The Attack

EVEN TODAY, in an age of instantaneous communication and high-speed transportation, the scale of the Pacific is difficult to grasp. Sailing due west from Panama, it is 11,000 miles to the Malay Peninsula-almost four times the distance Columbus sailed to the New World-and it is 9,600 miles from the Bering Strait to Antarctica. The Pacific is also deep. Hidden beneath its blue surface are some of the planet's most spectacular mountain ranges, with canyons that plunge more than six miles into the watery blackness. Geologically, the volcano-rimmed Pacific is the most active part of the world. Islands rise up; islands disappear. Herman Melville called this sixty-four-million-square-mile ocean the “tide-beating heart of the earth.”

By November 16,1820, the Essex had sailed more than a thousand miles west of the Galapagos, following the equator as if it were an invisible lifeline leading the ship ever farther into the largest ocean in the world. Nantucket whalemen were familiar with at least part of the Pacific. Over the last three decades the coast of South America had become their own backyard. They also knew the western edge of the Pacific quite well. By the early part of the century, English whalers, most of them captained by Nantucketers, were regularly rounding the Cape of Good Hope and taking whales in the vicinity of Australia and New Zealand. In 1815, Hezekiah Coffin, the father of Pollard's young cousin Owen, had died during a provisioning stop in the islands off Timor, between Java and New Guinea.

Lying between the island of Timor and the west coast of South America is the Central Pacific, what Owen Chase called “an almost untraversed ocean.” The longitudes and latitudes of islands with names such as Ohevahoa, Marokinee, Owyhee, and Mowee might be listed in Captain Pollard's navigational guide, but beyond that they were-save for blood-chilling rumors of native butchery and cannibalism-a virtual blank.

All this was about to change. Unknown to Pollard, only a few weeks earlier, on September 29, the Nantucket whaleships Equator and Balaena stopped at the Hawaiian island of Oahu for the first time. In 1823, Richard Macy would be the first Nantucketer to provision his ship at the Society Islands, now known as French Polynesia. But as far as Pollard and his men knew in November of 1820, they were at the edge of an unknown world filled with unimaginable dangers. And if they were to avoid the fate of the ship they'd encountered at Atacames, whose men had almost died of scurvy before they could reach the South American coast for provisions, there was no time for far-flung exploration. It had taken them more than a month to venture out this far, and it would take at least that to return. They had, at most, only a few months of whaling left before they must think about returning to South America and eventually to Nantucket.

So far, the whales they had sighted in this remote expanse of ocean had proved frustratingly elusive. “Nothing occurred worthy of note during this passage,” Nickerson remembered, “with the exception of occasionally chasing a wild shoal of whales to no purpose.” Tensions mounted among the Essex's officers. The situation prompted Owen Chase to make an adjustment aboard his whaleboat. When he and his boat-crew did finally approach a whale, on November 16, it was he. Chase reported, not his boatsteerer, Benjamin Lawrence, who held the harpoon.

This was a radical and, for Lawrence, humiliating turn of events. A mate took over the harpoon only after he had lost all confidence in his boatsteerer's ability to fasten to a whale. William Comstocktold of two instances when mates became so disgusted with their boatsteerers' unsuccessful attempts to harpoon whales that they ordered them aft and took the iron themselves. One mate, Comstock wrote, screamed, “Who are you? What are you? Miserable trash, scum of Nantucket, a whimpering boy from the chimney corner. By Neptune I think you are afraid of a whale.” When the boatsteerer finally burst into tears, the mate ripped the harpoon from his hands and ordered him to take the steering oar.

With Chase at the bow and Lawrence relegated to the steering oar, the first mate's boat approached a patch of water where, Chase predicted, a whale would surface. Chase was, in his own words, “standing in the fore part, with the harpoon in my hand, well braced, expecting every instant to catch sight of one of the shoal which we were in, that I might strike.” Unfortunately, a whale surfaced directly under their boat, hurling Chase and his crew into the air. Just as had occurred after their first attempt at killing a whale, off the Falkland Islands, Chase and his men found themselves clinging to a wrecked whaleboat.

