For hardy whalers, no ocean was too wide to cross in pursuit of their mighty prizes. In 1819, more than a dozen ships where launched from Nantucket, all headed for distant Pacific hunting grounds. One, the three-masted Essex, was to suffer a calamity so dramatic that its fate inspired a classic American novelHerman Melvilles Moby Dick.
For months the ship survived the hazards of rounding Cape Horn and taking its prey. But one day a mammoth sperm whale rammed the Essex head-on. Then the leviathan passed under the vessel, turned, and attacked again. The whale hit, as first mate Owen Chase recalled, “with ten-fold fury and vengeance.” The crew abandoned ship, and from their whaleboats watched as the Essex slid into the sea.