After my jaunt to Nantucket, where I soaked up some primo whaling history, I’ve been riding this wave of maritime nostalgia through the annals of New England.
It’s a real treasure chest of history with many different themes to explore and some seriously iconic places to hit up. Plus, you’ve got a library’s worth of books and a whole reel of classic flicks from that era that you can use to further immerse yourself in that time.
One of my latest visits on this salty adventure was the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. And let me just say, after I strolled through those doors, I left feeling like I’d just discovered an absolute gem of a museum. It’s a must-visit for anyone with a hankering for a slice of seafaring history.
What is the New Bedford Whaling Museum?
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is a museum located in New Bedford, Massachusetts that’s dedicated to the history of whaling and the cultural and economic impact of the whaling industry on the region and beyond.
The museum is renowned for its extensive collection of artifacts, artworks, and historical materials related to whaling, which include things like massive whale skeletons and the world’s largest model ship.
How to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum
You’ll stumble upon the New Bedford Whaling Museum smack in the heart of downtown New Bedford. It’s about an hour and 15 minutes south of Boston.
It’s nestled right in the midst of those historic “sett stone” streets and is also part of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. If you’re looking to get in, adults can snag a ticket for $22, and if you’re up for it, you can tack on the 3-D movie experience for an extra three bucks.
My experience visiting the New Bedford Whaling Museum
Covering everything at this sprawling museum is a mission impossible. Even after a solid three hours of exploring, we had that nagging feeling we missed out on some gems. So, let me give you a sneak peek at some of the standout attractions that are sure to knock your socks off.
The very first showstopper that smacks you in the face the moment you stroll in is a little something called “Whales Today.” This is where the spotlight shines on the nitty-gritty of whale science and behavior, along with the major challenges they’re up against.
You’ll see gigantic whale skeletons dangling from the ceiling, and recreated, life-sized body parts like a blue whale’s heart. It’s like walking into a marine megastore, with these massive skeletons rubbing shoulders, and there’s even a pregnant momma whale in the mix. It’s a jaw-dropping sight, to say the least.
Don’t rush through this place; there’s a treasure trove of specimens and historical items that’ll leave you wide-eyed. It’s a bit like peeking into a natural history vault.
Now, let’s talk about another showstopper – a mammoth sperm whale skeleton, but this one is at ground level. Stand beside it, and you’ll truly grasp the sheer size of these oceanic giants. Plus, there’s a neat comparison with a colossal squid that’ll give you a humbling sense of just how tiny we are in the grand scheme of things. You can’t help but ponder the epic struggles those 19th-century whalers must’ve faced.
Another captivating aspect of this room is the real-deal whaling boat. It’s a crash course in the evolution of these seafaring vessels, and you’ll also get a firsthand look at the tools and weaponry they wielded.
You’ll also stumble upon a hefty stash of sperm oil. Now, I don’t know about you, but until this visit, I’d never actually seen whale oil up close and personal, so this was an interesting find.
One thing that truly struck a chord with me about the museum was how they seamlessly integrated art into their exhibits. Everywhere you turn, there’s a painting waiting to captivate your gaze, each with its own distinct tale to tell. It’s like strolling through a gallery, only this one’s steeped in history.
The room that houses the Lagoda is an absolute marvel. According to the museum, this is the largest ship model in the entire world. It’s not just huge; it’s a work of art in intricate detail. And you can actually step aboard this beauty.
All around this ship, you’ll discover a trove of captivating exhibits that peel back the layers on the nitty-gritty of whaling operations and the evolving knowledge of society about these incredible creatures.
From getting a whiff of various whale oils to diving into the world of navigation tools, it’s like taking a step back in time to experience the real deal of life on these whale boats. It’s nothing short of amazing to immerse yourself in that history.
Venture upstairs in the Lagoda room, and you’ll uncover even more treasures. This is where you can delve into the diverse cultures that played a role in the whaling industry, like the folks from the Azores.
But the icing on the cake has to be the observation deck. From up there, you can soak in some stunning views of New Bedford Harbor’s bustling ports. And while you’re at it, take a moment to appreciate the distinctive architecture of the region, including those iconic homes with widow’s walks. It’s like getting a bird’s-eye view of history and beauty all in one go.
Don’t miss the nautically adorned 3-D theater. They screen a 30-minute flick every hour, and during our visit, they had this beautifully produced documentary about the triumphant return of the blue whale. We got the lowdown on its tumultuous history and how it’s been making a comeback from the brink of extinction. It was a hoot with some seriously cool visuals. I’m just grateful it wasn’t 4D.
These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the delights awaiting you at the museum. If you’re an art aficionado, get ready to be wowed by an extensive collection including lots of impressive scrimshaw.
And then, there’s a whole universe to unravel when it comes to preservation efforts, tagging, and the extensive research that goes into deciphering the world of whales.
Due to my jam-packed schedule that day, I regrettably missed out on one of those free guided tours the museum offers. If your time allows, I’d wholeheartedly recommend taking one. It’s the golden ticket to digging even deeper into the rich tapestry of this place. You’ll leave with an even deeper appreciation for this maritime gem.
Nantucket Whaling Museum versus the New Bedford Whaling Museum
One of the dilemmas folks ponder is whether to visit the Nantucket Whaling Museum or the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
If you’ve ever caught wind of my articles tackling these conundrums, you won’t be surprised by my verdict: Go for both!
But it’s kind of hard to compare these because the Nantucket Whaling Museum is located on Nantucket Island which requires a ferry ride and working out more logistics but you are also rewarded with the unique charm and cobblestone roads of Nantucket, so there’s a lot more that goes into the equation.
However, when it comes to sheer magnitude and what’s on display, the New Bedford Whaling Museum is in a league of its own. It’s more spacious and has a larger abundance of exhibits that’ll keep your curiosity buzzing.
So, if you’re a bona fide whaling aficionado looking for a deeper dive into the history and culture, the New Bedford Museum is your go-to. It’s the mother lode for maritime history enthusiasts.
Going into this museum visit, I wasn’t entirely sure what to anticipate.
I had read some reviews and seen a few visuals, so I knew it would be interesting, but boy, did it exceed my expectations. The sheer volume of artifacts and the wealth of details to uncover left me thoroughly impressed, and I consider myself someone who’d already delved quite a bit into the subject.
The staff was an absolute delight – welcoming and even granting us the boon of re-entry for the day. Honestly, I can’t sing enough praises about this museum. It’s a hidden gem that packs a punch and offers an unforgettable experience.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.