Given the shortage of spare boats aboard the Essex, caution on the part of the officers might have been expected, but caution, at least when it came to pursuing whales, was not part of the first mate's makeup. Taking to heart the old adage “A dead whale or a stove boat,” Chase reveled in the risk-and danger of whaling. “The profession is one of great ambition,” he would boast in his narrative, “and full of honorable excitement: a tame man is never known amongst them.”

four days later, on November 20, more than 1,500 nautical miles west of the Galapagos and just 40 miles south of the equator, the lookout saw spouts. It was about eight in the morning of a bright clear day. Only a slight breeze was blowing. It was a perfect day for killing whales.

Once they had sailed, to within a half mile of the shoal, the two  shipkeepers headed the Essex into the wind with the maintopsail aback, and the three boats were lowered. The whales, unaware that they were being pursued, sounded.

Chase directed his men to row to a specific spot, where they waited “in anxious expectation,” scanning the water for the dark shape of a surfacing sperm whale. Once again, Chase tells us, he was the one with the harpoon, and sure enough, a small whale emerged just ahead of them and spouted. The first mate readied to hurl the harpoon and, for the second time in as many days of whaling, ran into trouble.

Chase had ordered Lawrence, the ex-harpooner, to steer the boat in close to the whale. Lawrence did so, so close that as soon as the harpoon sliced into it, the panicked animal whacked the already battered craft with its tail, opening up a hole in the boat's side. As water poured in, Chase cut the harpoon line with a hatchet and ordered the men to stuff their coats and shirts into the jagged opening. While one man bailed, they rowed back to the ship. Then they pulled the boat up onto the Essex's deck.

By this time, both Pollard's and Joy's crews had fastened to whales. Angered that he had once again been knocked out of the hunt, Chase began working on his damaged boat with a fury, hoping to get the craft operable while whales were still to be taken. Although he could have outfitted and lowered the extra boat (the one they had bargained for in the Cape Verde Islands, now lashed to the rack over the quarterdeck), Chase felt it would be faster to repair the damaged boat temporarily by stretching some canvas across the hole. As he nailed the edges of the canvas to the boat, his after oarsman, Thomas Nickerson-all of fifteen years old-took over the helm of the Essex and steered the ship toward Pollard and Joy, whose whales had dragged them several miles to leeward. It was then that Nickerson saw something off the port bow.

It was a whale-a huge sperm whale, the largest they'd seen so far-a male about eighty-five feet long, they estimated, and approximately eighty tons. It was less than a hundred yards away, so close that they could see that its giant blunt head was etched with scars, and that it was pointed toward the ship. But this whale wasn't just large. It was acting strangely. Instead of fleeing in panic, it was floating quietly on the surface of the water, puffing occasionally through its blowhole, as if it were watching them. After spouting two or three times, the whale dove, then surfaced less than thirty-five yards from the ship.

Even with the whale just a stone's throw from the Essex, Chase did not see it as a threat. “His appearance and attitude gave us at first no alarm,” he wrote. But suddenly the whale began to move. Its twenty-foot-wide tail pumped up and down. Slowly at first, with a slight side-to-side waggle, it picked up speed until the water crested around its massive barrel-shaped head. It was aimed at the Essex's port side. In an instant, the whale was only a few yards away-”coming down for us,” Chase remembered, “with great celerity.”

In desperate hopes of avoiding a direct hit, Chase shouted to Nickerson, “Put the helm hard up!” Several other crew members cried out warnings. “Scarcely had the sound of the voices reached my ears,” Nickerson remembered, “when it was followed by a tremendous crash.” The whale rammed the ship just forward of the forechains.

The Essex shook as if she had struck a rock. Every man was knocked off his feet. Galapagos tortoises went skittering across the deck. “We looked at each other with perfect amazement,” Chase recalled, “deprived almost of the power of speech.”

