The REAL Moby Dick! (Or, Do not Call Me Ishmael)

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A Brief History

In August of 1819, the Nantucket whaling ship, Essex, set sail on a two and a half year whaling voyage that on November 20, 1820 turned into eternity!

Digging Deeper

Digging deeper, we find the Essex became a real life Pequod and it found the real life Moby Dick!

The Essex was 87 feet long, displaced 238 tons and was equipped with 4 whale boats, 28 foot boats that pursued whales and from which the harpoons were thrown.  (A spare boat was kept beneath the deck.)  A whale would be killed and towed back to the ship where the crew would strip off the blubber and melt it down for the oil.  At that time, whale oil was a important fuel, especially for lights.

On the way to the hunting grounds west of South America the Essex suffered some storm damage, with 2 of the whale boats ruined.  This bad luck continued when the crew found their target area had been over hunted and no whales were found.  Following a tip from other ships, the Essex sailed over 2000 miles further west to do its whaling, while the crew fretted about the apparent bad luck cruise as it unfolded.

The bad luck continued when a whale smashed a hale boat, and another whale boat was damaged by another whale that had to be cut loose.  This incident should have been a clue!  With 2 whale boats being towed by harpooned whales, the third remaining boat was on board being repaired when the crew saw a giant Sperm whale nearby the ship.  At about 85 feet long, this creature was as large as this type of whale can get.  Also, of all the large whales, Sperm whales are the only toothed carnivores that attack large prey (giant squid) and are dangerously aggressive.  This one was, and he proved it by ramming the ship!  The terrific impact stunned the whale as well as the crew, but the whale quickly recovered, moved a few hundred yards from the ship and sped toward the Essex as fast as the whale could go.  Smashing into the ship’s bow, the whale dived away and was not seen again.

The Essex was doomed, and the sailors knew it.  They hurriedly loaded what provisions they could on the whale boats and the Essex dipped below the waves.  The ordeal for these men had just started!  After many weeks of exposure to the elements and starvation, one of the boats was rescued on February 18, 1821, and the other on February 23, 1821.  The third boat was lost and never seen again.  Only 5 survivors were on the 2 rescued boats, with 3 more survivors still on a small island they had stopped at.  Those 3 were rescued and therefore only 8 of the crew of the captain and 20 men survived to tell this remarkable tale.  Unfortunately, those 8 survived by eating some of their comrades, making this story a macabre tale indeed!

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever read Moby Dick?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For a good documentary and a good book about this incident, we recommend the following:

Fine, Jil.  The Whaleship Essex: The True Story of Moby Dick (High Interest Books).  Childrens Pr, 2003.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.