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Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet

Amos 10 Nov 00 - 02:16 AM
Lanfranc 10 Nov 00 - 02:13 PM
Mrrzy 10 Nov 00 - 02:21 PM
Uncle_DaveO 10 Nov 00 - 02:38 PM
Amos 10 Nov 00 - 02:57 PM
Amos 10 Nov 00 - 03:52 PM
jeffp 10 Nov 00 - 04:06 PM
GUEST 10 Nov 00 - 09:16 PM
GUEST,Barry Finn 11 Nov 00 - 01:04 AM
Lanfranc 11 Nov 00 - 05:59 AM
Amos 01 Aug 01 - 03:43 PM
Amos 20 Nov 08 - 10:21 PM
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Subject: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: Amos
Date: 10 Nov 00 - 02:16 AM

Apologies for the length of this post. I will make up for it by posting rarely:

A Whale I'd Like to Meet

Many of us have been bemused by the legends in folk tale and song of the days when spermaceti ruled the American economy, fortunes were made by wooden ships and iron lances, and whale oil lit the New England evenings.  It was brought home from far oceans hundreds of barrels a trip by weathered, hard-hided but bright-eyed men from Nantucket  and New Bedford. The fishermen in these towns had learned the trade of the hunt at first from Indians who confined their hunt to whales washed ashore. It is said the first sea-going whaler was a Nantucketer who got blown offshore by mistake while closing on a whale.

In the year 1819, stout, slow ships manned by perhaps two dozen men we setting out from New Englad on a regular basis to round the Horn and fill their holds with whale oil from the large pods that were to be found in the open Pacific. The fleet had grown dramatically from the early years -- Nantucket had a fleet of about thirty, and New Bedford another twenty or so.  The dangers of their lives and the dogged physical persistence of these men of these men, who left their wives and children for two years at a time to seek fortunes in whale oil, made them famous -- as renowned in their profession as cowboys were to become in theirs.  It was a high risk, taken for high reward. One such vessel cleared the headland at Nantucket outward bound in August of 1819 on the newly refitted whaling ship Essex, with provisions for two and one-half years' voyage.  She carried twenty men away from the coast of America and out to the Gulf Stream in light breezes, and rounded Cape Horn over Christmas, reaching the western coast of Chile in January of 1820.

In that year, Charles Darwin became eleven years old,  Queen Victoria's coronation would not happen for another seventeen years, and King George the III, who had lost the American Colonies for the Empire, had been declared insane but nine years earlier, no further back than 1991 is today. The Battle of Waterloo, in which the Duke of Wellington finally stopped the encroachments of Napoleon Bonaparte, had been in the headlines only five years before.  Very little representation, however, had been given to the whales prior to that time.

One individual whale changed that.  Little is known about him except that he had a temper, and apparently a sense of justice, and was smart enough to add vectors.  He was gray in color,  longer from head to tail as ten full grown men stretched out, or 60 feet.  Fully a third of his length was provided by his huge boxy head, the eyes and the ear-holes set well back from the blunt prow. His lower jaw was rich with teeth -- about fifty of them distributed along the perimeter of his seventeen-foot long jaw.  His teeth, had you cared to measure them, were about seven inches long and weighed about 20 pounds each; they did not mate with an upper set as yours do, but would nestle in fleshy sockets along the upper jaw. His steering flippers were five feet long, and three wide.  He weighed a good forty-five tons, and ate a full ton of fish, skate and squid on a good feeding day. Let us call him Gris, for that was his color - a dark blueish gray, of plumlike texture.

He lived among a pod of his kind, and bonded closely with them; they spent their days hunting the bottom-dwelling giant squid, or protecting calves on the surface while the calves' mothers dove thousands of feet to feed. They would spout, or lobtail, or sing to each other, or just spend hours "logging" in the water like huge motionless gray sculptures.  It is clear, however, that this individual whale loved his kind with an intense attachment.

