The Real Moby Dick
In August 1819 the whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket heading for whaling areas in the South Pacific Ocean. With a history of successful and profitable voyages behind it, Essex had gained a reputation for being lucky, but there were soon problems. Two days into the trip the ship was almost sunk and sustained serious damage. It then took an excessive amount of time to round Cape Horn, and when they finally reached their destination they found it fished out.
Other whalers told the crew of Essex that there was a new hunting ground about 2500 nautical miles away. En route they picked up Giant Galapagos Turtles to sustain their stores. Some of these were acquired on Charles Island where helmsman Thomas Chappell decided to light a fire as a prank. It being dry season it did not take long before the entire island was on fire. The crew reported that after a day of sailing they could still see it burning on the horizon. A visitor later recalled how ”neither trees, shrubbery, nor grass have since appeared,” and the fire is thought to have contributed to the extinction of the Floreana Tortoise.
Then, the ship was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale. The whale, which was much larger than average, was first spotted behaving oddly. It lay motionless on the surface of the water before beginning to swim very quickly towards the ship and ramming into it. Apparently stunned the whale lay by the side of the ship and the captain prepared to harpoon it but realised in time that its tail was close to the rudder and it could quite easily have destroyed it if it became agitated. The whale then recovered a swam a hundred yards ahead of the ship before turning to face it again. The first mate told how the whale came “down with twice his ordinary speed [and] appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.”
The whale eventually disengaged his head from the wreck and was never seen again. The surviving crew set off in three whale boats but feared the closest island were inhabited by cannibals. Quickly they began to die of dehydration and resorted to cannibalism themselves to stay alive. There were, however, eight survivors. The image above was drawn by the 14 year old cabin boy.