EARLY ON THE morning of December 30,1997, Edie Ray, coordinator of the Nantucket Marine Mammal Stranding Team, received a telephone call. A whale had washed up on the eastern extreme of the island at Siasconset, just off a low plain of sand known as Codfish Park. A spout was puffing from the top of the whale's head: it was still alive. Soon Ray was in her car and headed down Milestone Road, a straight, seven-mile spine of asphalt that connects Nantucket town to the eastern brim of the island. It was bitterly cold and blowing a gale, and the car was slammed by the icy blasts of wind.

Ray knew the surf would be ugly at Codfish Park. In the last decade, winter storms had eroded nearly fifty yards from this end of the island. Waves with a fetch that reached all the way to Portugal, three thousand miles to the east, regularly thundered onto the beach, and in just six years, sixteen houses had either been moved, torn down, or washed away by the sea. This time, however, the waves had brought something with them.

Ray soon saw the whale, a huge black hulk, off the northern edge of Codfish Park. It was a sperm whale, a cetacean almost never seen in these waters, stranded on a shoal about 150 yards off the beach. Its block-shaped head was pointed toward shore, and it was being pummeled by the waves, its tail flopping forward with each hit. The high surf was making it difficult for the whale to breathe.

It would be later determined that, long before the whale washed up on Nantucket, it had broken several ribs in a collision, either with a ship or another whale. Sick, weak, and disoriented, this forty-six-foot adult male-half the length of the whale that sank the Essex-did not have the strength to fight free of the breakers. For Ray it was a distressing sight. She had been trained to assist stranded mammals, including pilot whales and seals, and she and her fellow team members were now powerless to help this giant creature.

Word began to spread throughout the island that a live sperm whale had washed up on Codfish Park. By the afternoon, a crowd had assembled, despite the frigid winter weather. Many onlookers were upset that nothing was being done to assist the whale. Lacerations were now visible around its mouth and eyes, and blood clouded the water. Ray and others explained that the severe surf and the whale's size made it impossible to do anything but watch.

By the afternoon, staff members from the New England Aquarium, which monitors whale strandings along the region's 2,500 miles of coast, had flown in from Boston. As the tide rose, the whale was able to free itself from the shoal, only to be washed back by the waves. Each time it swam free, the rip swept the whale south, and the crowd, often cheering it on, followed it along the beach. Just before sunset, the whale finally escaped the breakers and swam out into open water. Ray and several New England Aquarium people rushed to her car and drove out to Tom Never's Head, a bluff to the south, toward which the whale was last seen swimming. They glimpsed it several times but finally lost sight of it in the fading light.

The next morning, December 31, the whale was found washed up on Low Beach, between Codfish Park and Tom Never's Head. The wind had eased to the point that Stranding Team members and aquarium staffers could now approach the whale, which was still alive, but just barely. By noon it was dead.

The Nantucket Whaling Museum, housed in a former sperm candle factory, already had one of the world's greatest collections of whaling equipment, scrimshaw, and artifacts from the South Seas. It even had the skeleton of a finback whale that had washed up in the 1960s. To add the skeleton of a sperm whale-the species upon which the island's fame had been founded-would provide the museum with the ultimate draw. More important, a sperm-whale skeleton would allow Nantucketers to appreciate firsthand the might and grace of the whale, to pay homage to the creature their forefathers had once dedicated their lives to killing.

On January 2, a team of scientists, many from the New England Aquarium, began a necropsy-measuring and photographing the carcass and collecting blood and tissue samples that would later help them determine what the whale had been suffering from. It soon became clear that the whale was decomposing much more quickly than expected, an indication of just how sick it had been before it died. Using scalpels, forceps, and large knives, the team took samples from the lungs, the three stomachs, the bowling-ball-sized heart, the liver, the spleen, and the ears, about the size of a man's fist and situated far back in the head.

As one group worked at the whale's midsection, a New England Aquarium staff member climbed up on top of the whale. With a long-handled Japanese flensing tool, he made an experimental six-foot slice into the intestinal cavity, unleashing a gaseous explosion of gore that blew him off the whale and drenched the others in blood. For the next few minutes, ropelike intestines continued to bubble out of the incision. Even though the whale had been dead for several days and the outdoor temperature was well below freezing, the blubber-encased body steamed in the cold January air.

