Do you have a secret place you love to go? Jennifer Scarlott has one. Its a tiny island called Nantucket and she wants to share her little haven with you.
I’ve been going to Nantucket since I was 12, following in the footsteps of my father, who first visited what the Wampanoag tribe called the “far-away island” at the same age in 1940. A few weeks ago, I took this photo of a young Black-backed Gull pleading for food from its mother on a little spit of land in Nantucket harbour. The parent, in turn, was pleading for food from my family’s picnic. Occasionally, she would wade into the water and seize a small crab at her feet, returning to the beach to share the wiggly morsel with her offspring. But despite this demonstration of how easy it was to obtain a crab for lunch, this young one mewed incessantly at its mother!
Just as a tiger mother must eventually do, I’m sure this lovely mother will turn her back once and for all on her big baby, and leave it to fend for itself. Wandering on this island, covered in scrub oak and beach roses, I encountered many such mother and child pairs. But Nantucket is no exception in its rich and particular biodiversity. Islands, by their very nature – isolated natural communities – are so unique in their ecological distinctiveness that in the 1960s, biologists E.O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur coined the term ‘island biogeography’ to describe the processes of immigration and extinction that occur on them.
In its brief, 6,000-year history, my beloved Nantucket has never been undisturbed by Homo sapiens. Natural historians believe that the island has been continuously inhabited by human beings from practically the moment it took its present-day shape, after a great ice sheet receded from the North American continent. On this tiny, 47.8 square mile universe, there are an estimated 4,627 species of animals, including deer, scallops, ticks and, just off-shore, humpback, sperm and many other kinds of whales.
Photograph by Jennifer Scarlott.
The leviathans of the deep played an enormous role in the history of the island. Nantucketers became, sadly for sperm whales, some of the best hunters of that species the world has ever known, pursuing them through the oceans for the beautiful amber oil contained in their enormous skulls. In fact, for more than a century, between 1750 and 1850, the headquarters of the global oil business was the tiny island of Nantucket, whose harbour was continually jammed with whaling ships. Sperm whale oil was used to light the lamps in parlours around the world.
On August 12, 1819, the whaleship Essex left Nantucket on a two-and-a-half-year voyage to the whaling grounds off the west coast of South America. It never returned. In an unprecedented occurrence, the ship was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale. After surviving an extraordinarily harrowing 90 days in small whaleboats, some of the crew were rescued and eventually returned to Nantucket.
Today’s Nantucketers have a different relationship with the great marine mammals that were once their livelihood. When an ailing sperm whale beached and died at the northeast end of the island a few years ago, residents were so concerned and distraught that state authorities allowed them to keep the animal’s skeleton. It is now displayed in a museum that tells the history of whales and Nantucket Island.
Whenever I am lucky enough to walk the shores of this lovely place, I look seaward in hopes of seeing the spout of air that sperm whales exhale upon surfacing. I long for the day when not just this island, but humans everywhere are at peace with whales. I have yet to see a whale spouting off Nantucket’s shores. But as I sit in the warm sand and listen to the mewing of the baby gulls, I know I’m breathing their air.
Jennifer Scarlott is based in New York, U.S.A. and is Director, International Conservation Initiatives, Sanctuary Asia. You can contact here at
by Jennifer Scarlott, First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, September 2012