Whalemaster: The Case for a New Ceremonial Position

Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. —Benjamin Franklin

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there has been a recent upsurge in the number of giant whales—which I define as larger than a bus—that have washed up dead on our beaches here in the Hamptons. Historically, in the last 100 years, they have washed up approximately once a generation. In the last 10 years, we have had five of them wash up, two of which have washed ashore in the last year. It’s something we need to take notice of.

And we are not.

The problem is not that they wash up. That is more of a perk than a problem. Everyone wants to go down to the beach and look in wonder at these great behemoths. They are a tourist attraction—a community asset. They bring people out to the Hamptons. Yay! The problem is what to do with them. We did pretty well with the first few that washed up recently. But this last one, in Napeague, well, whatever it is you do with them, you have to do it pretty fast. Otherwise there is a problem downwind. And in this case, we didn’t do that.

It wasn’t until the following day that people from Bistrian Sand and Gravel Corporation came down there wearing masks to deal with this 40- to 50-ton finback. Bistrian then sent the Town of East Hampton a bill for $7,500 for the work. Trouble is, according to the Town, nobody had hired him. So when the bill came, the town comptroller’s office was upset. You don’t just do work without authorization. What followed was a melée involving the Town Board and Town Trustees over this, during which time the town decided that payment should come out of the Trustees’ budget. The Trustees’ entire budget, a really small one, comes from the Town. Even the fines they collect for beach violations get forwarded to the Town.

Town Budget Officer Len Bernard, along with Town Harbormaster Ed Michels told The East Hampton Star they made arrangements with Bistrian Gravel through the Highway Department.

“We discussed the alternative methods to remove the whale (with Trustee Deborah Klughers.) She was concerned it might be buried or towed out to sea,” said Michels.

Klughers, at a Trustee meeting, denied approving anything. No expenses are approved unless by a vote of the full board and there was none about this.

“No one asked us about cost or anything about removing the whale or how to go about it,” Diane McNally, the clerk for the Trustees said at that meeting.

One of the trustees said that Billy Mack of First Coastal in Westhampton Beach had offered to remove any whale for free.

“I had a machine not far away,” Mack said. “I said I would be happy to do it. They [the Town] said they had already made other arrangements.”

Michels acknowledged that he’d spoken to Mack, but said Mack never offered to do it for free.

“I was never asked when I was there,” said Trustee Stephanie Forsberg, “and I was one of the first people on the beach.”

Bernard said he was down there and the stench was overpowering. He said Steve Lynch, the highway superintendent, was on the site the whole time, but had to later throw away his pants because no matter how many times he washed them, they still smelled.

It was even further complicated in this case because the dead whale chose to make his appearance on a beach owned by the Trustees. Frankly, in 50 years editing this paper, I never knew the Trustees owned any beaches. I knew Trustees had jurisdiction over beaches. I knew Trustees owned trustee roads and had right-of-way with them. I guess the trustee roads, which sometimes wind their way down to the beach, had to end on a beach the Trustees own.

And then there are two other things. Private property owners have to obey Trustee laws on the beaches in front of their homes, even when their surveys say (recently because of erosion) they own the beach. So what does a homeowner do after three days if a whale is still there? Call the police?

Frankly, in the 21st century, we aren’t as well organized to handle multi-ton whales as we were back in colonial times.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, whales big and small came ashore almost weekly. If a whale came ashore, a lookout rode up to the church on Main Street and the big church bell was rung. Upon hearing this, all able-bodied men, by law, were to drop what they were doing and get down there and get to work. There were punishments inflicted for not doing so. It’s in the town law books.

Whales were extremely valuable back then. You could cut up the blubber and boil it down to whale oil in try pots, giant cauldrons resting on iron grates on the beach. You could salvage the baleen for corsets, umbrella ribs and buggy whips. Ambergris was used for perfume. Even the Indians had a reason to help out with the onshore whaling. They valued fins as sacred objects.

I think here in the 21st century, we should have a “Whalemaster” down at the beach coordinating everything. There never has been such a thing as a Whalemaster. But there has been a Wreckmaster.

Way back then, and right up through the end of the 19th century, sailing ships—ocean going freighters or schooners—would crash on the rocks or reefs of the Hamptons and Montauk. Word would travel fast and the owners or agents for the ship would be contacted in New York Harbor, who, in a couple of days, would send out a Wreckmaster. He’d take charge of unloading the freight, the burial of those who died, and the care of the survivors.

Of course, the locals would be down at the beach in a minute after the shipwreck was reported, not only trying to rescue those on board, but also to take away whatever valuables had washed up. It was first come, first served with whatever washed up until the Wreckmaster arrived. One year it might be a certain kind of lumber. Another it might be Scotch. One year, all the wives in one of our towns were wearing calico, because that was what washed up. And then, of course, when the Wreckmaster arrived, everybody had to pretend they didn’t have anything.

I think this new post of Whalemaster should be a ceremonial post, in the same way America’s National Poet holds a ceremonial post. Once a year or maybe twice a year, a Whalemaster would have something to do for a day or two, supervising the removal of the whale. Otherwise he could appear for formal occasions or marching in parades. He’d be in uniform. I can think of a good many people, revered in this community, who would be willing to serve.

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