The necropsy was finished by three o'clock in the afternoon. Now there was the job of removing more than forty tons of putrefying blubber, meat, and guts from the skeleton. By this point, Jeremy Slavitz and Rich Morcom, two staff members from the Nantucket Historical Association, which owns and maintains the island's whaling museum, had become deeply involved in the whale stranding. Morcom asked his boss if he could borrow some tools from the Whaling Museum's collection. After some quick research, he decided that a boarding knife, a cutting spade, and a bone spade were what he needed. Soon the artifacts, their blades long tarnished with age, were once again sharp and glittering.

Even though the Nantucketers were now ideally equipped, it was backbreaking work, giving all of them an appreciation for the amount of sheer labor whaling in the nineteenth century had required. The blubber was not only difficult to cut, even with the sharpest tools, but also remarkably heavy. A single four-foot-square slab of eight-inch-thick blubber weighed as much as four hundred pounds. The smell was, both Morcom and Slavitz agreed, beyond description. Their eyes watered constantly. They gagged as they worked. Each night both of them left their clothes outside their front doors and ultimately, when the cutting was finished, threw them away. Even after long showers, they could still smell the rotting flesh. One evening, Morcom's wife, knowing that he had spent a vacation day working from dawn till dusk, cooked him up a big steak, but the smell of frying meat nauseated him. A whale wasn't a fish, he now knew all too well, but a mammal.

On January 3 they punctured the whale's bulbous head, and the spermaceti flowed out. At first it was “as clear as vodka,” Morcom remembered; then, upon exposure to the air, the fluid magically congealed into a cloudy, almost waxlike substance. In a few short hours every available bucket and barrel had been filled with spermaceti, and there were still hundreds of gallons remaining. An island fisherman happened to have his dinghy in the back of his pickup truck and offered it as a spermaceti receptacle. Soon it was filled to the gunwale with oil. They ultimately collected about a hundred gallons of spermaceti and were forced to leave an estimated three hundred more on the beach.

By the end of the day they had cut away most of the flesh and blubber from the skeleton, dumping the offal in a hole dug in the beach and temporarily storing the bones under a tarp. A job that had taken as many as three weeks at other whale strandings had been accomplished in only three days.

The bones were eventually buried in a pit, the location of which was kept undisclosed. The jaw and its valuable teeth were buried in Morcom's backyard, but only after his wife and children were sworn to secrecy. With advice from a variety of experts in the field, the Nantucketers decided to build cages for the bones and place them in the harbor the following spring, in expectation that marine scavengers would strip the bones of remaining flesh. The day after Mother's Day, Morcom, Slavitz, and others disinterred the bones, which smelled as bad as, if not worse than, they had when they'dbeen buried in January. The team loaded them into cages, and the cages were lowered into the harbor, near Brant Point-comparatively still waters, where all manner of devourers, from crabs to fish, could dine undisturbed. Except for a few barnacles, the bones were clean when they emerged from the harbor six months later.

Today the bones reside in a shed designed for the storage of Nantucket Historical Association artifacts. In the center of a room lined with curios such as an antique sleigh and the first sewing machine to come to Nantucket are the grayish-white pieces of the sperm-whale skeleton: the wishbone of the jaw, the disks of the backbone, the bulky ribs and the fingerlike bones from the fins. The bone that is by far the largest, the cranium-over a ton in weight-sits outside on its own boat trailer.

The bones are sopping with oil. A sperm-whale skeleton installed at Harvard University a century ago still oozes grease. Morcom, whose job description as properties manager has grown to include whales, is bathing the Nantucket bones in ammonium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide, a mixture that extracts oil. The Nantucket Historical Association has already completed plans to build a new museum with the sperm-whale skeleton as its centerpiece.

The island has changed greatly in recent decades. What was a generation or so ago a decrepit fishing village with a famous past and a few tourists in July and August has become a thriving summer resort. After a century of neglect, downtown Nantucket has been restored. Instead of sail lofts, grocers, and barbershops, however, the buildings now house art galleries, designer clothing boutiques, and T-shirt shops, all of which would have appalled the good gray Quakers of the whaling era. Spurning the cobblestoned elegance of Main Street, Nantucket's latest crop of millionaires build their “trophy houses” by the beach. People still gaze from the tower of the Congregational church, but instead of scanning the horizon for oil-laden whaleships, the tourists-who have paid two dollars to sweat their way up the ninety-four steps to the belfry-watch high-speed ferries bringing cargoes of day-trippers from Cape Cod.