He and his pod were playing at diving and spouting on the morning of the 20th of November 1820, although they did not much care that that name had been assigned to the morning in question.  The shoal was cruising about 40 miles south of the Equator, along the line of longitude sailors call 119º West; but they did not much care for those numbers and their meaning, having a different shape and dimension to their world.

The first mate of the Essex was an upstanding and humane Nantucket sailing officer named Owen Chase, and it is to him we owe the legacy of a detailed description of what this whale did, and why. When the  Essex lowered her boats, Owen Chase was the lead iron in the first boat, and after waiting a while for one of the pod to surface, made the first strike.  The whale, a cousin of Gris', was wounded, in great pain, and outrage, and he lunged upward and struck down with his tail hard enough to stove the whaleboat, a long, light clinker-built craft designed for speed more than sturdiness.  Owen Chase was thrown off his feet and when he stood up, his boat was taking on water through the stove side.  He cut the line to his harpoon with a hatchet kept handy for that purpose and managed to stopper the leak with some canvas and several jackets from the crew; and the damaged whaleboat limped back to the ship to make repairs. The captain, leading the ship's second boat, went on and struck another whale from the shoal, while the second mate in his boat assisted.  While Owen Chase was patching the whaleboat, and moving the ship down toward the site of the other two boats, he observed Gris of the weather bow, about twenty rods (or 100 yards, more or less). Chase described Gris as lying quietly for a while, his head toward the ship. He then noticed Gris making way at great speed directly down toward the ship, and ordered the helmsman to turn her bows up into the wind in order to avoid catastrophe.  But the whale came down even faster and struck the ship directly of the weather bow forward of the chains, perhaps the most lethal spot he could have chosen. The whole ship heaved to a sudden stop, trembling, and the men aboard her were aghast, so stunned with surprise as to be speechless. For, bear in mind, there was no record in all the history of whale chasing, of any whale anywhere turning around and attacking a whaling ship.  It wasn't in the books, and it wasn't in the tales, and it just wasn't done.  But Gris did it.
As Owen Chase recovered his wits, he immediately set men to  the pumps.  But the bows were already taking in more than the pumps could handle, and began to settle into the water.  As Chase began signaling the two whaleboats which were still away, he saw Gris again, lying about 500 yards off. Evidently the huge whale was upset, either from the pain of his head from the collision, or from the loss of two of his clan; for whatever reason, he was thrashing angrily on the surface, an unusual behavior for a sperm whale, making great clouds of foam appear on the ocean, thrashing continuously and violently.    Chase began ordering the remaining boats made ready for launch, as it was clear the vessel was going down by the bows, when a deckhand called his attention back to Gris, who was again heading for the  Essex.  Owen Chase later wrote, "I..saw him coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at that moment it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect".
At that time the Essex was running at about three knots; and Gris was running at a similar speed.  Thus their combined speed was six nautical miles per hour, about 600 feet per minute, the whale exerting himself so energetically as to leave a foamy wake 16 feet wide. Gris' massive head again took the  Essex on the bows, just under the cathead on the ship's windward side. At the second of impact, Gris' massive body did about
900,00 foot-pounds of work on the whaling ship, sufficient to guarantee her destruction.  Within ten minutes, while the men on board scrambled to launch their boats with whatever they could grab, her shattered bow brought her down and she lay over on her beam ends, ironically kept afloat for a short while only by the hundreds of barrels of whale-oil in her hold.
Of the twenty men on the crew list of the  Essex, only six were finally to survive the gruesome survival battle that followed; in three boats they set out to make their way to the coast of South America.  Between the 20th of November and the 18th of February the crew fought gales, drought, starvation, and the terror of having their boats attacked by sharks, and the most insane privations that can be imagined.  Owen Chase's boat, which had separated from the others during a midnight gale, was finally rescued at 33º45' south latitude, 81º03' west longitude, by a British brig.  They made Valparaiso on the 25th February, the survivors of Gris' attack arriving in absolute distress and poverty.  The Captain of the  Essex, George Pollard, had also fought his way to within a few hundred miles of the coast, and was rescued with the remainder of his boat by an American whaler.  Of the 14 lost sailors who died of exposure, starvation and thirst while adrift in these small boats, five were eaten after death in order that the others might survive; and one was shot in sacrifice for this purpose.

