocean-side, dog-friendly resort in Maine that we’d decided to vacation at for a few days. Before we began our drive back to Boston, we realized we had all day to kill, so we chose our route back accordingly. Highway 1 isn’t just a West Coast thing – it’s pretty great on the East Coast, too. We took US 1A alongside the Atlantic Ocean down from Maine and through New Hampshire and Massachusetts. At different points in time, 1A connects with US Route 1. The names change along the way – in New Hampshire, it’s technically called NH Route 1A – but the direction is clear: follow the road that runs alongside the ocean at every given opportunity. What would have been an under 3-hour trip for us on the highway from Maine to Boston wound up taking nearly 7 hours on these small roads, but it was all for a good cause: gorgeous scenery.Cliché as it is to say, the journey is what matters, not the destination. Quintessential New England beaches and architecture make this drive worth it. Stop in any number of towns for New England staples like salt water taffy or chowder.

You’ll drive straight through Rye Harbor State Park, Wallis Sands State Park, Odiorne Point State Park, Hampton Salt Marsh Conservation Area, Seabrook Back Dunes, Salisbury Beach State Reservation and Salem, Massachusetts.