Ahab Would Love New Bedford’s Whaling Museum

By Bob Downing
Providence Journal

A half-size replica of the whaling bark Lagoda is housed inside the New Bedford Whaling Museum. At its peak, New Bedford was home to 400 whaling ships that sailed the globe in search of their quarry. Akron Beacon Journal / Bob Downing

If you’ve ever wondered what life aboard a whaling ship was really like, you might read Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick, or Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, which described the sinking that inspired Melville’s classic.
Or you might just drive to New Bedford, the onetime whaling capital, and its Whaling Museum. There you’ll find what may be the world’s largest model ship, the half-size replica of the bark Lagoda, which sailed from New Bedford from 1826 to 1886.
It is from here that Herman Melville sailed, as did the main character from his book. At its peak, New Bedford was home to 400 whalers that sailed the globe, the three-masted, 89-foot Lagoda among them.
For 15 years, the ship was a merchant ship. It was purchased in 1841 by John Bourne of New Bedford, who converted it to whaling by adding an onboard brick hearth for iron pots to process blubber into oil. The Lagoda soon gained a reputation as a “greasy ship” because it made nearly $652,000 for Bourne, making it one of the most successful whalers ever.
In 1860, the ship was turned into a bark to reduce the number of crew needed. It was a style of ship that was most popular from 1860 to 1900 because it could sail closer to the wind than full-rigged ships.
In 1871, the Lagoda escaped getting caught in shifting Arctic ice floes. In all, 33 ships, 22 of them from New Bedford, were crushed in the ice. The 1,200 survivors sailed and rowed whaleboats through gales to the Lagoda and six other ships that escaped.
Bourne sold the Lagoda in 1886 because the great days of whaling were over. It sailed from the United States in 1889 and worked as a coal fueling steamer in Japan. Sold again, the Lagoda burned and was broken up in Japan in 1899.
The replica Lagoda was built inside the museum in 1915-1916, and today you can climb aboard and explore it.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum, founded in 1907, proudly calls itself the largest museum in the United States devoted to the American whaling industry. It houses first-rate galleries and extensive collections of art, artifacts and manuscripts about American whaling in the Age of Sail, from the late 18th to the early 20th century.
That includes scrimshaw — carved ivory — from the whales, harpoons and other whaling tools, ships’ figureheads, nautical paintings, ships’ logs and journals, a replica forecastle of a whaling ship that pint-size sailors can climb aboard, art glass and exhibits about the whaling industry and New Bedford.
You can learn how various nationalities and races came together in New Bedford to hunt the whales, including Azoreans, Cape Verdeans, and escaped slaves from the American South.
New Bedford’s whaling industry was dominated by ship owners, many of whom were Quakers. The city developed a worldwide trade by the 1850s. According to poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, New Bedford’s merchants hugged whale oil casks like brothers. It launched its last whaler in 1899.
One of the museum’s biggest attractions is known as Kobo, the 65-foot-long skeleton of a rare blue whale that came ashore in Rhode Island after being accidentally struck and killed in March 1998 by a tanker.
Blue whales are Earth’s largest creatures. Even this one, a four-year-old juvenile, was huge. Its skull alone is 18 1/2 feet long and 1 1/2 tons.
Kobo is not the only whale in the museum. It also has skeletons of a humpback whale, a sperm whale, and — the newest addition — a pregnant northern right whale and the fetus she was carrying, placed on exhibit last November. This is believed to be the only skeleton of a female right whale and her fetus in the United States.
The northern right whale is currently the most endangered major species in U.S. waters; only 350 are believed to exist. Some of them meet their fates as this one did, struck by a ship, in this case off the Virginia coast in 2004.
The fetus, a suspected female estimated to have been 10 months along in its 12-month gestation period, measures 11.5 feet. Its bones alone weigh 70 pounds.
The right whale may be the rarest species, but it was the sperm whale that made New Bedford rich. The whalers were seeking whale oil and the spermaceti that was found in the whales’ large heads. The oil was used to light lamps and the sperma- ceti, for candles. New Bedford once proudly called itself the city that lighted the world.
The museum’s 45-ton, 33-foot-long sperm whale was found beached off Nantucket in 2002. The museum also shows a 1922 documentary about whale hunting, displays a fully rigged 30-foot-long whaleboat, and offers special events, including concerts and lectures. One of the more unusual is the nonstop marathon reading of Moby-Dick every January, to mark the anniversary of Melville’s sailing from New Bedford in 1841 when he was 21 aboard the whaler Acushnet. The reading runs about 25 hours and requires 150 readers.
If you go From Providence: Take Route 195 East to New Bedford. Take Exit 15 to Route 18 South, toward downtown. At the first set of lights, turn right onto Elm Street, then take your second left onto Acushnet Avenue. Turn left at William Street, then right at 1st St/Johnny Cake Hill. The museum, at 18 Johnny Cake Hill, is on the left.
Visitor information: Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and to 9 p.m. on Thursdays in the summer and on the second Thursday of the month. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for senior citizens and students, and $6 for children 6 to 14.
More information: Call (508) 997-0046 or visit whalingmuseum.org.
February 8, 2009
Source URL: http://www.projo.com/travel/getaways/TRV-GETAWAY-NEW-BEDFORD_02-08-09_3LA6JHP_v17.1e83ad3.html#

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