Whaling ship sets sail on new mission

"Blow high, blow low! A'whalin' we will go!

We'll go a'whalin', a'sailin' away . . ."

- from 'Carousel'

More than nine decades have passed since the Charles W. Morgan last went a'whalin' and a'sailin'. The Morgan's 80-year run as a whaling ship - 37 voyages, some lasting three years or longer, all of them profitable - ended in 1921. Named for her principal owner, Quaker whaling merchant Charles Waln Morgan, the great ship was later removed from the sand at South Dartmouth to take up berth at Mystic Seaport. That was in November of 1941. The Morgan was 100 years old, and the invasion of Pearl Harbor was less than a month away.

Now, Seaport craftsmen have completed a five-year, $7.5 million restoration - work done at the Museum's Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard - and readied her to set sail once again. The new adventure begins next Saturday when the Morgan leaves Mystic for New London.

Yet, a different sort of voyage, this.

The world's last wooden whale ship, the Morgan will embark on a six-week tour of coastal New England. In New London workers will prep the ship for the trip. Then it will be, "Ahoy," and on to Newport and Vineyard Haven, then to New Bedford (where, in 1841, the Morgan was built) and the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts, then on to Boston, before heading homeward to New London and Mystic. A stopover in Cape Cod will allow the Morgan to be part of the Cape Cod Canal centennial celebration.

Here's what the Seaport says about the trip on its web site:

"The decision to embark on this voyage is based on the commitment of Mystic Seaport to make history come alive for today's audience and to call attention to the value of historic ships and the important role America's maritime heritage plays in this country's history…The last is the most significant: whales were hunted almost to extinction. Today, America celebrates the whale and works for its recovery. Where once the Charles W. Morgan's cargo was oil and bone, today her cargo is knowledge."

Living history: That's the Morgan. A proud reminder of our maritime past, a way to keep that past alive for the generations that will follow.

A century and more ago, the Morgan went to sea with 30-plus, hard-working and dedicated crewmen.

From November of 2008 to July of 2013, a crew of shipwrights, no less dedicated, made shipshape the 113-foot whaler - an ambitious and significant undertaking.

At a time when the wholesale slaughter of whales has rightly gained considerable public attention, remorse and outrage, it's important to remember that whaling ships were not the culprits. For those, look to the ever-increasing sophistication of technology: first, rocket- and then cannon-propelled harpoons, and, later still, factory ships equipped to handle the complete onboard processing of whales captured by smaller boats.

The first "floating factory" sailed from Norway to the Antarctic in 1903; land-moored, it processed whales brought to it by smaller, "killer boats." According to the Animal Welfare Institute's "Endangered Species Handbook," about 70,000 Humpback Whales were slaughtered between 1909 and 1913 and, by World War I, they were nearly extinct in the Southern Ocean.

Full-fledged factory ships came onto the scene in 1925, permitting whales to be winched aboard and completely processed. By 1934, nearly half of female whales were immature when caught.

Finally, in December of 1946, a hope for conservation appeared with the establishment of the International Whaling Commission and its mission to "provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry."

A number of nations, including Japan and the Russian Federation, oppose the moratorium on commercial whaling adopted by the IWC in 1982, but the Commission continues to encourage and fund whale research and to publish its findings.

The approaching voyage of the Charles W. Morgan - and its subsequent in-harbor presence to welcome visitors and champion learning - will do much to further public awareness of the vital need for conservation.

Bon voyage!

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