Gris, after he had done his damage, went back under the hull of the  Essex and was not seen again, by the men in those boats.  Owen Chase relived the nightmare of Gris' attack repeatedly while adrift in the long days under the Pacific sky, and concluded that it could only have been a calculated attack motivated by the wounding or killing of three whales from the same pod to which Gris belonged, and remembering especially the ferocious countenance of the whale as Gris drove to the attack -- his tail thrashing and his jaws opening and snapping in the furious fighting stance of the sperm whale.
Chase ended his days as a night-watchman on the Nantucket waterfront; Gris ended his in unknown waters, surrounded, it can be hoped,   by his friends, his descendants, and his cousins, at play in the wide reaches and vast depths beyond the reach of sailors. His feat became a legend among his enemies, providing the true grounds for the nineteenth century best-seller Moby Dick, and the twenty-first century best seller Ahab's Wife.
But these works--both great in literary virtues and of comparable merit in the works of our language--focus on more land-bound interests; they do not imagine him as he must have been, a solitary hero from a mysterious species; they do not tell the story of the whale I would love to meet.


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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: Lanfranc
Date: 10 Nov 00 - 02:13 PM

Amos - It might be long, but it is fascinating!

Stick around. More of the same, please, at least as far as I'm concerned.

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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: Mrrzy
Date: 10 Nov 00 - 02:21 PM

You guys need to read The World History of the Basque. They were whalers back before whales had been invented...

And, just so you know, I didn't open this thread, I opened the one about The Leviathan!

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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: Uncle_DaveO
Date: 10 Nov 00 - 02:38 PM

Sex and the Single Whale

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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: Amos
Date: 10 Nov 00 - 02:57 PM

The Basques did indeed invent whaling around 1215 or so. But it took the Yanks to make an industry of it.

While I do not share the knee-jerk sense of shame for our terrible history as hunters of innocent animules, I think the slaughter of whales should have stopped dead at the turn of the century, when kerosene was finally available industrially and we could no longer justify the use of whale oil to fill basic survival related needs.

And I love the image of that one whale getting just mad enough to step up and do something about it.


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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: Amos
Date: 10 Nov 00 - 03:52 PM

Further research has revealed that Gris did in fact have an archetypal hero of his own species to model himself after -- a grisled veteran sperm whale who dominated the seas around the Pacific island of Mocha, and whose repute was so widespread that harpooners would freeze up when they faced him; he was renowned for attacking whaleboats, although never their mother-ships. His name was Mocha Dick, and it is upon his general form that Moby Dick was modeled in part, the other half being provided by our friend Gris.

The whole story of Mocha Dick, vividly told in the language of the whalers of 1810, can be found on this page . Enjoy, you addle-pated lizard-stickers! There she breaches, broad to leeward, with a spout as large as the yards!



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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: jeffp
Date: 10 Nov 00 - 04:06 PM

Wow, Amos! An incredible tale, well told. BTW, I, too, followed the link from the other thread. I'm glad I did. When are you going to immortalize Gris in song?


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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
Date: 10 Nov 00 - 09:16 PM

Fascinating, especially as I've recently finished reading Moby Dick.

Alan of Australia
(forgot to reset cookie after a crash)

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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: GUEST,Barry Finn
Date: 11 Nov 00 - 01:04 AM

I believe it was Captain Pollard who became the night watchman after he lost his next command, the Two Brothers, Chase & 4 of the other survivors went on to become whaling captains. The last to die as a main dish was Owen Coffin who's Uncle I believe was to rescue some of the whalers. It was latter said of Pollard that he was asked by one of the relatives whom he met in the street if he had known his Uncle to which Pollard replied "Did I know him, hell, man I ate him". Barry

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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: Lanfranc
Date: 11 Nov 00 - 05:59 AM

Does anyone know the tune to the song quoted in "Mocha Dick"? It's a new one to me.

