Jul 23, 2014
Update: Whaling Ship Morgan in Cape Cod for Last Major Stop of Historic Voyage
Editor’s update: On Friday we visited the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship and the oldest commercial vessel still afloat, at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzard’s Bay, where the historic whaling ship will be open to the public Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The vessel is owned by Mystic Seaport and has been sailing New England waters this summer. The visit to Cape Cod is the last major stop on the ship’s historic 38th Voyage and coincides with the centennial celebration of the opening of the Cape Cod Canal.
The last time we visited the Morgan was before it left New London and it was not fully rigged at that point. With all its sails in place the ship was even more majestic than it appeared in Connecticut waters. While in Massachusetts we caught up with the Morgan’s stowaway Ryan Leighton who has been traveling on the ship this summer.
“What we've seen and done on this voyage has been remarkable,” Leighton said. “The people I've met and the stories I've heard, I hope they will stay with me forever. But it also feels like we're winding down from this incredible journey, and you can definitely sense a different vibe amongst the crewmembers and voyagers. Take your favorite carnival ride you remember as a kid. When the lights go out, and it's time to go home, part of you never wanted it to stop.”
(At right Connecticut Magazine's photo of the Morgan taken on Friday afternoon)
He added that a highlight of the voyage was the ship’s recent whale watching expedition at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
“Standing on the very top of the foremast watching whales swim along side the Charles W. Morgan in Stellwagen Bank was incredible. There aren't too many people alive that can say they've done that. The feeling up there was like nothing I've ever experienced. I was overtaken with emotion. It was powerful.”
Read our full story below for more information about the Morgan’s reunion with whales.
Ben Cowie-Haskell remembers the moment when he came face to face with one of nature’s most majestic rarities—a whale that had wandered into Connecticut waters.
“In 1983 I was diving [off the Connecticut coast in Long Island Sound] with my partner, servicing a wave gauge on the sea floor and who should show up but a wayward beluga whale,” recalls Cowie-Haskell, who at the time worked for the University of Connecticut’s Marine Science institute at Avery Point. “This whale was curious about us and actually dove down beside me as I was going down to the wave meter. It was so close that I was able to touch the animal. That was an incredible experience for me and an absolutely bizarre and rare experience in Long Island Sound.”
Today, Cowie-Haskell is deputy superintendent of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a 842-square-mile federally protected marine sanctuary located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, between Cape Cod and Cape Ann. He was reminded of his close encounter with that beluga whale in Connecticut on the weekend of July 11 to 13, when the Charles W. Morgan partnered with Stellwagen for whale watching trips within the sanctuary that were rich with symbolic significance.
Read Our Past Stories on the Morgan's historic voyage:
(Left, one of the Morgan's whaleships approaches a whale)
Owned by Mystic Seaport, the Morgan is the last remaining ship from a mighty fleet of whaleships that once numbered more than 2,700. The ship was part of a whale hunting industry in the 1800s and early 1900s that drove many types of whales to near extinction. This summer the seaport took the Morgan to sea again for the first time in more than 90 years. As the vessel has traveled through New England, it has raised awareness of maritime history and whale preservation efforts. The whale watching expeditions in Stellwagen were an important part of the voyage.
“We had put a lot of planning into these three days of sailing. The ideal scenario was that the Morgan would go into the sanctuary accompanied by our research vessel Auk and encounter whales and lower a whaleboat and essentially mingle with the whales, and much to our surprise that's exactly what happened,” Cowie-Haskell says.
The frequency of whale sightings within the sanctuary depends on the year, Cowie-Haskell says. In recent years sightings were few and far between, but this year they have been frequent as there is an abundance of lance eels (which whales feed on) in the sanctuary. Still, there was no guarantee the Morgan would come within sight of any whales. However, the stars aligned for the ship and its crew, which spotted several humpback whales and sailed in safe but close proximity to them.
“I could hear the oohs and aahs and excitement,” Cowie-Haskell says. “Everyone was absolutely stunned by the fact that this was even happening. It was a wonderful reunion between the former hunter of whales and now ambassador to the whales, and thankfully the whales didn't seem at all concerned about her past and they just went about their way.”
It was a particularly moving moment for the Morgan’s crew and Mystic Seaport staff members who have spent years planning the details of this voyage.
“It has been hard for all of us to describe the feeling at that moment we started sailing with humpback whales next to the ship,” says Dan McFadden, Mystic Seaport’s director of communications. “When it comes down to it, both the whales and the Morgan are survivors. Seeing them side-by-side made you think about the changes in how we view whales—in the Morgan’s day as creatures to be harvested; today as fellow inhabitants of the earth to be studied and preserved.”
After sighting the whales the Morgan lowered a whaleboat in a symbolic gesture.
“”We lowered a whaleboat on two of the days we were on Stellwagen Bank,” explains McFadden. “We did that to illustrate how times have changed. We towed with no harpoon or other hunting gear on board, just a camera.”
Cowie-Haskell says the Morgan’s voyage helps highlight “how our activities as humans can significantly impair whales’ ability to thrive as a species. These days that is through noise pollution [which inhibits whales' abilities to communicate with one another through sound] and through entanglement in fishing nets and through large ships hitting these whales as they traverse the oceans.”
The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary works to address those three areas in a variety of ways, including supporting efforts to build quieter ships, encouraging lobstermen to use sinking lines between their traps instead of floating lines (which can help prevent whales from getting entangled), and working to have ships slow down to 10 knots or less when traversing areas where whales are known to congregate (in that regard in 2009, the sanctuary was successful in shifting the commercial shipping lane into Boston which has reduced the risk to whales by 80 percent).
He says these efforts are helping to increase the numbers of whales swimming our oceans.
“In general whale populations around the world are recovering. In our neck of the woods in the Northeast, the New England area, our most critically endangered is the North Atlantic right whale that is a sub species of right whale, and there are 450 to 500 left. When I started here at the Stellwagen sanctuary the number was 350, so that population has been slowly improving.”
He adds that the attention the Morgan’s voyage is bringing to whaling truly helps preservation efforts.
“Like others have said in the past, we only protect and save what we love and understand. The Morgan has helped highlight some of the ongoing threats to whales as well as highlighting the intelligence and the majesty of the whales themselves.”