As they pulled themselves up off the deck, Chase and his men had good reason to be amazed. Never before, in the entire history of the Naritucket whale fishery, had a whale been known to attack a ship. In 1807 the whaleship Union had accidentally plowed into a sperm whale at night and sunk, but something very different was happening here.

After the impact, the whale passed underneath the ship, bumping the bottom so hard that it knocked off the false keel-a formidable six-by-twelve-inch timber. The whale surfaced at the Essex's starboard quarter, the creature appeared, Chase remembered, stunned with the violence of the blow” and floated beside the ship, its tail only a few feet from the stern.

Instinctively, Chase grabbed a lance. All it would take was one perfectly aimed throw and the first mate might slay the whale that had dared to attack a ship. This giant creature would yield more oil than two, maybe even three, normal-sized whales. If Pollard and Joy also proved successful that day, they would be boiling down at least 150 barrels of oil in the next week-more than 10 percent of the Essex's total capacity. They might be heading back to Nantucket in a matter of weeks instead of months.

Chase motioned to stab the bull-still lying hull-to-hull with the Essex. Then he hesitated. The whale's flukes, he noticed, were perilously close to the ship's rudder. If provoked, the whale might smash the delicate steering device with its tail. They were too far from land, Chase decided, to risk damaging the rudder.

For the first mate, it was a highly uncharacteristic display of caution. “But could [Chase] have foreseen all that so soon followed,” Nickerson wrote, “he would probably have chosen the lesser evil and have saved the ship by killing the whale even at the expense of losing the rudder.”

A sperm whale is uniquely equipped to survive a head-on collision with a ship. Stretching for a third of its length between the front of the whale's battering ram-shaped head and its vital organs is an oil-filled cavity perfectly adapted to cushioning the impact of a collision. In less than a minute, this eighty-ton bull was once again showing signs of life.

Shaking off its woozy lethargy, the whale veered off to leeward, swimming approximately six hundred yards away. There it began snapping its jaws and thrashing the water with its tail, “as if distracted,” Chase wrote, “with rage and fury.” The whale then swam to windward,

crossing the Essex's bow at a high rate of speed. Several hundred yards ahead of the ship, the whale stopped and turned in the Essex's direction. Fearful that the ship might be taking on water, Chase had, by this point, ordered the men to rig the pumps. “[W]hile my attention was thus engaged,” the first mate remembered, “I was aroused with the cry of a man at the hatchway, 'Here he is-he is making for us again.'“ Chase turned and saw a vision of “fury and vengeance” that would haunt him in the long days ahead.

With its huge scarred head halfway out of the water and its tail beating the ocean into a white-water wake more than forty feet across, the whale approached the ship at twice its original speed-at least six knots. Chase, hoping “to cross the line of his approach before he could get up to us, and thus avoid what I knew, if he should strike us again, would prove our inevitable destruction,” cried out to Nickerson, “Hard up!” But it was too late for a change of course. With a tremendous cracking and splintering of oak, the whale struck the ship just beneath the anchor secured at the cathead on the port bow. This time the men were prepared for the hit. Still, the force of the collision caused the whalemen's heads to jounce on their muscled necks as the ship lurched to a halt on the slablike forehead of the whale. The creature's tail continued to work up and down, pushing the 238-ton ship backward until-as had happened after the knockdown in the Gulf Stream-water surged up over the transom.

One of the men who had been belowdecks ran up onto the deck shouting, “The ship is Ming with water!” A quick glance down the hatchway revealed that the water was already above the lower deck, where the oil and provisions were stored.

No longer going backward, the Essex was now going down. The whale, having humbled its strange adversary, disengaged itself from the shattered timbers of the copper-sheathed hull and swam off to leeward, never to be seen again.

The ship was sinking bow-first. The forecastle, where the black sailors slept, was the first of the living quarters to flood, the men's sea chests and mattresses floating on the rising tide. Next the water surged aft into the blubber room, then into steerage, where Nickerson and the other Nantucketers slept. Soon even the mates' and captain's cabins were awash.

