Onset environmentalist Richard Wheeler dies at 88

Jan 31, 2019

Onset environmentalist Richard Wheeler passed away on Thursday afternoon at the age of 88.

A pivotal figure in the town of Wareham, Wheeler was perhaps best known for his 1991 kayak trip from Newfoundland to Buzzards Bay to raise awareness about extinction.

The 1,500-mile journey followed the migratory path of the great auk, a bird humans drove to extinction in the 1800s.

The Buzzards Bay Coalition, a nonprofit which works to protect and restore the bay, dedicated a learning center in its New Bedford headquarters to Wheeler in 2010 in honor of this journey. The trip took 130 days to complete and was documented by PBS.

For his efforts, Wheeler was also named a “Hero for the Planet” by Time Magazine in 1998.

In addition to kayaking, Wheeler was also an avid swimmer.

He swam competitively in high school and while attending Harvard University before going on to serve as a frogman in the U.S. Navy. Frogmen, better known today as Navy Seals, trained in scuba and swimming for combat.

“I volunteered to be a frogman,” Wheeler said in a 2011 interview with Wareham Week. “It sounded like a good idea at the time.”

In the summer of 2011, at the age of 80, Wheeler competed in a 1.2-mile swim across Buzzards Bay, circumnavigated Cape Ann in a 20-mile kayak trip and paddled 12 miles from downtown Wareham to Bird Island in Marion.

In September of that same year, he competed in the Waikiki Roughwater Challenge in Hawaii, a 2.3-mile swim in the Kapua Channel across Waikiki.

Wheeler did his rowing workouts at the Gleason Family YMCA and helped to raise money for the Wareham Free Library through his competitions.

A friend of the Wareham Land Trust, Wheeler also worked to protect Wareham’s wildlife. 

He was the first to alert to nesting turtles in Wareham’s Community Gardens, and in 2010 he rescued an injured bald eagle from Onset Beach.

“I truly admired Mr. Wheeler,” said Wareham Harbormaster Garry Buckminster. “His passing is a difficult loss for our community.”