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A real-life blockbuster

Author Nathaniel Philbrick discusses the disaster of the whale ship Essex—and the new film bringing the story to life

Artwork by Joe Annis

Artwork by Joe Annis

In the 2015 Warner Bros. film In the Heart of the Sea, Chris Hemsworth and other actors portray crewmembers of an early 19th-century whale ship in hot pursuit of their prey in the Pacific. During one day’s hunt, a particularly large and ornery sperm whale does the unthinkable: returning the fight to the men who brought it, the whale smashes its gigantic head into the hull of the ship, causing considerable damage. Disembarking into three small whaleboats, the 20 men are faced with a nightmarish realization: their ship—and its stores of food, water and supplies—is going down; they are 1,000 miles or more from land, and no one is around to save them.

Directed by Ron Howard, the film is an edge-of-your seat thriller, akin perhaps to the Russell Crowe-led epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, or—in an even closer comparison—Moby Dick. Of course, what’s most fascinating about In the Heart of the Sea, which opened in theaters around the country in December, is this harrowing whale of a tale . . . is based on true events.

In November of 1820, the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship with a real-life crew, was attacked by a whale in the Pacific Ocean, well off the west coast of South America. In his book In the Heart of the Sea; The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), Nantucket historian Nathaniel Philbrick tells the ship’s tragic story, including the terrifying 96-day journey the men endured in those small boats in an effort to survive. Those familiar with the story are aware that the men endured dehydration, starvation and despair while drifting on the open ocean. Not all of the crew survived, and some of those who died were eaten by their crewmates.

In the book, a New York Times Best Seller and the winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Philbrick also provides biographical details of the ship’s captain, officers and crewmembers; descriptions of the whaling profession and the Nantucket community in the early 19th century; and accounts of comparable survival stories, some of which also involved cannibalism. The writer also tells of what became of the few men who survived the ordeal, including the 28-year-old captain, George Pollard, who embarked on another whaling expedition within one year of his safe return to Nantucket. As he had on the Essex, Pollard served as captain of this second expedition, which also resulted with a sunken ship.

“The story of the Essex is not an adventure tale,” Philbrick says. “This was highly personal for these guys. It’s a tragedy—and these poor guys were forced to live through it.”

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