Whales come to Provincetown in spring and summer to feed. Visitors come to Provincetown for a whale watch, thrilled at the sight of these most majestic beasts. But how many of the human sisitors know that Provincetown was once a mighty force in America’s whaling industry? And how many of the visiting whales know we come only to see them, and not to kill?
Forgotten Port: Provincetown’s Whaling Heritage, a wonderfully informative exhibition on view at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum until November 30, makes plain our history at sea, long overshadowed by Martha’s Vineyard and New Bedford.
Viewers will learn that the native Indian tribes practiced “drift” whaling, only processing whales which died off-shore; that Portuguese whalers brought their expertise and families beginning in the mid-19th century, inflecting the town’s culture with that of the Azores,; that Provincetown was once one of the richest towns in Massachusetts due to the wealth of whales and cod in its waters; that after the Portland Gale of 1898 all but wiped out the fishing industry at Cape Tip, artists began inhabiting buildings devastated in the storm, the beginning of the now-famed arts colony, that the last whaling ship set sail from Provincetown in 1920, and that, thanks to the Center for Coastal Studies, the community now seeks to save whale populations rather than killing them.
It’s a whale of a show for a whale of a town, even if the whales can’t see it.