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 9: The Island


The land was not a mirage this time. The men stood up instantly and observed a green island on the horizon. After circling the island several times and firing their pistols to see if they could detect inhabitants, they landed on the shore.

The most important thing was to find a source of freshwater. Chase speared an 18-inch fish with his musket and shared it, bones and all, with two companions. They collected fish and crabs and stretched out on the shore, though Chase was unable to keep his mind off reaching South America. Pollard and William Bond had spent the day gathering birds and so they were able to share a feast at the end of the day with the whole crew.

It was then that they refocused their efforts on finding a spring, because without that, they simply would not survive.

The most unfortunate aspect of this excursion was the misinformation. Whereas Pollard and Chase thought that they had landed on Ducie Island, they were actually on Henderson Island, which was 70 miles to the west. They were very near to Pitcairn, an island inhabited by Nantucketers, Tahitians, and lots of freshwater, but they didn't know that.

Though freshwater floats above saltwater in the ocean, it would not matter unless they found a spring whereby the water could come to the surface. Although they weren't aware of it, just up the cliff from where they sat, were 8 skeletons of people who had died of dehydration. Fortunately for the sailors, they found a spring that was exposed on a flat rock on the shore. There was only about a half-hour in which the spring was available to the men, because the tide covered it in almost six feet of saltwater at all other times. Nevertheless, it seemed that the men could hold out there indefinitely.

The men had a considerable effect on the ecosystem though, and soon enough, the tropic birds stopped coming to the island. Chappel noticed that Matthew Joy did not have long to live, as his sickness increasingly manifested in his weakness and shocking scrawniness even after they had food. The same evolutionary advantage of a high-efficiency metabolic systems that allowed Polynesians to travel between islands long ago were beginning to create a similar natural selection among the men. It favored men who were able to retain fat over their thinner companions. Furthermore, the African American sailors, who had been fed a lower grade of meat than their white counterparts and who generally sustained a less nourished upbringing back in Nantucket, were faring worse than the white sailors.

Chappel, Wright, and Weeks decided to stay on the island. In all likelihood, their probabilities of survival were higher on the island than in the boats that were headed toward the coast of South America. This was perhaps one of the toughest moments for the men to bear. Pollard wrote a final letter to his wife and left it on the island in the case that they should survive. It was Christmas day.


The paradox of the sailors' proximity to salvation is almost too hard to bear in this chapter. Their integration into Pitcairn, the island inhabited by Nantucketers only 70 miles away, would have been simple and would have saved countless lives. Instead, they tried to integrate into a closed ecosystem that inevitably dried out by the end of their stay. But in a lot of ways, this part of the trip is also quite a miracle. Had they not stumbled across this island, Chappel, Wright, and Weeks, would have certainly suffered the same fate as their contemporaries on the whaleboats later on, and the men would not have survived to their eventual rescue.

The bounty that the sailors enjoyed in the first moments on the island is also a symbol of false hope. Not only did their stomachs have difficulty digesting food after such starvation, but the food also brought on worse hunger pangs. Before finding the spring, a few men found a wet patch on the cliff that they desperately sucked on to try to absorb more than just a single drop's worth of water.

Chappel, Wright, and Weeks' decision to stay on the island is a representation of personal autonomy. Although the crew is moving back into the treacherous waters, these men were no longer bound to their captain's orders, because their lives were at risk. Just as the one sailor had jumped ship back in South America, so do these men jump ship now. The probability of their survival is much higher than at sea, so their decision to stay is prudent. One of the driving factors in all of the decisions so far has been communion. Without one another, it is very likely that the men would have given up sooner. They felt an obligation to each other to survive the trip and demonstrate strength. This is the case on the island as well.