Documentary Honors Late Buzzards Bay Advocate

By ecoRI News staff

Richard Wheeler was an environmental advocate and a lifelong educator. (Buzzards Bay Coalition)

Richard Wheeler was an environmental advocate and a lifelong educator. (Buzzards Bay Coalition)

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — In memory of Onset resident Richard Wheeler, who died in January at the age of 88, the Buzzards Bay Coalition will offer free showings throughout March of the environmental documentary that followed his 1,500-mile 1991 solo kayak trip from Newfoundland to Buzzards Bay.

Wheeler was an environmental advocate, a lifelong educator, and a longtime Buzzards Bay Coalition supporter. He dedicated his life to advancing the understanding of the marine environment, the interconnectedness of all life, and people’s responsibility to nature.

Driven by a concern for diminishing fish populations in the western Atlantic Ocean, Wheeler undertook his 130-day kayak journey in 1991 to follow the migratory path of the extinct great auk, the “penguins” of Buzzards Bay that early explorers described. NOVA filmed the endeavor for a documentary, “The Haunted Cry of a Long Gone Bird,” which aired on PBS and garnered international acclaim. Time magazine named Wheeler a “Hero for the Planet” in 1998.

Wheeler’s distinctive black-and-white sea kayak that he paddled on his journey, with “Aukie” the great auk mounted on the bow, now resides at the coalition’s headquarters, next to the learning center that bears his name.

The coalition will show “The Haunted Cry of a Long Gone Bird” hourly on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. at the Richard C. Wheeler Bay Learning Center, 114 Front St., for the entire month. The film will also be shown during AHA! Night on March 14 at 5:30 and 7 p.m. Attendees are welcome to visit the learning center to watch the documentary, view his kayak, and learn more about Wheeler.

In 2012, at age 81, Wheeler took to a kayak once again to show how Buzzards Bay’s communities and people are connected by water. He embarked on a 281-mile paddle around the bay’s entire shoreline, completed in stages beginning in the Westport River and ending on Penikese Island. Along the way, he met up with schoolchildren on coalition-led outdoor exploration programs.

In addition to paddling, Wheeler also participated for years in the coalition’s Buzzards Bay Swim, a 1.2-mile open-water crossing of outer New Bedford Harbor. The event’s Wheeler Watershed Challenge Cup, awarded to the fastest team, is named in his honor.