In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 3 : First Blood | Summary



The crew fails to find additional boats for sale in the Azores, so they head toward Cape Verde Islands, where they pick up a battered whaleboat and some hogs. After the Essex crosses the equator, they have their first sighting of a shoal (pod or group) of whales.

The narrator explains how they hurry to prepare three whaleboats, along with harpoons and tubs of harpoon line. The mate climbs into the stern (back of the boat), while the boatsteerer takes his position at the bow (front). Four oarsmen also man the boat. The mate or captain mans the steering oar, while the boatsteerer mans the harpooner's oar. The bow oarsman will "lead the crew in pulling in the whale line" once the whale is harpooned. The tub oarsman manages the tubs of whale line, while the after oarsman makes sure the line doesn't tangle. The midships oarsman handles the heaviest oars. All three boats compete to get to the whale first. Before the novice harpooner, Benjamin Lawrence, has a chance to throw his weapon, a whale damages Owen Chase's boat.

Several days later the Essex crew harpoons their first whale. The narrator describes a "Nantucket sleigh ride," in which the harpooned whale drags one of the boats at 15 or 20 knots (17 to 23 miles) an hour. The crew maneuvers in closer to the whale as it tires itself out, at which point the mate or captain stabs it with a 12-foot lance. Sometimes the whale must be stabbed up to 15 times, the mate "probing for a group of coiled arteries in the vicinity of the lungs." Once the lance does its job, the whale chokes on its own blood and begins spewing a "geyser of gore." Then it goes into a "flurry," beating the water with its tail and snapping its jaws until it finally dies, "floating fin-up in a slick of its own blood and vomit."

To butcher the body, the crew fastens the whale to the starboard (right) side of the ship with the head facing forward. A cutting platform is lowered, and the mates then strip the whale of its blubber. "Blanket pieces" (big strips of blubber) are lowered into the blubber room, cut into smaller pieces, and boiled to extract the oil. The whale is then decapitated. Its head, about a third of its length, holds "a cavity filled with up to five hundred gallons of spermaceti," a clear, waxy substance that "partially solidifies on exposure to air." Sometimes one or more men have to climb into the cavity to make sure all the spermaceti has been collected. The mates also probe the whale's "intestinal tract with a lance," searching for ambergris, an extremely valuable fatty substance used to make perfume. Next the men try-out the whale, which means extracting oil from the blubber by cooking it, a grisly, smelly process that can take up to three days.

Morale on the ship is low, the narrator says, because of the knockdown and since the Essex has caught only a single whale in four months. The men are not happy with their rations, a small amount of very salty beef and hardtack (biscuit), while the officers enjoy a much greater quantity and variety of food. When some men complain, Captain George Pollard Jr. mercilessly shuts them down, since he cannot afford any challenge to his authority.


The grueling and exacting life of a whaleman, as well as the cruelty of the hunt, are aptly described in Chapter 3 when the Essex crew kills its first whale. Each person in the six-man whaleboat has a specific job to do. The first mate steers from the back, while the boatsteerer in the front is also responsible for harpooning the whale. Each of the other oarsmen has specific duties in addition to rowing. It is hard to imagine the amount of courage needed to go on a "Nantucket sleigh ride," particularly when considering none of the men wear life jackets, and some of them don't even know how to swim. The killing of the whale, performed by the officers, is a grisly theater of the macabre, in which a warm-blooded mammal is stabbed in the core of its physical being and then made to drown in its own blood and vomit. No wonder the men preferred to think of the whales as a floating tub of lard; this would have allowed them to distance themselves from their grisly deeds, by objectivizing these living beings and turning them into things. They did not want to think that these creatures experienced pain or suffering, or perhaps they simply didn't care. Further, Philbrick is showing the gruesome details of the past to move the modern reader to think about the residual cruelty and greed lingering in the present, one of the main ideas in In the Heart of the Sea. That the men see dollar signs instead of life and sentience illustrates how powerful greed is, powerful enough to cause willful blindness.

The cruelty of whaling entrepreneurs and officers is also highlighted in Chapter 3. Philbrick explains how the inexperienced green hands run through all their clothing because they are "so revolted by the noisome mixture of oil, blood, and smoke covering their skin and clothes" while they are trying out the whale. Rather, they should have used just one old pair of woolen drawers for the entire process and slept in their smelly clothes for three days. As a result of their attempts to get clean, they have to buy more clothing from the ship's "slop chest," or company store, at inflated prices. They end up owing the ship owners most of their earnings by the end of the voyage, Nickerson says. Neither did the ship's officers warn the young men about how much the slop chest would cost them, perhaps seeing their folly as part of a perverse initiation process. Also cruel is the vast difference between what the officers eat and what the crew eats, as well as the fact that the crew does not get enough to eat. When they complain, the captain, whose word is law on a sailing ship, threatens them. Philbrick uses the ship's social hierarchies to stand for society at large, and to show how wealth rewards itself and disempowers the lower-income class.

Philbrick explains how the men get out the most precious substance from the whale's head, the spermaceti wax (about 530 gallons) yielding the best quality oil. The wax itself is used for a variety of purposes. Also valuable is the ambergris, formed from bile duct secretions, but present in a very small percentage of whales. Sometimes sperm whales excrete ambergris, and people have been known to find it on the beach, even today. Ambergris helps affix the smell of perfume to the skin, although perfumers have learned how to substitute other substances for ambergris over time, though French perfumers still use ambergris today.

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