The Essex Disaster

When the Essex sailed for the southern seas, it was just a typical Nantucket whaler, a tubby, 238-ton three-master, provisioned for a two-and-a-half-year cruise.

THEY WERE ALREADY ON THE GROUNDS on the morning of November 20, 1820, when the life of the Essex suddenly took a heart-stopping leap out of the ordinary into the utterly singular. At the critical moment, two of the ship’s whaleboats were at sea, busily hunting whales; Captain Pollard was commanding one boat, the second mate, Matthew Joy, the other. Owen Chase and his boat crew of five had just returned to the Essex to make a few quick repairs on their whaleboat—it had been banged up moments before by a whale—before hurrying back to the fray. Looking up from his work, Chase spied a sperm whale a ship’s length away making toward the bow of the Essex at a moderate pace. A full-grown sperm whale is a fearsome leviathan, growing to more than eighty feet long. Its huge, squarish head is an ugly, twenty-foot battering ram filled with one ton of precious spermaceti oil: protection for its brain when it dives into the ocean depths—as much as a mile—in search of giant squid. Chase, however, was not alarmed in the slightest. The sheer strength and size of the sperm whale makes it dangerous to hunt in cockleshell whaleboats, but of malign or hostile intent it had never given the slightest sign. “I involuntarily ordered the boy at the helm to put it hard up, intending to sheer off and avoid him,” Chase recalled in his Narrative of the Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex . (Chase’s “wondrous story,” said Melville, who chanced to read it in 1841, had “a surprising effect on me. ” Indeed it had. Without Chase’s account, Moby Dick might never have been written.)

What happened next brought sheer, numbing shock. Chase’s order was scarcely out of his mouth before the whale, at full speed, struck the ship with his head.

What happened next brought sheer, numbing shock. Chase’s order to sheer off from the whale was “scarcely out of my mouth before he came down upon us with full speed and struck the ship with his head. ” The Essex trembled from the blow, and “we looked at each other with perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech. ” Minutes later the silence was broken by a frantic shout from one of the men: “Here he is—he is making for us again!” The impossible was happening a second time. The whale, having passed under the Essex , had turned around to attack it once more, “with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment, it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.” This time when it struck, the strangely malignant whale completely staved in the bow of the Essex . Snatching up a few supplies, the eight men on board jumped into a whaleboat, pulled at its oars a few times, and then sat back in silence and despair as they watched their ship, their home, their safety, slowly heel over on its side and settle softly in the vast, empty sea.

While Chase and his mates sat in their whaleboat “absorbed in our own melancholy reflections,” the rest of the crew returned from the hunt. Facing forward while the others rowed, the steerer of Captain Pollard’s boat was the first to see the grim spectacle. “Oh, my God,” he cried out, “where is the ship?” Captain Pollard leaped to his feet to look. After one shocking glimpse of the heeled-over Essex , with its masts and sails dipping into the sea, he fell back into the boat, ashen-faced and speechless. Pulling himself together, the captain called to his first mate: “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” He answered, “We have been stove in by a whale.” It was indeed what Chase was to call it: “a sudden, most mysterious and overwhelming calamity.”