As the belowdecks creaked and gurgled, the black steward, William Bond, on his own initiative, returned several times to the rapidly filling aft cabins to retrieve Pollard's and Chase's trunks and- with great foresight-the navigational equipment. Meanwhile Chase and the rest of the crew cut the lashing off the spare whaleboat and carried it to the waist of the ship.

The Essex began to list dangerously to port. Bond made one last plunge below. Chase and the others carried the whaleboat to the edge of the deck, now only a few inches above the ocean's surface. When the trunks and other equipment had been loaded aboard, everyone, including Bond, scrambled into the boat, the tottering masts and yards looming above them. They were no more than two boat lengths away when the Essex, with an appalling slosh and groan, capsized behind them.

Just at that moment, two miles to leeward, Obed Hendricks, Pollard's boatsteerer, casually glanced over his shoulder. He couldn't believe what he saw. From that distance it looked as if the Essex had been hit by a sudden squall, the sails flying in all directions as the ship fell onto her beam-ends.

“Look, look,” he cried, “what ails the ship? She is upsetting!”

But when the men turned to look, there was nothing to see. “[A] general cry of horror and despair burst from the lips of every man,” Chase wrote, “as their looks were directed for [the ship], in vain, over every part of the ocean.” The Essex had vanished below the horizon.

The two boat-crews immediately released their whales and began rowing back toward the place the Essex should have been-all the time speculating frantically about what had happened to the ship. It never occurred to any of them that, in Nickerson's words, “a whale [had] done the work.” Soon enough, they could see the ship's hull “floating upon her side and presenting the appearance of a rock.”

As Pollard and Joy approached, the eight men crowded into Chase's boat continued to stare silently at the ship. “[E]very countenance was marked with the paleness of despair,” Chase recalled. “Not a word was spoken for several minutes by any of us; all appeared to be bound in a spell of stupid consternation.”

From the point at which the whale first attacked, to the escape from the capsi/ing ship, no more than ten minutes had elapsed. In only a portion of that time, spurredby panic, eight of the crew had launched an unrigged whaleboat from the rack above the quarterdeck, a process that would have normally taken at least ten minutes and required the effort of the entire ship's crew. Now, here they were, with only the clothes on their backs, huddled in the whaleboat. It was not yet ten in the morning.

It was then that Chase fully appreciated the service that William Bond had rendered them. He had salvaged two compasses, two copies of Nathaniel Bowditch's New American Practical Navigator, and two quadrants. Chase later called this equipment “the probable instruments of our salvation... [W]ithout them,” he added, “all would have been dark and hopeless.”

For his part, Thomas Nickerson was swept by a sense of grief, not for himself, but for the “ship. The giant black craft that he had come to know so intimately had been dealt a deathblow. “Here lay our beautiful ship, a floating and dismal wreck,” Nickerson lamented, “which but a few minutes before appeared in all her glory, the pride and boast of her captain and officers, and almost idolized by her crew.”

Soon the other two whaleboats came within hailing distance. But no one said a word. Pollard's boat was the first to reach them. The men stopped rowing about thirty feet away. Pollard stood at the steering oar, staring at the capsized hulk that had once been his formidable command, unable to speak. He dropped down onto the seat of his whaleboat, so overcome with astonishment, dread, and confusion that Chase “could scarcely recognize his countenance.” Finally Pollard asked, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” Chase's reply: “We have been stove by a whale.”

Even by the colossal standards of a sperm whale, an eighty-five-foot bull is huge. Today, male sperm whales, which are on average three to four times bulkier than females, never grow past sixty-five feet. Sperm whale expert Hal Whitehead has his doubts that the Essex whale could have been as large as Chase and Nicker son claimed it was. However, the logs of Nantucket whalemen are filled with references to bulls that, given the amount of oil they yielded, must have been on the order of the Essex whale. It is an established fact that whalemen in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries killed male sperm whales in disproportionate numbers: not only were they longer than the females but the males' oil-rich spermaceti organs accounted for a larger portion of that length. In 1820, before a century and a half of selective killing had rid the world of large bulls, it may have indeed been possible to encounter an eighty-five-foot sperm whale. Perhaps the most convincing evidence resides in the hallowed halls of the Nantucket Whaling Museum. There, leaning against the wall, is an eighteen-foot jaw taken from a bull that was estimated to have been at least eighty feet long.

