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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > March 2016 > Great Adventures: The Essex

Great Adventures: The Essex

Pat Kinsella discovers the true tale that inspired Moby-Dick, meeting the whalers who went from hunters to hunted in the middle of the Pacific…
KILLER INSTINCT A sperm whale slams into its pursuers in this c1875 print – the titanic cetaceans were among the most dangerous prey for their hunters
GETTY X1, SUPERSTOCK X1

THE ESSEX AND THE WHALE

Owen Chase – First Mate on a 27-metre whaling vessel, THE Essex – was in the midst of the Pacific on the morning of 20 November 1820, when he spotted an unusually large sperm whale acting strangely. The whale, which the First Mate later estimated to be some 85 feet long 26 metres), was at the surface, its head half clear of the water, seemingly eyeballing The Essex.

All of a sudden, the mammal spouted and swam rapidly towards the ship. “[It was] coming down for us at great celerity,” Chase would later write. Then the beast rammed its humungous head into the hull of The Essex, which reacted “As if she had struck a rock, and trembled for a few seconds like a leaf.”

Chase observed the leviathan pass beneath the injured ship, momentarily stunned by the impact. “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” recounted Chase.

Many of the crew, including the captain, were out hunting in small whaleboats.Those left aboard frantically manned the pumps, but the whale wasn’t done yet. A few moments later, another crew member screamed: “Here he is he is making for us again!”

This time the whale was charging twice as fast, and with double the intent. It smashed into the boat’s bow with such force that it stove the hull fully in.The aggrieved animal then disappeared into the depths, shortly to be followed by the mortally wounded whaling ship.

As The Essex slipped beneath the waves, 20 men were left adrift in three small boats. They were over 1,000 miles from the nearest smudge of land. What happened next was a horribly drawn-out drama, involving more wild attacks, desperate deprivation, death, sacrifice and cannibalism. A handful of the men, including Chase, survived to tell the tale, which inspired American writer Herman Melville to write the classic novel Moby-Dick.

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The March 2016 issue of History Revealed.
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