Excerpt from In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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In the Heart of the Sea

The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick X
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
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  • First Published:
    May 2000, 302 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2001, 302 pages

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When the lance finally found its mark, the whale would begin to choke on its own blood, its spout transformed into a fifteen to twenty-foot geyser of gore that prompted the mate to shout, "Chimney's afire!" As the blood rained down on them, the men took up the oars and backed furiously away, then paused to watch as the whale went into what was known as its flurry. Beating the water with its tail, snapping at the air with its jaws-even as it regurgitated large chunks of fish and squid-the creature began to swim in an ever tightening circle. Then, just as abruptly as the attack had begun with the first thrust of the harpoon, it ended. The whale fell motionless and silent, a giant black corpse floating fin-up in a slick of its own blood and vomit.

This may have been the first time Thomas Nickerson had ever helped kill a warm-blooded animal. Back on Nantucket, where the largest wild quadruped was the Norway rat, there were no deer or even rabbits to hunt. And as any hunter knows, killing takes some getting used to. Even though this brutal and bloody display was the supposed dream of every young man from Nantucket, the sentiments of an eighteen-year-old green hand, Enoch Cloud, who kept a journal during his voyage on a whaleship, are telling: "It is painful to witness the death of the smallest of God's created beings, much more, one in which life is so vigorously maintained as the Whale! And when I saw this, the largest and most terrible of all created animals bleeding, quivering, dying a victim to the cunning of man, my feelings were indeed peculiar!"

The dead whale was usually towed back to the ship headfirst. Even with all five men rowing-the mate at the steering oar sometimes lending a hand to the after oarsman - a boat towing a whale could go no faster than one mile per hour. It was dark by the time Chase and his men reached the ship.

Now it was time to butcher the body. The crew secured the whale to the Essex's starboard side, with the head toward the stern. Then they lowered the cutting stage - a narrow plank upon which the mates balanced as they cut up the body. Although the stripping of a whale's blubber has been compared to the peeling of an orange, it was a little less refined than that.

First the mates hacked a hole in the whale's side, just above the fin, into which was inserted a giant hook suspended from the mast. Then the immense power of the ship's windlass was brought to bear, heeling the ship over on its side as the block-and-tackle system attached to the hook creaked with strain. Next the mates cut out the start of a five-foot-wide strip of the blubber adjacent to the hook. Pulled by the tackle attached to the windlass, the strip was gradually torn from the whale's carcass, slowly spinning it around, until a twenty-foot-long strip, dripping with blood and oil, was suspended from the rigging. This "blanket piece" was severed from the whale and lowered into the blubber room belowdecks to be cut into more manageable pieces. Back at the corpse, the blubber-ripping continued.

Once the whale had been completely stripped of blubber, it was decapitated. A sperm whale's head accounts for close to a third of its length. The upper part of the head contains the case, a cavity filled with up to five hundred gallons of spermaceti, a clear, high-quality oil that partially solidifies on exposure to air. After the ship's system of blocks and tackles hauled the head up onto the deck, the men cut a hole into the top of the case and used buckets to remove the oil. One or two men might then be ordered to climb into the case to make sure all the spermaceti had been retrieved. Spillage was inevitable, and soon the decks were a slippery mess of oil and blood. Before cutting loose the whale's mutilated corpse, the mates probed its intestinal tract with a lance, searching for an opaque, ash-colored substance called ambergris. Thought to be the result of indigestion or constipation on the part of the whale, ambergris is a fatty substance used to make perfume and was worth more than its weight in gold.

From In the Heart of the Sea : The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick. © 2000 , Nathaniel Philbrick used by permission of the publisher.

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