The sperm whale has the largest brain of any animal that has ever lived on earth, dwarfing even that of the mighty blue whale. The large size of the sperm whale's brain may be related to its highly sophisticated ability to generate and process sound. Just beneath its blowhole, a sperm whale has what the whalemen referred to as a monkey's muzzle, a cartilaginous clapper system that scientists believe to be the source of the clicking sounds it uses to “see” the world through echolocation. Whales also use clicking signals to communicate over distances of up to five miles. Females tend to employ a Morse code-like series of clicks, known as a coda, and male sperm whales make slower, louder clicks called clangs. It has been speculated that males use clangs to announce themselves to eligible females and to warn off competing males.

Whalemen often heard sperm whales through the hulls of their ships. The sound-steady clicks at roughly half-second intervals- bore such a startling similarity to the tapping of a hammer that the whalemen dubbed the sperm whale “the carpenter fish.” On the morning of November 20,1820, sperm whales were not the only creatures filling the ocean with clicking sounds; there was also Owen Chase, busily nailing a piece of canvas to the bottom of an upturned whaleboat. With every blow of his hammer against the side of the damaged boat, Chase was unwittingly transmitting sounds down through the wooden skin of the whaleship out into the ocean. Whether or not the bull perceived these sounds as coming from another whale, Chase's hammering appears to have attracted the creature's attention.

Chase maintained that when the whale first struck the ship, it was going about three knots, the velocity of a whale at normal cruising speed. Whitehead, whose research vessel was once bumped into by a pregnant whale, speculates that the bull might have even initially run into the Essex by mistake.

Whatever prompted the encounter, the whale was clearly not prepared for something as solid and heavy as a whaleship, which at 238 tons weighed approximately three times more than it did. The Essex might have been an old, work-worn whaleship, but she had been built to take her share of abuse. She was constructed almost entirely of white oak, one of the toughest and strongest of woods. Her ribs had been hewn from immense timbers, at least a foot square. Over that, laid fore and aft, were oak planks four inches thick. On top of the planks was a sheathing of yellow pine, more than half an inch thick.

Extending down from the waterline (the point of impact, according lu Nickerson) was a layer of copper. The bull had slammed into a solid wooden wall.

What had begun as an experimental, perhaps unintentional jab with its head soon escalated into an all-out attack.

Like male elephants, bull sperm whales tend to be loners, moving from group to group of females and juveniles and challenging whatever males they meet along the way. The violence of these encounters is legendary. One whaleman described what happened when a bull sperm whale tried to move in on another bull's group:

When the approaching bull attempted to join the herd, he was attackedby one of the establishedbulls, which rolled over on its back and attacked with its jaw... Large pieces of blubber and flesh were taken out. Both bulls then withdrew and again charged at full tilt. They locked jaws and wrestled, each seemingly to try to break the other's jaw. Great pieces of flesh again were torn from the animals' heads. Next they either withdrew or broke their holds, and then charged each other again. The fight was even more strenuous this time, and little could be seen because of the boiling spray. The charge and withdrawal were repeated two or three times before the water quieted, and then for a few seconds the two could be seen lying head to head. The smaller bull then swam slowly away and did not attempt to rejoin the cows... A whaleboat was dispatched, and the larger bull was captured. The jaw had been broken and was hanging by the flesh. Many teeth were broken and there were extensive head wounds.

Instead of fighting with its jaws and tail-the way whales commonly dispatched whaleboats-the Essex whale rammed the ship with its head, something that, Chase insisted, “has never been heard of amongst the oldest and most experienced whalers.” But what most impressed the first mate was the remarkably astute way in which the bull employed its God-given battering ram. Both times the whale had approached the vessel from a direction “calculated to do us the most injury, by being made ahead, and thereby combining the speed of the two objects for the shock.” Yet, even though it had come at the Essex from ahead, the whale had avoided striking the ship directly head-on, where the ship's heavily reinforced stem, the vertical timber at the leading edge of the bow, might have delivered a mortal gash.

