The Bones of History -June 2020
by: Brian Bushard
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
It was New Year’s Eve 1997. John Shea remembers it from the cry for help he heard coming from Codfish Park. A 46-foot, nearly 40-ton sperm whale had washed up, alive, on the beach. Two hours later, a group of several dozen neighbors had successfully pushed it back into the ocean, where it swam off to the southeast. One day later, however, it washed up again. This time it was dead.
What happened over the next two days gave a handful of island fishermen and off-island researchers a first-hand look into the island’s whaling history: the butchering, the permeating smell, the spermaceti flowing from the whale’s head cavity, filling bucket after bucket with the translucent oil.
Most of the bones that remained were sunk in Nantucket Harbor,
the idea being that little fish would eat off the bits of flesh. Eventually, the bones could be realigned and hung on display in the Nantucket Historical Association’s whaling museum.
“In really dumb luck, in years prior there was a great deal of discussion about expanding the whaling museum, but one of the big challenges was that there wasn’t anything for the community to coalesce around, nothing for the community to say this is why we’re expanding,” said Jeremy Slavitz, the NHA’s education coordinator at the time. “The whale is what gave us the reason.”
It took just over seven years from the day the whale washed up on shore to the day its skeleton was hung up at the museum. The twisting spine was the inspiration for the curvature of the ceiling of the newly-designed Gosnell Hall, which was completed after an $11 million renovation in 2005.
Removing the bones from the decaying carcass took a matter of days and a team of researchers from the New England Aquarium and island fishermen alike.
Pete Kaizer remembers the oil spewing out of its head. Bobby DeCosta remembers it from the pungent smell alone.
Both men have made their living on the water, but dissecting a whale was like nothing they had attempted before. The fishing knives they brought at first weren’t cutting the blubber. The whale was rotting and becoming more repulsive by the day.
“We ended up going to the museum to get the old lances the whalers would use,” DeCosta said. “We sharpened them up, and that’s what we used to dissect the whale.”
“I ended up cutting the brain. It looked like it was crackling and popping. I have a strong stomach, but I had to hold my nose. We were wearing rain gear and waders. I tried everything to get the smell out and nothing worked. It literally permeated right into the plastic.”
Soon after, the spermaceti started leaking from the whale’s head cavity. Kaizer recognized it as the same oil that lured Nantucket whalers in the 18th and 19th centuries on five-year, life-threatening voyages in search of sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean.
“We ran out of five-gallon buckets,” Kaizer said. “We were trying to move the whale. We had all these machines and excavators. We said this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get this oil, so I got my skiff and we got it about halfway full.”
What remained of the carcass was buried in the beach. The bones were stored in a sandpit for several months before being placed in cages and sunk in the harbor so crabs and shellfish could eat away at the remaining muscle tissue and oil. That process lasted through the fall.
In late 2004, a marine biologist named Dan DenDanto came down from Maine and reassembled the whale. It now hangs in Gosnell Hall.
“That whale, I believe, came here to die for us and the people who go through the Whaling Museum so they know this is how the island was built and this is how people around the world lit their cities,” Shea said.
NHA executive director James Russell sees the whale as the centerpiece of the museum. The skeleton gives you an idea just how big sperm whales are. It gives you a sense of wonder about the whaling voyages Nantucketers undertook, risking their lives in the gruesome industry of hunting and dissecting whales, he said.
“It’s an absolute, magnificently-sculpted form: the dramatic nature of the jaw, the twisted spine to the tail, the shape of the rib cage,” Russell said.
“If there was nothing else at the museum, people would still come in to look at the skeleton. It brings the story of the 1800s into the present day.”
To Shea, it’s also a reminder of the day he saw the whale on the beach in Sconset.
He can’t help but stare when he enters the museum, or when he takes on the role of Captain Ahab in the annual production of the Orson Welles play “Moby Dick Rehearsed” in the whaling museum, directly under the skeleton.
“He steals the show without doing anything at all,” Shea said of the whale. “It’s like working with Orson Welles himself. All he has to do is show up.” ///
Brian Bushard is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.