Thursday, March 3, 2011

Whale attacks on ships--the historical record

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Moby Dick attacks pursuing whaleboats.  Source
Melville based the ending of Moby Dick on the story of the Essex.

Recently, there have been stories in the news about whales causing damage to yachts, even sinking them.  But it's difficult to determine whether these are accidental collisions, or attacks by the whales. 

Even if real attacks, the whales may have felt menaced by ships bearing down on them, or they mistook the ships for rivals.

But during the heyday of the whaling industry in the 1800s, there were two accounts of full-sized sailing ships attacked and sunk by whales.

Attack on the Essex

In 1830, the whaleship Essex was hunting in new whaling grounds along the equator, two thousand miles west of the coast of South America.  They lowered their three small whaleboats to pursue some sperm whales, but when one of the boats was damaged by the tail of a whale they had harpooned, the First Mate named Chase returned to the whaleship for repairs. 

Next, the whaleship was attacked twice by a bull sperm whale, about 85 feet long.  Here's a description of the the second ramming, from a wonderful book* by Nathaniel Philbrick:

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....  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... water surged up over the transom.

     One of the men who had been belowdecks ran up onto the deck shouting, "The ship is filling with water." (p.83)

 Within ten minutes of the crash, the ship was awash and capsized.  Over the next day, the men salvaged what they could from the wreck, made sails for their three 25-foot whaleboats, and then prepared to sail 4,500 miles back to the coast of South America.  During that three-month ordeal, they ran out of food, and began to eat one another.  Only eight of the 20 crew members survived.

This wasn't the only sinking due to a whale.  In 1807, the whaleship Union accidentally collided with a sperm whale at night and sank.  Thirty years later, the whaleship Ann Alexander, also cruising in the Pacific, became the second vessel to be "stove by a whale."  Source


Etching by William Bradford

While scores of smaller whaleboats pursuing whales had been smashed to bits over the years, in 1820 Nantucketers had never heard of a deliberate ramming of the mothership.

Why did the whale attack?

The attack on the Essex was so well-observed, and so apparently deliberate that--ever since--people have wondered about it.  Chase said: "He came directly from the shoal [group of whales] which we had just before entered, and in which we had struck three of his companions, as if fired with revenge for their sufferings."

In his modern retelling, Philbrick suggests that the whale may have mistaken the Essex for a rival bull.  A whale's vision in the water is limited, so they depend on "echolocation," a kind of sonar.  The Essex was only slightly longer than the attacking bull, though it was three times the whale's weight.  Before the attack, the First Mate was using a hammer to repair the damaged whaleboat.  The hammer may have made sounds, conducted through the hull and into the water, which resemble the clicking sounds that bulls make when they challenge one another.

Today, much has changed, making a deliberate attack much less probable.
  • Most commercial whaling has ended.
  • Whales are less numerous, and the remaining bulls are smaller.
  • Whales are more familiar with humans and their ships.
  • Ships are larger--and many make a lot of  noise.

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*  I heartily recommend In the Heart of the Sea by N. Philbrick.  It's exciting, well-written, and puts everything in historical context.  But it's only the latest of several accounts on the sinking of the Essex.

3 comments:

  1. You "heartily recommend" that BS book? Okay, let's sum up: Whalers slaughter all of the whales off the Eastern Seaboard. Whalers, having slaughtered their livelihood, must venture stupidly far afield to find more prey. Tired of being pursued-- literally-- to the ends of the earth by murdering a-holes, a whale fights back. The ship is sunk; most of the whalers subsequently die. In other words, a happy ending. No "heroism," no "epic," nothing "awe-inspiring" to see here, folks. Blood-soaked murderers getting their just desserts, nothing more.

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    Replies
    1. Your dislike of whaling does not invalidate, or even address, the content of Webmaster's recommendation. Not to read books on subjects we disaprove of confines us forever to the prison of our own prejudices.

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    2. I didn't recommend the book because I approve of whaling, or anything else that happened in the account of the sinking of the Essex. It's just a good historical account revealing a lot about whaling and the period--details that few people know about.

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