Whaling

On this day in 1820...

On August 12, 1819, the whaleship Essex sailed from Nantucket, Massachusetts for the whaling grounds off the western coast of South America. This marked the beginning of a fateful and tragic voyage, though none on the ship could have known its eventual fate. This voyage was destined to be written into the annals of history, not to be forgotten.

Only two days after leaving port, the ship was nearly sunk by a squall, but it survived and continued its voyage. Upon rounding Cape Horn and arriving at the whaling grounds, the ship found that there were nearly no whales to be had. However, they learned of new grounds located much further out to sea than whaling ships traditionally ventured. Not only were the new grounds uncomfortably far out to sea, but the closest land was a group of islands which were said to be inhabited by cannibals.

Needing to restock their ship before sailing so far out, the men of the Essex decided to stop in the Galapagos islands where they captured hundreds of giant tortoises. On one of the islands upon which they landed, some of the crew decided it would be fun to light a fire, which got out of hand, surrounded the sailors, who then had to leap through the flames to escape, and blackened the island killing all life that had once called it home and possibly contributing to the extinction of two species of animal.

With this omen of good fortune, they made sail for the new whaling grounds. For days they fished with no luck, but on the morning of November 20, 1820, they spotted a whale pod. The whale boats were launched, and the chase was on. A little while later the crew noticed a remarkably large whale laying motionless, head aimed at the Essex, acting strangely a ways from the ship.

Then, without warning, the whale began to swim directly for the ship. It picked up speed and rammed its head against the ship's hull. This rocked the ship back and forth, but wasn't a mortal blow. He finally surfaced, dazed, on the starboard side of the ship, where the First Mate, Owen Chase, was prepared to harpoon him, but he then realized that the whale's tail was only inches from the ships rudder. Not wanting to be stranded thousands of miles out to sea with no way to steer the ship, the man decided not to harpoon the creature.

Moments later, the giant whale recovered and swam several hundred yards ahead of the ship before turning about to face it.

I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods [500 m or 550 yards] directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots (44 km/h), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship." —Owen Chase, First Mate.

This blow crushed the ship's hull, and sent the ship reeling backwards through the sea. The whale then dislodged its head from the hole which it had punched in the ship, and it disappeared, never to be seen again.

The men then found themselves stranded over a thousand of miles from the nearest land with nothing but a few small boats and some assorted supplies to last them. They were afraid of sailing to the relatively close islands which were rumored to be inhabited by cannibals, so they began the journey to South America, which was several thousand miles further away yet. In the end, seven of the survivors were eaten by their shipmates, and only eight men lived to tell the tale.

On this day in 1820, a ship was sunk by a giant sperm whale, altering the course of history thereafter and inspiring a revolutionary work, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which challenged the contemporary ideas of what a novel should be, was philosophically ahead of its times, and is considered by some to be the Great American novel.