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The real Owen Chase  The real Thomas Nickerson


Historical recorders of one of the definitive attacks of a sperm whale on a whaling ship, Owen Chase [left] and Thomas Nickerson [right]. The true heroes of a real life sinking, as a giant cetacean took exception to being killed to be rendered down into barrels of oil for profit. Petroleum came next, giving us global warming, and now we have the United Nations desperately trying to mend the damage from years of inaction, via their Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).


In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is a book by American writer Nathaniel Philbrick about the loss of the whaler Essex in the Pacific Ocean in 1820. The book was published by Viking Press on May 8, 2000, and won the 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction. It was adapted into a film of the same name, which came out in late 2015.



In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick   


In 1819, the 238-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage to hunt whales. Fifteen months later the Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale. Fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, the 20-man crew set out in three small boats for South America, almost 3,000 miles away. Three months later, only eight were left alive. This book shares a fantastic saga of survival and adventure, steeped in the lore of the whaling tradition, with deep resonance in literature and American history, and in the life of the Nantucket community.




The Essex, an American whaleship from Nantucket, Massachusetts, sank after a sperm whale attacked it in the Pacific Ocean in November 1820. Having lost their ship, the crew of the Essex attempted to sail to South America in whaleboats. After suffering from starvation and dehydration, most of the crew died before the survivors were rescued in February 1821.

In retelling the story of the crew's ordeal, Philbrick utilizes an account written by Thomas Nickerson, who was a teenage cabin boy on board the Essex and wrote about the experience in his old age; Nickerson's account was found in 1960 but was not authenticated until 1980. In 1984, an abridged version of his account was finally published. The book also utilizes the better known account of Owen Chase, the ship's first mate, which was published soon after the ordeal.






Publication date 2001. Publisher New York: Penguin

Penguin Books: pp. xiv–xv. ISBN 0-14-100182-8

Viking Books: ISBN 0-670-89157-6
Topics Essex (Whaleship), Shipwrecks


The story was adapted into a feature film in 2015 by director Ron Howard, starring Chris Hemsworth, Ben Whishaw, and Cillian Murphy. Advertising for the film points out that the historical story inspired Herman Melville's 'Moby Dick' mythology.


There was no mention of Mocha Dick in 1838 or the Ann Alexander sinking in 1851.


In the Heart of the Sea won the 2000 U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction.






Nathaniel Philbrick was born on the 11th of June 1956. He is an American author of history, winner of the National Book Award, and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His maritime history, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which tells the true story that inspired Melville's Moby-Dick, won the 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was adapted as a film in 2015.

Nathaniel Philbrick was born on June 11, 1956, in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Marianne (Dennis) and Thomas Philbrick, an English professor. He grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and has lived in Nantucket, Massachusetts since 1986.

Nathaniel is married to Melissa Douthart Philbrick, former Executive Director of Remain Nantucket. They have two children, Jennie and Ethan. He is a leading authority on the history of the island of Nantucket.

Philbrick attended Linden Elementary School and graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He earned a BA in English from Brown University and an MA in American literature from Duke University where he was a James B. Duke Fellow.

Philbrick was Brown University’s first Intercollegiate All-American sailor in 1978, the same year he won the Sunfish North Americans in Barrington, Rhode Island.



After graduate school, Philbrick worked for four years as an editor at Sailing World magazine. He then worked as a freelancer for a number of years, during which time he was the primary caregiver for his two children while writing and editing several books about sailing, including: The Passionate Sailor, Second Wind, and Yaahting: A Parody.

In 1986, Philbrick moved to Nantucket with his wife Melissa and their two children. In 1994, he published his first book about the island’s history, Away Off Shore, followed in 1998 by a study of the Nantucket’s native legacy, Abram’s Eyes. He is the founding director of Nantucket’s Egan Maritime Institute and is a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association.


A drawing by Thomas Nickerson, cabin boy on the Essex when it was sunk in 1820





THE ESSEX - This three-masted ship was made from white oak, especially known for its strength, measuring 87 feet (26.5 metres) and just 239 tons displacement. There were 21 men on board, including first-time captain, George Pollard, Jr.

On the 20th November 1820, a huge male sperm whale was spotted close to the ship. It was estimated to be 85 feet long where a typical male was no bigger than 65 feet.

The whale may have thought that the ship was another whale invading its territory. Whatever its reason, the whale began speeding toward the Essex, ramming the port side. After passing under the ship, the animal resurfaced and appeared stunned. It then resumed its attack “with tenfold fury and vengeance,” striking the bow and causing catastrophic damage before disappearing. The Essex capsized. Only two of the crew survived.














Herman Melville




Gregory Peck as the obsessed Captain Ahab, in search of the giant white sperm whale Moby-Dick in the 1956 Warner Brothers film.




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