In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

June 14, 2011

If you've enjoyed at all the lost-at-sea stories I've been linking to recently, then you have to read Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which recounts the sinking of the Essex by an enraged sperm whale and the subsequent survival story of (some of) the crew. (Herman Melville's Moby Dick was inspired by the events surrounding the Essex's demise.)

I rarely stray too far from books about science and technology, but I've become so enamored with these stories of survival on the open seas that I just couldn't help myself when my friend, Andre Torrez, recommended to me this book.

It's perfectly paced from start to finish, and as a consequence, I'm pretty sure I've never devoured a book in such a short amount of time. I quite literally couldn't put it down. From the fascinating history of the early whaling industry, and of Nantucket in particular--including much discussion of the social fabric that emerged in that whaling town, whose men were almost never there--to the researched descriptions of the physiological affects of prolonged bouts of hunger and thirst, it's a page-turner through and through.

The account of the Essex being attacked by the monstrous (maybe 85-feet long) sperm whale--who may or may not have been protecting others in his pod already harpooned--left me dumbstruck. It's kind of in my nature to side with animals just going about their business (I was the kid that wouldn't let others step on ants), and so I found myself rooting in a curious way for the sperm whale (whose brains are five times the size of ours), especially after having just read a detailed and stomach-wrenching description of how the whales are killed, that left nothing to the imagination. It's a disgusting death.

Once the Essex goes down, the 20-man crew is left to subsist in three 25-foot whaling boats that are uncovered and increasingly rickety. They're in the open ocean for three months, and most do not survive. Ironically, the crew's reticence to attempt to reach islands whose inhabitants may practice cannibalism ultimately requires that they themselves engage in this act of survival; this includes the captain, who not only presides over his cousin's execution, but proceeds to participate in the "taboo of gastronomic incest."

It's a truly unbelievable story of survival and despair, and ultimately a lesson in what humans are capable of when we just refuse to die (despite our bodies having already given up).

Quoting from the book refuses to do it any kind of justice, but I thought I might offer just one disturbing paragraph to give you an idea of the men's condition after enduring 93 days of nature's sadism:

When [three of the survivors] attempted to climb aboard [a rescue ship], they discovered that they didn't have the strength. The three men stared up at the crew, their eyes wide and huge within the dark hollows of their skulls. Their raw, ulcerated skin hung from their skeletons like noxious rags. As he looked down from the quarterdeck, Captain William Crozier was moved to tears at what Chase called "the most deplorable and affecting picture of suffering and misery."

Read it.

(I of course immediately went looking for other books by the author and have just added his Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War to my queue.)

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