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Moby Dick

Also in the Pacific during this period was a young man whose whaling career was just beginning. Herman Melville first signed on as a hand aboard the New Bedford whaleship Acushnet. While in the Pacific, he met a Nantucketer by the name of William Henry Chase - Owen Chase's teenage son. Melville had heard stories of the Essex and closely questioned the boy about his father's experiences. William pulled a copy of his father's narrative from his sea chest and loaned it to Melville. "The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea," Melville remembered, "and so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect on me."

The sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged Sperm whale was the event that inspired the climactic scene of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. But the point at which Melville's novel ends with the sinking of the ship, marks the beginning of the terrible real life story of the Essex disaster.

Listen to the related 'Voice from the Sea' pieces by Dr. Roger Payne in REAL AUDIO.

  1. In the Heart of the Sea
  2. The Tragedy of the Essex
  3. Some Ironies of the Essex and of Whaling
  4. Further Ironies - The Fate of Captain Pollard of the Essex
  5. Whales As Monsters

View the following video clips from the movie 'Moby Dick' starring Patrick Stewart. These scenes are based on the real life tragedy of the whaleship Essex.

Captain Ahab's speech. Obsession with the white whale.

After the sinking of the whaleship Essex, Owen Chase could not rid his mind of the image of the huge sperm whale. He was tormented by the memory of the ramming, and while drifting in the small whaleboat lived it over and over again. Melville built upon Chase's account, making his Captain Ahab a man who was unable to emerge from the psychic depths in which he writhed. Just as Chase had been convinced the whale had attacked the Essex out of revenge, Ahab too was haunted by the white whale that had taken his leg, believing he had done so out of a calculating mischief. Ahab believed the only way to escape from his inner 'chamber of horrors' was to hunt down the white whale and kill Moby Dick. Chase, on a tiny boat a thousand miles from land, did not have the possibility of revenge. Ahab was fighting a symbol; Chase and his shipmates were fighting for their lives.


The Pequod sailing. View of crow's nest.

These seagoing hunters pushed farther into a scarcely seen wilderness, an ocean larger than all the earths land masses combined. More than 1,000 miles west of the Galapagos and just 40 miles below the equator, the lookouts in the 'crow's nest' saw spouts. It was 8 in the morning of a bright clear day. Only a slight breeze was blowing. It was a perfect day for killing whales.


The attack. The ramming of the Essex by a sperm whale. Ship sinks beneath the depths.

The ship approached a shoal of whales and three whaleboats were lowered. A large bull was spotted of the port bow of the ship as whales were still being taken. It was a huge whale, estimated to be 85 ft in length, and approximately 80 tons. It was less than 100 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. Suddenly the whale began to move. Its 20ft wide tail pumped up and down, slowly picking up speed until the water crested around its massive barrel-shaped head. Then 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. The ship was now going down. The whale having humbled its strange adversary, disengaged itself from the shattered timbers and swam off.


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