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by Richard King

his August 1st marks the 200th birthday of Herman Melville, author of one of the most famous novels ever written in the English language. Moby-Dick’s dramatic ending pits the great white whale against the maniacal Captain Ahab, and things don’t end well for Ahab, his ship, or his crew. The sinking of Ahab’s ship by a whale has been reproduced in cartoons, comics, fan fiction, and multiple feature films. But did that ever happen? Could that happen? Has a sperm whale actually sunk an entire ship? You may have already heard of the 1820 story of the whaleship Essex, the first and only well-known account of a sperm whale ramming and sinking a full ship, an event that Melville used for his fictional masterpiece. Essex’s first mate, Owen Chase, wrote that after the enormous bull sperm whale rammed the ship with its head, the animal turned and came back again directly at the ship. “The surf flew in all directions about him,” Chase wrote. “His head was about half out of water, and in that way he came upon, and again struck the ship.” On this second strike, the whale bashed a large enough hole in the hull to sink the Essex within hours. Melville also wrote in Moby-Dick of the whaleship Union, which sank in the Atlantic in 1807 after accidentally running into a whale “This sketch shows the ship at the moment of attack...” at night. He does not mention in the novel, however, three other Drawing by Thomas Nickerson, who was at the helm when events about which he almost certainly had not learned: in 1849 off his ship Essex was rammed by a sperm whale in 1820. the coast of Nicaragua, a ship named the Frederic sank after a collision with a whale; in 1850, in the midst of being hunted, a sperm whale rammed a hole in the hull of the whaleship Pocahontas, forcing the ship to run to safety into Rio de Janeiro; and, the same year, the whaleship Parker Cook was hit twice by an enraged whale, yet managed to float to safety. Then, shortly after the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville was thrilled to learn that a whaleship named the Ann Alexander had also been sunk by a sperm whale. Another ship later captured the same animal, identified with two of the Ann Alexander’s harpoons—along with shards of wood still stuck in its head. Historians have since found still more examples of whales ramming holes in wooden hulls of ships and fishing boats and even a couple modern accounts where sperm whales bumped into steel boats. So, yes, sperm whales did occasionally ram ships, and even sink them on occasion. Which brings us to: Why would they? Hitting a ship a second time, as in the case of the Essex and the Parker Cook, certainly suggests an animal is doing so on purpose. The first and most believable answer is that the whales were reacting to an attack in pain or in defense. Historians have dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of sperm whales crushing small whaleboats by using their heads, tails, and jaws after being harpooned (see “Do Sperm Whales Bite?” in Sea History 162). Many whale species, including

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classics illustrated, 1943

Detail of an illustration from Moby-Dick

SEA HISTORY 167, SUMMER 2019

nantucket historical association

Animals in Sea History

Sea History 167 - Summer 2019  

10 NMHS Legacy Society—Planning Your Legacy, by Jessica MacFarlane • 14 Turmoil at Sea, by Austin Dwyer • 18 30 Years After the Exxon Valdez...

Sea History 167 - Summer 2019  

10 NMHS Legacy Society—Planning Your Legacy, by Jessica MacFarlane • 14 Turmoil at Sea, by Austin Dwyer • 18 30 Years After the Exxon Valdez...

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