In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 4 : The Lees of Fire | Summary



The trip around Cape Horn at the tip of South America could be a difficult trip, and it takes the Essex a month, braving difficult weather, to round the Cape. The crew lands on St. Mary's Island in January 1820. The Essex looks for whales for months off the Chilean coast and finally meets some success off Peru. In two months, the men boil down about 450 barrels of oil, which means they killed about 11 whales.

Because of the bad weather, the whaleboats continue to take a beating and require continuous repair. The men are desensitized to their business, and one commentator on the whaling industry notes that the whalers thought of their prey as "a self-propelled tub of high-income lard." For the whalemen, the whales are seen as commodities, whose heads, blubber, and ambergris will turn them a profit. The rest of the whale—tons and tons of meat, bone, and guts—is wantonly discarded. The refuse creates festering piles of rotting meat "that attract[s] birds, fish, and ... sharks." Just as the skinned corpses of the buffaloes would soon dot the prairies of the American West," says Philbrick, "so did the headless gray remains of sperm whales litter the Pacific Ocean in the early nineteenth century."

The Essex meets the Aurora on the high seas in May 1820 and picks up mail from home. Captain George Pollard Jr. meets with its captain, Daniel Russell, the former commander of the Essex. Russell tells Pollard about a new whaling frontier about 1,000 miles from Peru called the Offshore Ground, where the whales appear in November. Pollard resolves to make one more stop for provisions in South America and then head for the Offshore Ground. In September, the Essex stops at Atacames in Ecuador, and one of the African American sailors, Henry De Witt, deserts.

On October 2, the ship, now shorthanded, heads for the Galapagos Islands. The narrator notes that these famous Ecuadorian islands are known as mating grounds for sperm whales, even to this day. Typically 3 to 20 whales, primarily females, live together in pods and take care of the young. Males leave the family unit when they are about six and live singly or with other males and don't return until they are in their late twenties to mate.

The Essex crew had killed two more whales on the way to the Galapagos and is now carrying 700 barrels of oil. When they reach the Galapagos, they fan out over Hood Island to harvest tortoises weighing from 80 to 400 pounds. To capture a tortoise the sailors flip the tortoise on its back and then secure a harness to its feet. Then the sailors heave the tortoises over their shoulders and carry them back to the ship. The crew collects 180 tortoises over four days. The tortoises can live for over a year without food or water and still yield plump and tasty meat. The sailors insist the creatures feel no distress from lack of food and water, but Nickerson notices later that the tortoises lick everything on the ship's deck.

On Charles Island, where a crude constructed mailbox still stands from whalemen long ago, the Essex men pick up a tortoise weighing 600 pounds. Boatsteerer Thomas Chappel decides to play a prank and ends up burning the entire island down. Nickerson says the fire likely killed many thousands of tortoises, birds, lizards, and snakes. Charles Island will later be the first of the Galapagos Islands to lose its tortoise population.


Additional information about whales and whaling life is provided in this chapter. Philbrick is careful to insert very little commentary to accompany his description of how man uses and abuses nature without a second thought. It remains for the reader to fill in the blanks and think about the implications of the behavior of the world's top predator, who careens through the natural world, destroying what they find with their recklessness, stupidity, and immorality.

The whales hunted by the Essex live in female families, and taking a bull (a male whale) is the exception rather than the rule. The male whales tend to roam alone, mating, or sometimes may roam with other males. Philbrick finds significance in the whalemen being similar to the male whales roaming alone and the Nantucket women, like the female whales, staying at home to tend to their children and offspring. He punctuates this revelation by saying, "in their dedication to killing sperm whales the Nantucketers had developed a system of social relationships that mimicked those of their prey." This foreshadows events to come and draws an important comparison between humans and whales needed to explore humanity's relationship to nature in general. Philbrick shows how the repetitious work of killing and rendering the large mammals on the "factory ship ... tended to desensitize the men to the awesome wonder of the whale" to highlight the perils of greedy capitalism.

The whalers think nothing of the tons of meat they are wastefully discarding, something that would appall indigenous people—as they were horrified when they witnessed the wanton slaughter of the buffalo on the Great Plains and the deliberate extermination of the wolf population in the 19th century.

The whalers show a similar lack of respect for the wildlife and flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago known for its exotic wildlife and biodiversity. The tortoises on the Galapagos have no natural predators, which is why it is so easy for the sailors to capture them for meat. It does not occur to these whalers that the plunder of Galapagos tortoises can lead to extinction. The tortoise population on the Galapagos was probably about 250,000 when the islands were first discovered in the 16th century. In recent times, there are only about 20,000 left.

Thomas Nickerson at least worries about whether the tortoises suffer from their lack of food and water because he sees them licking objects on the ship's deck. (They are collecting dew, which is a primary source of water for them.) Not surprisingly, Charles Island loses its tortoises after the fire. Also, Charles Island, which has since been named Floreana Island, has been negatively affected by people, who came after the whalers, introducing nonnative species to the environment.

The Nantucket whalers exhibit an attitude toward nature that has its origins in the 16th century, when the scientific revolution opened up new vistas of possibility for human beings in exploiting the natural world. No longer did humankind need to be at the mercy of Mother Nature. Francis Bacon, an early philosopher of science, was the first to voice the idea that humankind needed to take back dominion over nature, which was lost during the "Fall," as conceived by Christian theologians, in the Garden of Eden. By the end of the 17th century, scientists had given themselves permission to probe nature's mysteries without reservation and to move as quickly as possible in gaining control over the external world. There was never a question of putting limits on humankind's behavior; as the top predator, human beings have the right to do whatever they please with the lower species, according to this materialistic view. Not surprisingly, the end result of this reckless use of power has brought the world to the point in which all species may be on the brink of extinction.

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