Article Written by W. Jeffrey Bloster and Originally Published in The New York Times on June 4, 2000
Call me enchanted. The whales and whalemen who fired Herman Melville's imagination still have the power to inspire, and they are behind this year's best historical thriller and a riveting traveler's adventure. Of course Moby Dick, the mythical and immortal whale (and his tale), had many beginnings, and Nathaniel Philbrick and Tim Severin part company quickly to pursue distinct courses. In ''In the Heart of the Sea,'' Philbrick tracks historic Nantucketers on their most epic voyage, while in ''In Search of Moby Dick,'' Severin hunts whales with contemporary Indonesians. Both have an intuitive feel for the vulnerability and skill of men in small boats confronting the indifferent sea. Rewards are possible, even great satisfaction, but the costs can be horrific.
On a November day in 1820, still tethered to the floating hulk of the Essex, Capt. George Pollard and his crew bobbed on the Pacific swells in their tiny whaleboats and sought to comprehend what had happened. In the moment it took an enraged sperm whale to shatter their ship, the seafaring hunters had become prey. No other Nantucket ship had ever been rammed by a whale and sunk. No crew in open boats had ever been this far from safety and survived. The unbroken serenity of the equatorial sea mocked the men as they warily eyed one another and their limited food and water.
The nearest islands, the Marquesas, were more than 1,000 miles downwind, but reputedly home to savages with a taste for human flesh. The familiar coast of South America, however, was over 2,000 miles to the east, and upwind at that, an impossible goal by almost any stretch of the imagination. Yet in a decision that spoke to Nantucketers' arrogance and xenophobia, the officers shunned what would have been a relatively easy sail to a lush tropical island, preferring their chances on an epic open-boat voyage. The fatal consequences and dark ironies of that decision lie at the heart of Philbrick's richly satisfying tale. It's a book that gets in your bones.
Philbrick has created an eerie thriller from a centuries-old tale of cannibalism on the high seas. It's all here: audacious seamanship, untold suffering, race and madness. And it's true. Scrupulously researched and elegantly written, ''In the Heart of the Sea'' is a masterpiece of maritime history. It would have earned Melville's admiration.
In fact, when the Essex sailed from Nantucket in 1819, an old but supposedly lucky ship, it set in motion a chain of events that inspired Melville. As he later wrote in ''Moby-Dick,'' ''I have seen Owen Chase who was chief mate of the Essex at the time of the tragedy; I have read his plain and faithful narrative; I have conversed with his son; and all within a few miles of the scene of the catastrophe.'' Melville embroidered the real story, sending Captain Ahab's ship to the bottom after it was rammed by a giant white whale that, according to Ahab, exhibited a peculiarly human maliciousness and guile. That sinking became the novel's final scene. But for the crew of the Essex, the whale's attack was just the beginning.
Philbrick is an uncommonly talented nonacademic historian with a storyteller's flair. As he began to piece together his story, he wondered why the whale had acted as it did, how starvation and dehydration had affected the men's judgment, how the Essex had been built and provisioned, how survivors of other disasters had coped with cannibalism and what modern oceanographers knew about conditions along the lifeboats' track. His notes are rife with excursions into tropical island ecology, the historic implications of obesity in Samoans and sailing-ship knockdowns, among other things. Following all trails until they grew cold, in a manner that will be familiar to readers of ''The Perfect Storm,'' he wove together richly contextualized historical evidence and high drama. The result is a page turner that can withstand the most conscientious historian's scrutiny.
One of the great fallacies in sea literature and maritime history is that place doesn't matter. It is as if once upon the ocean, a non-place, mariners were stripped of their allegiance to locale and its legacies to them. Philbrick's story, however, is as much about Nantucket (the subject of two of his previous books) as about survival at sea. ''Quakers with a vengeance,'' Melville called the islanders, referring to their piety and their anything-but-pacifist attitude toward whales. In many regards the island of 7,000 was a nation apart, with its own culture, idiom and unsurpassed mastery of the sea. Nantucketers typically took a dim view of off-islanders, calling them ''coofs.'' And when push came to shove, they took care of their own. ''Although rations appear to have been distributed equally,'' Philbrick writes, ''it was almost as if the Nantucketers existed in a protective bubble.'' After weeks in the boats they buried the first man to die, but consumed the next four -- all --can-Americans from off-island. When only Nantucketers remained, and only human sacrifice stood between them and death, they resorted to lots. Owen Coffin, the captain's young cousin, picked the fateful one. Another round selected his executioner. His townsman and kinsman were still sucking the boy's bones when rescued, and before long everyone on their tightknit island knew it.
Captain Pollard was no Bligh or Shackleton: he lacked the right stuff. But there's a twist. Pollard lived to old age, eventually a likable night watchman on Nantucket who overcame ambition, calamity and disgrace to make peace with the world and himself. The book is ultimately not only about a nightmarish boat voyage but about remembering the past in tiny Nantucket. Nearly a century later an adolescent probing for details from the daughter of a survivor was primly told, ''Miss Molly, we do not mention this in Nantucket.'' Luckily for Philbrick and his readers, some people did mention it, and the documentary record is substantial.
