Penikese Island is perhaps best known for its role as an isolated leprosy hospital in the early 1900s. But its modern history extends much deeper. In the 1870s, the island was home to the Anderson School of Natural History; one of the school’s graduates went on to found the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. More recently, Penikese Island was home to a residential reform school for teenage boys from 1973 to 2011. The school offered an alternative to lockup for delinquent youth, and the island’s rustic surroundings, the hard work it required, and the interdependent “family” it created helped students advance and grow.
Today, Penikese Island is a state-owned wildlife sanctuary with crystal-clear waters, abundant bird populations, and a sense of quiet solitude unlike any other place on Buzzards Bay. If you have access to a boat, then we highly recommend you check out this beautiful and fascinating spot for a walk, picnic, birdwatching, swimming, snorkeling – and a history lesson.
Grassy, unmarked trails stretch up Penikese Island from the beach and boat dock past the former school buildings. (Please note that the school buildings are not open to the public.) The island’s terrain is hilly and its paths are rough and uneven in spots, so wear sturdy footwear and watch your step. To avoid trampling nests, eggs, and chicks, please stay on the mowed trails during bird nesting season, from April 1-August 15.
From the dock or the cluster of former school buildings, head west on the trails to reach the island’s high point, where you can take in a panoramic view of Cuttyhunk and Nashawena islands, the Atlantic Ocean and Vineyard Sound, and even the Aquinnah Cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard. (Take care around the open cistern at the end of the trail.)
For a longer journey, walk north on the stone wall-lined path past the buildings. This trail will lead you to a small cemetery overlooking the entrance to Buzzards Bay – a spooky reminder of the island’s past as a leper colony. From here, you can reach the island’s northernmost beaches; these rock-covered shores make for an interesting exploration and a wide-open view of the Bay’s busy waters.
Habitats & Wildlife
Penikese Island has some of the healthiest waters in Buzzards Bay. Lush eelgrass meadows carpet the shallows, providing an important habitat for fish and shellfish. Because of these pristine waters, Penikese is one of the best places on the Bay to go snorkeling – just tie up your boat, don your mask and snorkel, and hop in to see what underwater creatures you can find!
The island’s grassy hills and rocky beaches serve as a critical nesting colony for seabirds – particularly gulls and terns, including the endangered roseate tern. These birds are sensitive to disturbances, which makes remote Penikese Island an excellent place for them to breed. For birders, the island is a hotspot for dozens of species of seaducks, shorebirds, and songbirds.
Penikese Island is undergoing active habitat restoration, and Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife staff are present on the island during spring and early summer to manage birds. To keep nesting birds safe, please follow all posted signage and stay out of restricted area. No pets are allowed on the island, and certain areas are off limits to public visitors due to the concentration of nesting birds.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife is responsible for the conservation – including restoration, protection, and management – of fish and wildlife resources for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.