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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Just Finished Reading: In the Heart of the Sea – The Epic True Story that Inspired Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick (FP: 2000)

There is nothing worse that sailing on a ship or with a Captain who is bad luck – except possibly for both at once. This, it seemed, was the fate of the famous whaling ship Essex ‘stove in by a whale’ in the deep Pacific on November 20, 1820. It all started rather badly with a green crew (by and large) and a somewhat over confident young captain out to prove himself. Trying to outrun a nasty squall the ship almost foundered mere days after leaving Nantucket. Putting into the Azores for repairs they decided to move on with reduced whaling boats confident that they still had enough to do the job ahead of them. But this was the age where whales in the Atlantic where scarcely sighted and the voyage was extended in range in the hope of filling their holds with the precious oil. With the hold less than a third full they decided to round Cape Horn and enter the Pacific praying that the largely untouched hunting grounds lived up to their reputation. At first everything seemed to be as they hoped and the number of whales seemed to be without count. As usual they were mainly females and their young calves but within each heard was a male known for their ferocity in defending what was his. But they had never seen or heard of anything quite like this. During the hunt, with several females already harpooned, the boat skippered by Owen Chase (played by Chris Hemsworth in one of my favourite movies of 2015) is savagely struck and damaged by a male bull and is forced to retire back to the Essex. Whilst hastily repairing his boat Chase notices that the bull has followed them back and is acting strangely close by. Suddenly the massive off-white creature begins to move towards the ship gathering speed as it does so – apparently intending to ram the Essex. Moments later the impact throws everyone on board off their feet. Only yards away the apparently stunned whale recovers its senses and slowly swims off. Checking the hull Chase is aghast to see that some serious damage has been caused as water is entering the hold. Not quite in danger yet Chase orders pumps and the start of repairs when the ship is hit again and mortally wounded. Already starting to list Captain Pollard (played by Benjamin Walker in the movie) in the other whale boat sees the trouble and returns to a scene of unbelievable carnage. Thousands of miles from land, with three boats and few supplies the officers and crew must decide how best to get home. Unfortunately their first decision, to sail for the coast of Chile rather than Tahiti, was a fatal mistake for most of the crew.

I can honestly say that I was completely entranced by the movie version of this book and thought it was one of the two best films I saw in 2015 – the other being Bridge of Spies. Just like this fascinating short history of those events it worked on multiple levels simultaneously – as the real events behind the American classic Moby Dick, as a tale of daring and adventure on the high seas, as an insight into one of the great industries of the 19th century on the edge of radical decline and as a tale of great fortitude (and incredible navigational skills) that became the talk of the age. The reality was, interesting enough, quite different in many ways from the movie which was rather more sensationalist that this work of history. Most of the elements are there but somewhat enhanced or ‘sexed up’ as if any greater drama needed to be added. What I found particularly interesting however was that the attack (and destruction) of the Essex by a whale was not the only such incident recorded just the most famous. It seemed that near the end of the industry that the supply chain had actually started fighting back! Fascinating from many points of view this book is a must read for anyone interested in 19th century industry, whaling in the age of sail, readers of Moby Dick or for those who saw the film and simply wanted to know more. Recommended.    


VV said...

That's fascinating that the whales began fighting back. I think I remember reading something similar about elephants going after ivory hunters. They began remembering their faces and going after them. I enjoyed this movie as well, but haven't read the book. I also loved Bridge of Spies.

Brian Joseph said...

Great review.

I had only a remote knowledge of this story. It sounds so interesting. Though of course Moby Dick is famous, the events in that book seem so fanciful. Yet these incidents really occurred.

You also make the film sound like I want to see it.

CyberKitten said...

@ VV: I guess that the whales had a fair chance - certainly against the whaling boats rather than the ships themselves - but could in the right circumstances severely damage a sailing ship not much bigger than themselves (apparently the whale that sank the Essex was virtually the same size as the ship!) but they'd have no chance later on in the age of steam especially with the explosive harpoons. Likewise the elephants would have had a fair chance against early hunters with basic single shot weapons. No chance at all with the modern variety. I guess that the hunters of both expected to triumph no matter what. It must have been quite a shock to have the hunted suddenly become the hunter!

@ Brian: I think you'd like both. They are different beasts (being very different media) but I do think that the book and the movie compliment each other nicely.