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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: Amos
Date: 01 Aug 01 - 03:43 PM

There's an old saying that it's the pattern that return in the world... once again, in the best tradition of the Essex a whale shows a capital ship who's boss of the seas....

Navy Ship Hits Whale

SAN DIEGO, CA - A navy ship was damaged Saturday after it apparently hit a whale. According to the ship's captain Brad Kyker, they were about 10 miles off Del Mar when he reported seeing a water spout ahead just prior to feeling the ship shutter.

A small boat was deployed to see if the whale was injured. It was seen spouting again then swimming away. The ship did suffer damage to the hull and was forced to return to port.

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Subject: RE: Long Tale:The Whale I would Like to Meet
From: Amos
Date: 20 Nov 08 - 10:21 PM

Revisied in 2008:

"1820: The whaling ship Essex is rammed and sunk by a sperm whale 2,000 miles off the west coast of South America. The ordeal of the crew inspires Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick.

The Essex was an aging vessel from Nantucket, which at the time possessed the largest whaling fleet in the world. The three-masted ship was 87 feet long and weighed 238 tons. She was captained by George Pollard Jr., at 28 already an experienced whaler.
By November 1820 the Essex had been at sea for over a year (three years out was not uncommon), surviving an early knockdown in an Atlantic squall and a rough passage around Cape Horn. Once the ship reached the fertile Pacific whaling grounds, however, things began looking up.

If the risks of whaling were many, the rewards could be great. Whale oil was prized as a lighting fuel. A successful voyage could make a captain wealthy, and meant a good payday for the crew as well. The Essex had taken its share of whales and on Nov. 20 appeared ready to take a few more when a pod was sighted off the starboard beam.
The ship's three remaining whaleboats — one had been destroyed by a whale's flukes during an earlier hunt — were dispatched for the kill. As the harpooning began, First Mate Owen Chase, commanding one of the whaleboats, looked back and saw a large sperm whale, which he estimated at 85 feet, approaching the Essex.

As he watched helplessly, the whale propelled itself into the ship with great force. Some crewmen on board were knocked off their feet by the collision, and Chase watched in disbelief as the whale drew back and rammed the ship again. This time the Essex was holed below the waterline, and doomed.

The crew organized what provisions they could and two days later abandoned ship aboard the three whaleboats. Twenty men left the Essex. Eight would ultimately survive the harrowing ordeal that played out over the next three months.
Fearing the "cannibalistic savages" of the South Seas islands (the irony of that reasoning will become apparent momentarily), Pollard decided to head for the more distant coastlines of Chile or Peru, first heading south to catch the expected favorable winds.
The winds, it turned out, weren't favorable at all, but Pollard was determined to reach South America. Eventually the three boats became separated from one another. One vanished and was never heard from again. The other two, one commanded by Pollard and the other by Chase, thrashed against the elements, and as the provisions dwindled and ran out, men began to die.

The first to go were given proper burials at sea, but as food ran out and the survivors on both boats became delirious from hunger, they turned to cannibalism. In Pollard's boat, straws were drawn to see who of the remaining four would be sacrificed so that the other three might survive. Pollard's young cousin, Owen Coffin, drew short straw. He was shot and eaten.

Only two men on that boat, Pollard and Charles Ramsdell, were alive when they were rescued by the whaling ship Dauphin after 95 days in an open boat. Chase and the survivors of his boat were picked up after 90 days. Three other men, who had chosen to remain on a small island shortly after the ordeal began, were also rescued.
What is known of the details of the ship's ill-fated voyage rests largely on Chase's memoir. He could offer no reason why the whale should attack the ship. But another young Nantucket whaleman, Herman Melville, drew his own conclusions. Moby Dick was a very, very smart whale."

Source: BBC

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