Science & Environment
9:49 am
Thu July 31, 2014

Last Wooden Whaling Ship Connects Eras of Hunting and Conservation

There was excitement, edged with a slight tension, aboard the Charles W. Morgan as she sailed out of Provincetown Harbor on an overcast Friday morning. The first sighting of a whale - a small minke -  brought cheers. It was the first time the ship had been next to a whale in almost a century, but a full expression of the sentiment surrounding the ship's reunion with whales came later in the day, as a humpback whale fed off the starboard side. Whoops and one passenger's cry of "I think that was an 'apology accepted'" brought peals of laughter from those nearby.

The Charles W. Morgan is the last remaining wooden whaling ship. Built in 1841, she spent eighty years - 37 voyages - carrying crews to whaling grounds, first here in New England and then, as local whale populations dwindled, in the Pacific Ocean. Fresh off a five year, 7.5 million dollar restoration by Mystic Seaport, she’s been touring southern New England’s waters on her first voyage since her retirement in 1921, and her last for the foreseeable future. Each leg of the 38th Voyage has been filled with history and meaning, but the ship's return to Stellwagen Bank was particularly poignant for those who study and work to conserve whales.

When the Charles W. Morgan was built, Stellwagen Bank - the underwater plateau that stretches from the tip of Cape Cod north to Cape Ann - was a rich whaling ground. Now, it’s a National Marine Sanctuary and considered critical habitat for the endangered whales the Charles W. Morgan’s crew once pursued. The ship’s time on Stellwagen Bank was an opportunity for those aboard to remember the past, reflect on lessons learned, and add what some considered a redeeming chapter to the Charles W. Morgan’s long history.

While prominent ocean advocates conducted live-feed educational events, scientists recorded weather and sea conditions and launched drifter buoys to track the ocean currents that make Stellwagen Bank the rich ocean habitat it is. Ironically, those buoys were being stored in the large metal trying pots once used to render blubber into oil.

But overall, there was considerably less irony to the voyage than one might expect. Even the most die-hard of ocean advocates said there was no finger to be pointed, no blame to be laid upon the whalers who once crewed the Charles W. Morgan. They weren't cruel or depraved, merely products of their time - a time when we didn't know or appreciate what we do today. Given the chance to travel forward in time, those same men might well be whale watch operators or whale researchers.

In fact, many of the scientists aboard the Charles W. Morgan credited whalers with being the first whale scientists. They carefully documented where and under what conditions different types of whales could be found, and they sometimes recorded observations about what they found as they cut apart whales. Those documents continue to be important resources for modern scientists, providing insight into habitat and feeding preferences, migration patterns, and physiology.

Overall, the sense was that the Charles W. Morgan hasn't reversed course, but sailed into the 21st century with the weight of history behind her and an eye to the future ahead of her.