In the Heart of the Sea


Nathaniel Philbrick




Date Reviewed:

August 22, 2004

he subtitle of this book is: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. This is the true account of a whaling ship (the Essex) that was rammed by a sperm whale out in the Pacific Ocean. Their ship sank, and the crew of 20 was left adrift in whaling boats a few thousand miles from land. The sinking of the Essex inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. I found this book to be interesting, but not riveting. Some how it never seems to become as gripping a story as other tales of humans facing adversity (for example, it doesn't come close to Into Thin Air or Endurance:Shackleton's Incredible Voyage)

For some reason, the crew members never become sympathetic characters. At the start of the book, Philbrick explains that only recently has an account of the ordeal written by the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, been uncovered. Yet despite this new material, Nickerson does not figure greatly in the book. I at first thought we would get the story of the whale ship from Nickerson's perspective. Initially, we do read about Nickerson's isolation because he is not from a native Nantucket family. We read that Nickerson is surprised at how Chase bullies the youngsters on the first day at sea. But after that, we don't read much more about his reactions to the voyage. Philbrick was unsuccessful at making the characters come alive, and so their demise didn't bring sadness. Mostly, this is just a straight forward narrative of sailing and whaling. The whale doesn't attack until page 85, and by page 190, the ordeal is over, with everyone being rescued or perished. Maybe that's why there isn't a great attachment to the characters, most of them are not on stage much.

There is a good deal of information on whaling. The most interesting part of the book is the speculation that Chase may have inadvertently riled up the attacking whale by trying to repair his whale ship with a hammer. Sperm whales communicate with clacking/tapping noises. Chase (the first mate) has returned to the Essex to try and repair their whale boat that was damaged by their attack on the whales. As Chase hammers away, the male sperm whale apparently hears the pounding as the challenge from another male, and so charges the boat. It's an interesting idea.

Whaling does not sound like a lot of fun, it is not a job that anyone could have enjoyed. Not that there were many pleasant careers in the 19th century, but whaling was a brutal business. Only the investors truly profited. Anyway, the book is a quick read with some interesting material.