In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Chapter 5 : The Attack | Summary



By November 16, 1820, the Essex is more than a thousand miles west of the Galapagos, following the equator through the largest ocean in the world (the Pacific is 64 million square miles). The Essex is not having much luck finding whales, and Owen Chase has humiliated his boatsteerer, Benjamin Lawrence, by taking his place on the whaleboat. On November 20, about 1,500 nautical miles from the Galapagos, the crew sights the spouts of the whales. Lawrence steers the boat too close to the whale, and when Chase harpoons it, the creature panics and opens a hole in the boat, forcing the men to return to the ship. Meanwhile, the other two crews have harpooned whales.

While Chase fixes the boat, Thomas Nickerson steers the ship toward Captain George Pollard Jr. and Matthew Joy. Suddenly, Nickerson sees a huge sperm whale, about 85 feet long, less than 100 yards away. Its giant scarred head is pointed at the ship. The whale seems to be watching them as it puffs through its blowhole. The whale dives and begins to move, picking up speed and aiming his head at the port (left) side of the Essex. Before the ship can make any defensive maneuvers, the whale rams it. Afterward the whale passes under the ship, knocking off the false keel, a six-by-twelve-inch piece of timber. It briefly surfaces on the starboard (right) side. Chase grabs a lance to kill it but hesitates because the whale's flukes (its tail) are close to the ship's rudder and could possibly smash the steering device.

The whale swims away and begins "snapping its jaws and thrashing the water with its tail," as if, Chase describes later, "'distracted with rage and fury.'" The whale makes for the ship again, smashing it: "The creature's tail continued to work up and down, pushing the 238-ton ship backward until ... water surged up over the transom," effectively sinking the ship. The black steward, William Bond, rescues Pollard's and Chase's trunks along with the navigational equipment.

As soon as the sailors on the other two whaleboats see the sinking ship, they release their whales and return to where Chase and the rest of the men have scrambled onto the undamaged whaleboat taken off the rack above the quarterdeck. Bond has salvaged two compasses, two quadrants, and two copies of Nathaniel's Bowditch's navigational manual, which were essential to survival on the sea.

The clicking sounds made by sperm whales are said to sound like a hammer tapping. Owen Chase had been nailing a piece of canvas to a whaleboat when the leviathan attacked, likely after the first mate had attracted the whale's attention. Whether the bull interpreted the sounds as coming from another whale is impossible to know. When two bulls fight, they generally attack with their jaws and tails. Whales have also been known to attack whaleboats in the same way. The attack on the Essex, however, seems to have been calculated to do the most damage to the ship, and the whale had protected itself by not attempting to strike the Essex head-on.

After the attack the men return to the partially floating hull of the ship to salvage as much food and other provisions as they can carry on three whaleboats. They cut down the masts so the hull of the ship can right itself. Then they are able to reach provisions in the upper part of the ship.


The Essex is just outside the Offshore Ground when the ship is rammed by a whale and 20 men become stranded in the "sixty-four-million-square-mile ocean" Herman Melville calls the "'tide-beating heart of the earth.'" It is hard for a modern person to imagine what it could have been like to travel in an 87-foot-long ship through the oceans of the world, in vessels powered by wind, when current oceangoing ships are 1,000-feet-long or more and powered by engines. These ships had no way to communicate with one another unless they happened to run into each other. As Philbrick notes, sailing from Panama to the Malay Peninsula is an 11,000-mile trip, four times as long as Columbus's voyage. The whaleboats were only 25-feet long, powered by hand rowing. Not only did the whalers have to be brave; they also had to have great strength and endurance to manage the hardships of life at sea.

One thing the whalers could generally count on was the docility of the sperm whale. Unlike the fighting orcas, a sperm whale had never been known to attack a ship. So nothing surprises Owen Chase more than an apparently deliberate attack. Perhaps Chase is anthropomorphizing (giving human characteristics) to the whale, when he says the whale was in a rage and fury. But given that there were several other reports of attacks by sperm whales in the 19th century, it seems reasonable to conclude that the whale did deliberately attack the boat. One theory is that Chase's hammering may have sounded like clicking to the whale. The creature may have run into the boat by mistake the first time. Perhaps that collision was then construed as an attack, to which the whale responded. But as Philbrick notes, whales fight with their jaws, and this whale rammed the ship with its head to sink it.

Whales have good memories, scientists say, and another possibility is that a whale who has been previously attacked or has seen other whales attacked might figure out that a whaleship is an enemy. New research on animals like whales, dolphins, and elephants show they are smarter than previously thought and can feel pain, suffering, and feelings of love. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, signed in 2012 by prominent scientists in many fields, declares that evidence suggests humans are not unique in having "the neurological substrates that generate consciousness." Recent research shows, for example, that whales and dolphins can learn new things and can pass their knowledge on to others of their species. Therefore, it could be that the whale did attack the Essex on purpose.

While Chase becomes the heroic protagonist in his own account of the Essex tragedy, he is actually responsible for a cascade of events that puts the ship in such a precarious position as to be sunk by a whale in the first place. First, he convinces the captain not to turn back to Nantucket after the knockdown. If the Essex had returned to port, it might not have run into a furious leviathan. Furthermore, the ship might have withstood the attack better if it had been repaired; certainly, the whaleboats would have been in better shape. Second, Chase takes the harpoon away from the boatsteerer, seemingly for no good reason other than his impatience and desire to attach his boat to the whale himself. This puts Benjamin Lawrence in the position of steering the boat from the back (usually the first mate's job), and Lawrence does not have Chase's experience. For this reason, he brings the boat too close to the whale target, and the whale knocks a hole in the boat. This necessitates Chase's return to the ship and is the reason for the hammering that summons the Essex's nemesis. Third, Chase ends up convincing the captain (in the next chapter) to override his good sense and take a foolish journey of 4,500 miles, resulting in the deaths of most of the crew.

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