At the height of its influence more than 150 years ago, Nantucket had led the new nation toward its destiny as a world power. “Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada,” Melville wrote in Moby-Dick, “let the English overswarm all India, and lay out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's.” But if the island's inhabitants once ventured to the far corners of the world, today it seems as if the world has made its way to Nantucket. It is not whaling, of course, that brings the tourists to the island, but the romantic glorification of whaling-the same kind of-myths that historically important places all across America have learned to shine and polish to their economic advantage. Yet, despite the circus (some have called it a theme park) that is modern Nantucket, the story of the Essex is too troubling, too complex to fit comfortably into a chamber of commerce brochure.

Unlike, say, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men, who put themselves in harm's way then had the luck to live out an Edwardian fantasy of male camaraderie and heroism, Captain Pollard and his crew were simply attempting to make a living when disaster struck in the form of an eighty-five-foot whale. After that, they did the best they could. Mistakes were inevitably made. While Captain Pollard's instincts were sound, he did not have the strength of character to impose his will on his two younger officers. Instead of sailing to Tahiti and safety, they set out on an impossible voyage, wandering the watery desert of the Pacific until most of them were dead. Like the Donner Party, the men of the Essex could have avoided disaster, but this does not diminish the extent of the men's sufferings, or their bravery and extraordinary discipline.

Some have praised the officers of the Essex for their navigational skills, but it was their seamanship, their ability to keep their little boats upright and sailing for three months in the open ocean, that is even more astonishing. Captain Bligh and his men sailed almost as far. but they had the coast of Australia and a string of islands to follow, along with favorable winds. Bligh's voyage lasted forty-eight days; the Essex boats were out for almost twice as long.

From the beginning the Nantucketers in the crew took measures to provide one another with the greatest possible support without blatantly compromising the safety of the others. Although rations appear to have been distributed equally, it was almost as if the Nantucketers existed in a protective bubble as off-island crew members, first black then white, fell by the wayside until the Nantucketers had, in the case of Pollard's crew, no choice but to eat their own. The Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told.

Evidence of the disaster and of the men who survived it can still be found on the streets of Nantucket. Captain Pollard's red-shingled house on Centre Street has long since become a gift shop. On the corner of the building a small plaque reads, “Built by Captain William Brock in 1760. Later owned by Captain George Pollard Junior of the whaling ship Essex. Herman Melville spoke to Captain Pollard, whose story was the basis for Moby-Dick.” In an age when most of the island's historic houses have been renovated several times over, Owen Chase's home remains one of the last unchanged houses on Orange Street, its dark green trim and water-stained clapboards evoking the somber disquiet of the captain's final years. The boarding house where Thomas Nickerson once entertained his guests with tales of the Essex still stands on North Water Street-one of many buildings now associated with a large hotel.

The Whaling Museum devotes a small exhibit to the story of the ship that was sunk by a whale. There is a crew list from the Essex's next-to-last voyage that includes the signatures of George Pollard, Owen Chase, Obed Hendricks, Benjamin Lawrence, and Thomas Chappel. There is Obed Macy's wharf book, in which the merchant and historian recorded the financial details involved in selling the Essex's oil in 1819. For some reason, the ship's trunk found bobbing in the Pacific after the sinking is not on view. The one personal memento of the tragedy, probably used because it takes up so little display space in the crowded museum, is Benjamin Lawrence's tiny piece of twine.

But it is the newly acquired skeleton of the sperm whale, oozing oil in the Nantucket Historical Association shed, that speaks most powerfully to the tragedy of the whaleship Essex. The nourishing, lifesaving bones of their dead comrades were what Pollard and Ramsdell clung to so fiercely even after their ordeal had ended. And it is bones that Nantucketers cling to now, tangible reminders of a time when the island was devoted to the business of transforming whales into money.

In Moby-Dick Ishmael tells of seeing the skeleton of a sperm whale assembled in a grove of palm trees on a South Pacific island. “How vain and foolish,” he says, “for timid untraveled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton... Only in the heart of quickest perils; oniy when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly and livingly found out.” But, as the survivors of the Essex came to know, once the end has been reached and all hope, passion, and force of will have been expended, the bones maybe all that are left.

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