One of the earliest references to Fire Island I’ve ever found is for 1653 when Isaac Stratford set up whaling huts at Whalehouse Point on the Great South Beach, opposite Bellport, on what is now Fire Island. It is still called this today, and even has a private community ferry that chugs out there for recreational “beaching,” within the “Wilderness Area” of the Seashore. (It’s about halfway between Smith Point and Watch Hill.)
Back in 1653 Stratford didn’t have “beaching” in mind. His objective was to harpoon a whale or three, and make a profit.
An ancient letter has come into my possession, lent to me from a historian I’ve known for decades, who has many connections to those now living in Bellport. It is addressed to “Arthur”, dated Oct. 1, 1798, and signed “Ed.” I quote:
“Strange things happen on South Beach. The latest one I’ve heard is foreboding.
In the early part of this century, a Stratford whaling crew, half Indians, had their whaling hut east of Quanch, at a place called Whalehouse Point. They used to land at the point where the water is deep. They would live in those huts during the whaling seasons and watch the sea every day from rickety towers – ready to launch their boats and push off whenever they saw a whale blow.
Their supplies were brought ashore from across the bay to the north side of the island, and fires were built in a giant fireplace on the island to signal when supplies were needed from across the bay at Long Point, and also whenever help was needed in the way of new crew.
When a fire flashed up at night on the beach, the extra crew would row across the bay, heading directly for the fire with supplies. On the north side of the bay, others looked to send signals by fires as well.
This crew in one of the beach huts had been expecting a response fire signal for three days now, and they were getting short of supplies.
Now, the curious thing about this is a man named Jonas who was the watch for the second of those nights, and had a very strange experience. That South Beach, you know, is one of the most lonely places in the world. Take it on a dark night with the wind blowin wild and spooky.
That night, just past midnight, Jonas took it upon himself to walk in the dark westward about a mile. Frequently he would go down in the hollows between the sand hills and stop and listen. He heard – under the black and starry sky, the sound of the wind in the grass, and the beat of the surf.
And yet there was something more. There was a moaning sound – almost human he thought — carried on the wind to the west of where Jonas stood. As he stood thinking of it, the moaning sound came again, stronger than before, but to the east of him. Jonas became skittish, and quickly made his way to the bunk in the hut. It was two hours before he could get to sleep.
The next morning a whale was sighted close to shore. A shout “Whale off!” came from atop the watch tower. That’s the shout you know to alert the crew to action. They launched their whale-boat and put off for him. They calculated where the whale would next rise above the water, and rowed to that spot. He came up lengthwise of their boat, just far enough ahead to smash it with its flukes. It was a Right Whale, and they strike sideways, you know, with their tail.
“Stern all,” was the call. They whirled around – whale-boats are sharp at both ends you know – and they rowed straight for the whale. Quebax, the harpooner, fastened his oar, rose up in the bow, grasped hard at the harpoon, and threw it a long fifteen feet, and it entered the whale’s side and held securely. But the whale turned suddenly and struck the boat with his head, staving the boat into hundreds of splinters.
All the crew, thrown in the sea, was able to swim to the beach except Quebax who must have got tangled in the ropes. His body was never found. Nor was the whale seen again.
It was toward the end of the season – this whale would have made their sixth – and the disaster broke off their whaling for the year.
Jonas has been thinking that the moaning sounds came most in the area close to this disaster. He feels that they were foretelling the misfortune that was about to befall the crew. It sure did sound human, and then again, the whale could have been making a sound like that as well. To this day, on certain dark nights about midnight, with the wind coming from the southeast, there are reports of these moaning sounds still putting some fear in the crews that stay on that beach.
There’s talk now of abandoning whaling off this part of the beach. Some feel it is haunted now by the sounds of Quebax and the whale dying together that night.” (End of letter)
Whaling is now off
Whaling off the beaches of Fire Island ceased by the mid-1800s, and ceased entirely as well off the sailing ships that were based in Sag Harbor, Cold Spring Harbor, Greenport, Nantucket, New Bedford and elsewhere by the 1930s when whale hunting was banned off US shores.
Right whales were vulnerable to hunting, as they have the habit of slowly cruising along the surface, skimming plankton and krill. Whalers of old termed them “Right Whales” because they felt that they were easy prey and “right” for the whaling industry. As a result their numbers diminished over the years to less than 100 along the Atlantic coast by the 1930s. Reports are that the Right Whale population is now back up to 300-350 creature cetaceans cruising back and forth from south to north and back with the seasons.
If you are lucky, and do a lot of ocean staring, as I do, you can hope to see a whale or two offshore as did the whale spotters of the 1800s. You have heard that whales sing, have you not? They surely can make a range of mammalian sound, and probably they would include moaning sounds, such as the moans that seem to lurk at midnight among the dune hills along the Fire Island Wilderness area of the National Seashore where Jonas once stood.
Copyright (c) 2005 Robert H. Spencer