Chase estimated that the whale was traveling at six knots when it struck the Essex the second time and that the ship was traveling at three knots. To bring the Essex to a complete standstill, the whale, whose mass was roughly a third of the ship's, would have to be moving at more than three times the speed of the ship, at least nine knots. One naval architect's calculations project that if the Essex had been a new ship, her oak planking would have withstood even this tremendous blow. Since the whale did punch a hole in the bow, the Essex's, twenty-one-year-old planking must have been significantly weakened by rot or marine growth.

Chase was convinced that the Essex and her crew had been the victims of “decided, calculating mischief on the part of the whale. For a Nantucketer, it was a shocking thought. If other sperm whales should start ramming ships, it would be only a matter of time before the island's whaling fleet was reduced to so much flotsam and jetsam.

Chase began to wonder what “unaccountable destiny or design” had been at work. It almost seemed as if something-could it have been God?-had possessed the beast for its own strange, unfathomable purpose. Whatever or whoever might be behind it, Chase was convinced that “anything but chance” had sunk the Essex.

After listening to the first mate's account of the sinking, Pollard attempted to take command of the dire situation. Their first priority, he announced, was to get as much food and water out of the wreck as possible . To do that, they needed to cut away the masts so that the still partially floating hull could right. The men climbed onto the ship and began to hack away at the spars and rigging with hatchets from the whaleboats. As noon approached, Captain Pollard shoved off in his boat to take an observation with his quadrant. They were at latitude 0 °40' south, longitude 119 °0' west, just about as far from land as it was possible to be anywhere on earth.

Forty-five minutes later, the masts had been reduced to twenty-foot stumps and the Essex was floating partly upright again, at a forty-five-degree angle. Although most of the provisions were unreachable in the lower hold, there were two large casks of bread between decks in the waist of the ship. And since the casks were on the Essex's upper side, the men could hope that they were still dry.

Through the holes they chopped into the deck they were able to extract six hundred pounds of hardtack. Elsewhere they broke through the planks to find casks of freshwater-more, in fact, than they could safely hold in their whaleboats. They also scavenged tools and equipment, including two pounds of boat nails, a musket, two pistols, and a small canister of powder. Several Galapagos tortoises swam to the whaleboats from the wreck, as did two skinny hogs. Then it began to blow.

In need of shelter from the mounting wind and waves, yet fearful the Essex might at any moment break up and sink like a stone, Pollard ordered that they tie up to the ship but leave at least a hundred yards of line between it and themselves. Like a string of ducklings trailing their mother, they spent the night in the lee of the ship.

The ship shuddered with each wave. Chase lay sleepless in his boat, staring at the wreck and reliving the catastrophe over and over again in his mind. Some of the men slept and others “wasted the night in unavailing murmurs,” Chase wrote. Once, he admitted, he found himself breaking into tears.

Part of him was guilt-wracked, knowing that if he had only hurled the lance, it might have all turned out differently. (When it came time to write his own account of the attack, Chase would neglect to mention that he had the chance to lance the whale-an omission Nickerson made sure to correct in his narrative.) But the more Chase thought about it, the more he realized that no one could have expected a whale to attack a ship, and not just once but twice. Instead of acting as a whale was supposed to-as a creature “never before suspected of premeditated violence, and proverbial for its inoffensiveness”-this big bull had been possessed by what Chase finally took to be a very human concern for the other whales. “He came directly from the shoal which we had just before entered,” the first mate wrote,” and in which we had struck three of his companions, as if fired with revenge for their sufferings.”

As they bobbed in the lee of the wreck, the men of the Essex were of no mind to debate the whale's motives. Their overwhelming question was how twenty men in three boats could get out of a plight like this alive.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!