A Whale of a Tale

Only men would become actual cannibals in order to avoid encountering hypothetical cannibals.

The Essex was not the only whaling ship in history to be demolished by a whale. It was, however, the inspiration for Moby Dick, a classic ocean tale of the perils of whales. The Essex was also the true story of three crew members vanishing to Australia, a Captain with a pocket of bones, and a berzerk sperm whale.

Arguably, the entire crew suffered from limited brain capacity. In 1820, after facing serious damage to the ship during their time at sea, they managed to settle upon Charles Island to repair The Essex and hunt plenty of tortoises to stock their food supplies. While they were on the island, they also managed to set the island on fire, due to the dry season. With the entire place burning away in a mass of black smoke, they took off eagerly for their good fortunes to be found hunting whales.

They cemented their reputation of becoming the alleged reason for the extinction of the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird due to their inability to control a singular fire.  

Perhaps it was foreshadowing that their travels would suffer from extremities. The island was still burning away in their shadows, a dark omen for their collective futures.

Photo Courtesy of Thomas Kelley

Photo Courtesy of Thomas Kelley

They managed to maintain their course, relying on navigation equipment and seasoned crew members to guide the ship to whale hunting grounds. The Essex, like other whaling ships at the time, was a large ship with smaller whaleboats that could be attached. These boats would allow crew members to hunt the whales from a smaller vessel, harpooning the creatures with far more ease.

The worst luck to have been experienced by this boat was an unprovoked sperm whale becoming visible to crew members. Despite no direct confrontation from the crew, it attacked the boat, ramming into it hard. As the boat began to take on water while crew members floundered, struggling to stall the damages, the whale returned, charging the ship at a faster pace.

Devastated, the boat began taking on water far quicker as supplies were being directed to the whaleboats. Navigation equipment was split between two boats, leaving the third one void of any guiding materials. Limited food and water rations were supplied, making dehydration a nasty force to combat as many crew members would find themselves reliant on drinking salt water or their own urine.

With The Essex rendered hopeless, they began sorting out their options. Stranded on the ocean with limited supplies, they felt it unwise to set off for the nearest land, which happened to be the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, due to the rumors of wild cannibals populating those areas. Instead, the better decision appeared to be setting off for South America, which would require travelling a far greater distance.

However, they soon learned that the whaling boats were not meant for vigorous use. They began struggling from the water intake and would often be obliged to bail water out. This distance was massive, and upon sighting a barren island, three men found it better to abandon the boats and settle upon the island.

Photo Courtesy of Rod Long

Photo Courtesy of Rod Long

No longer the hunters, the dwindling crew had become victims of their game. After one crew member died, the surviving members settled upon his body, becoming what they each had so greatly feared: cannibals.

As their numbers continued to decline, the men found themselves sucking marrow from the bones of deceased crew members. Eventually, the rate of death was not fast enough and they began a lottery to propose who would be the next meal, which was a rather popular custom for seamen. No longer were they able to wait for their rations, but now they found themselves obliged to hurry the process.

The three boats, during their long voyage, eventually drifted apart. One of the boats had sunk, leaving no survivors. The second boat, manned by a crew member named Chase, was able to flag down an English ship that they had come across. The other surviving boat that contained the Captain was found full of bones. The Captain himself was discovered delusional and stuffing bones in his pockets, terrified of the men that were rescuing him.

The three men who had fled the gloom of the whaleboats in favour of a seemingly barren island managed to survive on bird eggs for four months, before an Australian ship happened across them.

The moral of this story is that hunting large creatures with men capable of setting islands on fire is rarely a great idea.

If you’re interested in learning more about aggression in sperm whales and possible reasons for the behaviour of the whale that attacked The Essex, check out this link, or take a look at this article by Gilbert King to learn more about the ship.


Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.

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