In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex Summary and Analysis of Chapter 5: The Attack


The scale of the Pacific Ocean is genuinely difficult to grasp with more than six miles of depth at points and some of the planet's most spectacular mountain ranges far beyond visibility. The Essex was now over 1000 miles west of the Galapagos, surrounded only by islands that were clouded in rumors of cannibalism and native butchery. After yet another whale, Benjamin Lawrence broke down into tears instead of performing his duty to harpoon the whale; Chase took over and berated him. As karma would have it, the whale appeared not where they had been aiming, but rather directly underneath their boat, throwing them up into the air once again.

On another occasion, Lawrence steered the boat too close to the whale and it opened a hole in the side of the boat. The whaleboats were already in a miserable state of disrepair. Once the boat was brought back onto the ship, Nickerson saw something off the port bow.

It was a male sperm whale about 85 feet long and about 80 tons. Instead of fleeing in panic, this whale was floating quietly on the surface of the water and moving slowly toward the ship. Suddenly, it picked up speed until the water crested around its massive head. Chase shouted to Nickerson to put the helm hard up to avoid a direct hit, but just as the sound had reached his ears, every man was knocked off his feet and tortoises were skittering across the deck. For the first time in the entire history of whale fishery, a whale had attacked a ship.

Chase instinctively took up a killing lance to attempt to take down this whale that had the mass of two or three normal whales. But Chase was afraid that this would put their rudder in danger, and they were too far from land to go without a steering mechanism. The whale swam off in the distance, but then without warning turned around and, at twice its original speed, made for and collided with the Essex. Though the men were prepared for the second blow, nothing could save their balance. The whale was never to be seen again.

The ship was filling with water and William Bond was prudent enough to make for Pollard and Chase's belongings and navigational equipment before they were lost. They quickly boarded into the whaleboats, but to their dismay it was only a few moments afterward that the entirety of the Essex capsized as if in a violent squall. What had once been the pride and glory of the whole crew was now a barely floating dismal wreckage.

Today, a male sperm whale, which is already three to four times larger than their female counterparts, never grows more than 65 feet long. Instead of fighting with its jaws and tail, the common tactic employed by whales embattled with whaleboats and other whales, this whale has an uncanny ability to find the angle that will do the most damage to the ship and the least damage to itself, headbutting it at full velocity. Had the Essex received the necessary repairs to its bow, historians say that it should have survived the blow. Chase noted that anything but chance had sunk the Essex that day. And, as fortune would have it, they were just about as far from land as it was possible to be anywhere on earth.

They managed to get six hundred pounds of hardtack and lots of freshwater, but the limited space in their whaleboats prevented them from taking all that they needed. A few tortoises and hogs swam to the boats from the wreck as well.

The night was a time for sleep for some, and a time for senseless murmurs for others. Chase found himself breaking into tears at times, utterly sleepless.


Lawrence breaking down shows just how fragile the men's consciences are despite their brutal mission. Whereas he had internalized the leadership in the previous chapter with the tortoise on his back through a sleepless night to find the ship, now he was overtaken with the pressure and could not perform. Likewise, when Chase was faced with the task of killing the sperm whale that attacked the ship, the pressure was too great and he could not perform. Embarrassed, he did not record this part of the voyage in his own recollection of the events, but Nickerson was sure to.

Philbrick informs the reader that the whale is never to be seen again, yet in Ron Howard's film adaptation, the whale quite literally follows them around the ocean, tormenting them. This fundamental misunderstanding of the whale's nature in the film attempts to assign meaning to what is truly a chaotic and meaningless experience: an adventure of ambitions and glory cascading with the anarchy of the true world order.

Philbrick also goes into the absurdity of this situation through another lens: modern scientific interpretations of whale behavior. Unlike any attacking method that whalers employ in dealing with other whales, this sentient being delivered a calculated blow to deliver the most damage to the ship.

The sailors did all they could, but even Chase, the true leader of the ship, broke into tears. This tale truly pushes even the most arrogant and fierce men to their psyche's edges. In Ron Howard's adaptation, on the other hand, Chase shows virtually no signs of weakness.