The Harrowing True Story behind Moby Dick: In the Heart of the Sea

“The day before, they had started eating the saltwater-damaged bread. The bread, which they had carefully dried in the sun, now contained all the salt of seawater but not, of course, the water. Already severely dehydrated, the men were, in effect, pouring gasoline on the fire of their thirsts—forcing their kidneys to extract additional fluid from their bodies to excrete the salt. They were beginning to suffer from a condition known as hypernatremia, in which an excessive amount of sodium can bring on convulsions.”
Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

If you are looking for a piece of non-fiction to drown yourself in then Philbrick’s masterful In the Heart of the Sea is for you.

A comprehensive and haunting account of the whaler Essex, which in 1820 sank in the Pacific ocean after being rammed by an agressive monstrous Sperm whale. Philbrick’s haunting narrative is seamlessly accompanied by real-life extracts and sketches from those who lived to tell the tale.

In the Heart of the Sea peels back the blubber to get at the bones of the true story behind Moby Dick, an enormous cultural influence, often cited as the Great American Novel. Indeed, Melville consulted the surviving captain of the Essex, George Pollard Jr, for his masterpiece. The very same captain who was forced to eat his own nephew and years later, back on dry land, still hoarded food in his attic for fear of starvation.

For those of you who have seen the film adaption of the same name, released in 2015, do not let this deter you from reading the book. As is so often the case, the film completely failed to capture the essence of the book, undermining the very visceral and complex characters Philbrick describes. The book however was very well received and In the Heart of the Sea won the 2000 U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction.


Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Greenland Whale ; Sperm Whale.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 6, 2016.

The story unfolds in the superstitious whaling island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, where the highly lucrative whale-oil industry was the life and soul of this humble Quaker community at the time, a far cry from the tourist-ridden summer resort of today.

Philbrick provides excellent historical context and exquisite attention to detail. It is this attention to detail which sets it apart from  the non-fiction literature that would otherwise retain the readers attention. Much of the book is based on, and indeed many of the extracts are from, Thomas Nickerson, the 14 year old cabin boy who survived after 89 days at sea. 

We follow the crew, with intimate knowledge of each sailor, as they proceed on the doomed final voyage of the Essex.

Soon disaster strikes, an eighty-five foot long Sperm whale races towards the ship as fast as three knots, ramming it, and the gripping tragedy begins. A particular social dynamic is created amongst the castaways. Then come the inevitable accounts of cannibalism, the psychological anguish of starvation and dehydration. The candour and blood-lust grab the reader by the shoulders and do not let go. It becomes very clear that a true test of a sailors mettle begins once the ship has sunk, a test that was all too common in a time where those who ruled the seas, ruled the world.

Oscillating constantly between desperation and hope, In the Heart of the Sea is a testament to human endurance. In the lengths that men were willing to go to for the liquid gold that was whale oil, many fortunes were made and many lives were lost…

All in all a thrilling read, best enjoyed with a cup of good coffee, preferably by the sea…



4 thoughts on “The Harrowing True Story behind Moby Dick: In the Heart of the Sea

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s