Real shipwreck aficionados and hard-core Melville fans can now see much of that record in ''The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale'' (Penguin, paper, $12.95). Edited by Philbrick and his father, Thomas (a respected author of several books on American sea fiction), these narratives and letters are the raw material behind this story. Here, for the first time, is the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson's complete account of the ordeal. Not discovered until 1960 in a New York attic, and not identified as what it actually was until 1980, it provided Philbrick with the orphan's sense of wonder that pervades ''In the Heart of the Sea.'' The documents, including Melville's annotations on Chase's narrative, are thoughtfully introduced to illuminate perspective in history. They also provide a gloss on cannibalism, perhaps the ultimate taboo in Western society. Yet as the Essex tragedy reveals, cannibalism creates legends, but not necessarily pariahs.
Tim Severin has spent a lifetime with sea legends, fathoming the unfathomable. A mariner and Victorian-style explorer nonpareil, he is also the author of many books, including ''The Brendan Voyage,'' which is based on sailing a leather boat across the North Atlantic to test whether Irish monks could have reached America long before Columbus. Severin operates at the intersection of imagination, action and myth, as ripe a spot as any for finding a wondrous white whale. He was fascinated, he admits, by the thought of a flesh-and-blood likeness to Moby Dick still swimming the seven seas, even though he knew Melville's whale, which gained mythical status during the 20th century, was a creature of extravagant fiction. Willing to entertain all likely yarns and investigate any similar creatures, he embarked with a well-worn copy of ''Moby-Dick'' to unravel one of the ocean's enduring mysteries. Had such a whale existed? Did similar whales exist now? It was a quest simultaneously literary, ethnographic and action-packed.
His departure point was that fateful day aboard the Essex. But Severin's yen for travel meant that his real guides soon became the world's last fishermen who still hunt big game by hand. Modern, mechanized fish-killers had no lure for him. The quest propelled him through Ahab's seas, to Nuku Hiva, the Philippines, Tonga and the southern end of Indonesia. Each of the four places gets a chapter, though they are uneven in drama and proximity to white whales. For instance, bird-dogging Melville through the valley of the Typees, on Nuku Hiva, and seeking ''to understand how Melville's mind transmuted facts into prose,'' could not compare to fishing with hook jumpers in the Filipino village of Pamilacan. Hook jumping makes Nantucket-style harpooning look positively tame. Fishermen in Pamilacan sneak up and leap onto their prey's back with a large hook. In the instant available they gouge it into the flesh, before diving for safety as the frenzied beast flees. Madness? Perhaps. Men were occasionally enveloped by the wings of the giant white manta ray and drowned. But locals explained that they had long done it thus. And besides, harpoons were expensive.
Severin's eye for detail is keen, his ability to cross cultural boundaries impressive and his rendering of island culture lyrical. He hit pay dirt in Lamalera, Indonesia, an isolated spot. He shadowed a victorious hunt from Stone Age boats until the dying whale spouted blood, and followed the dried whale meat into villagers' exchange economy. Best of all, resident whalemen had a half-century of stories. ''The white whale has visited us many times,'' one old veteran explained. ''Sometimes it can be a wicked fellow.''
Severin's account links the rarely paired worlds of mid-19th-century American literature and late-20th-century Asian maritime communities. In many ways it is more satisfying as an adventure guide to the remote fishing villages of Pamilacan and Lamalera than as a quest for Moby Dick. That quest, of course, began as impractical and imprecise, almost destined to falter. After weeks in Tonga, for instance, Severin admits that he was not much closer to Moby Dick. But quests take unintended turns. Severin eventually wrote a meditation on a vanishing way of life and the spirituality of ancient ritualistic hunts -- one liberally peppered with excerpts from ''Moby-Dick.'' The fit is occasionally awkward, but this is nevertheless a book with an indisputably large spirit, something like an advanced placement humanities course and an Outward Bound adventure all rolled into one.
Island fishermen understand the ocean's plight as much as their own, and an environmentalist ethos pervades this account. Severin might have made more explicit, however, the hunters' recognition of their excruciating poverty and how underdevelopment, as well as tradition, propels them seaward. His wistful romanticism sometimes shadows hard realities. A few errors suggest haste. The Pacific's prevailing southeast trade winds blow away from the South American coast, not toward it. And the undocumented claim that all eight Essex survivors became whaleship captains appears to be literary license. But these blemishes are minor. ''In Search of Moby Dick'' is original, audacious and exuberant -- signature Severin.
Philbrick and Severin share an appreciation for legendary tales that grip modern imaginations. Reading their books is to realize, with Melville, that meditation and water are wedded forever.