By Patricia Paladines and Carl Safina
The first whale was spotted at around 11am. We approached it with the quiet stealth afforded by a light wind in our sails. To the best of our knowledge the animal could not imagine or have any concern that a wooden whale-hunting ship was nearing its magnificent, enormous body.
One hundred years ago this ship’s crew would have spied the whale through a lens on the economic worth of its body parts. When the whaleboat was launched and the rowers approached the whale, they would have been armed with harpoons to begin a bloody attack that would last hours, sometimes days.
The Charles W. Morgan, newly restored to seaworthiness, is the last remaining representative of a New England whale-hunting fleet that once numbered more than 2700 wooden vessels and traveled the oceans of the world in a hunt that nearly exterminated these great mammals. Today, we approached in peace.
In an example of how far our compassion for life beyond our shores has come in the last century, the Morgan, on its first voyage since 1921, now approached the humpback whale with lenses made by Nikon, Canon or other optical manufacturers for the purpose of capturing the beauty of a protected natural seascape, to take only pictures, leave only wakes. The location was the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off of Cape Cod and we were all here to celebrate this historic voyage highlighting the Mystic Seaport’s commitment to make history come alive for today’s audience and our country’s leadership in creating marine reserves.
We left the Provincetown wharf early in the morning, ferried out to the anchored Morgan by small boat. Among our fellow voyagers is our favorite ocean activist, National Geographic Explorer Sylvia Earle. Sylvia and we have shared some fantastic trips together but this one will be remembered as one representing the relationship we hope for between humans and all other living beings, a voyage to cultivate compassion. And in a way, to seek forgiveness—or at least offer apology—for what we humans have harmed. Commercial whale hunting, at least in the United States, is in the past. And though the gray whale is gone from the Atlantic and the right whale struggles to exist, recoveries of humpback, fin, minke, sperm, and even blue whales are evident around America’s coasts.
The Charles W. Morgan, a National Historic Landmark, embarked on her first voyage in 1841 from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Today, arriving alongside her hull feels like traveling back to a time when our natural resources seemed infinite. A time when forests were full of the hardwood trees that supplied ship makers with centuries old trunks to be reincarnated into hulls, masts and poop decks for carrying land-dwelling men, and sometimes women, across oceans and around capes in search of adventures and more resources to melt into money. It was a time when the oceans seemed endless both in expanse and in the abundance of creatures that dwelled below. Now the ship, newly and extensively restored by experts convened by Mystic Seaport, was on its first voyage in more than 90 years.
The Morgan is known as the “lucky ship.” Having successfully navigated crushing Arctic ice, hostile natives, countless storms, Cape Horn roundings and the Hurricane of 1938. Now on its least ambitious voyage in terms of distance, rough water and weather, this was its most ambitious voyage in terms of mission: a restoration in body representing a makeover in mindset about humanity’s relationship with nature, a new and different approach. The hazardous depths we faced were the roughest seas we must attempt to chart and navigate: the depths and shoals of our own understanding.
Once onboard the ship, we gathered at mid-deck for crew introductions and to go over procedures to follow in the event of an emergency. (The real emergency facing us was not onboard, but in the ocean itself via overfishing, warming, and acidification.) The overcast morning light seemed to perk up a bit when bright orange life vests were passed around for all to practice proper adjustment of belts and straps. After much giggling and photo ops wearing official Morgan floatation devices the captain went over the plans for this leg of the Morgan’s 38th voyage: to the whale feeding grounds of Stellwagen.
First it was up to the tugboat Sirius to pull the Morgan out of Provincetown harbor. In the spirit of 19th Century voyages the 38th voyage of the Morgan included a ship artist, Evan Turk, who spent much of the time capturing the deck activities in watercolors while trying to stay out of the crew’s way. The crew consists of a team of mostly-young women and men who performed the sail raising exercises with the agility of sailors who had spent decades out at sea.
The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary stretches from Cape Ann to the tip of Cape Cod offshore of Massachusetts. It is a critical feeding and nursery for the endangered whales including the humpback, North Atlantic right, sei, minke, and fin whales as well as several dolphin species. On this first voyage since her retirement the Morgan is accompanied by the sanctuary’s research vessel, Auk. (The great auk was an abundant flightless seabirdof the North Atlantic, a bit like a penguin, that was wastefully hunted to extinction in the early 1800s.) NOAA researcher David Wiley, who had recently been interviewed by CBS News on the increase in whale sightings this year, has joined us on the Morgan. On a recent day he had counted 18 humpbacks and 8 to 10 finbacks with many more in the distance. It had been a different story last year when few whales had been spotted. The return to Stellwagen of vast schools of sand lance, a tiny eel-like fish that humpbacks and others feed on, makes the difference.
Sure enough, the whales were back feeding on Stellwagen as the Morgan sailed in. Some of them must be descendants of whales the Morgan had approached during her previous 37 voyages in a whaling career that spanned 80 years. The crew lowered one of the whaleboats to row out and get a closer look, this time the harpoons remained on display in their racks aboard the ship and her huge try-pots, once used to convert blubber into whale oil, remained empty and cool. An adversarial history redeemed by us all; the future for the whales appears hopeful.
Other Links and Facts:
Captain Kip Files
Chief Mate Sam Sikkema
Second Mate Sean Bercaw (bringing Sea Education Association experience)
Third Mate Roxanne “Rocky” Hadler (also bringing SEA experience)
Steward Julianne “Juls” Johnson, keeping the crew and passengers safe from starvation and scurvy.
- The Charles W. Morgan is the last wooden whaleship in the world.
- From a fleet that numbered more than 2700 vessels.
- Built in 1841 (173 years ago) Launched July 21, 1841 from New Bedford, MA.
- Oldest commercial ship still afloat. Only the frigate USS Constitution is older.
- The Morgan embarked on 37 voyages between 1841 and 1921. (1921 = 93 years ago)