Museum of Natural Mystery – Exhibit 18b: Sunk Cost


Part 2 of NatMysteryCast’s deep dive into the real whales that inspired Moby Dick! In 1820, an enormous sperm whale sank the whaleship Essex. Lost at sea, the surviving crew soon found that the vengeful whale was the least of their worries.



The tragic tale of the Essex has recently been made into a major motion picture titled In the Heart of The Sea, based on the novel of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick.



The Essex had the misfortune of setting sail just as the whaling industry was beginning to feel the toll it had taken on whale populations. By the time they left port in 1819, sperm whales had largely disappeared from Atlantic and even most Pacific waters due to overfishing.





Sperm whales were prized above all other whale species due to an organ in their head that produced an oily substance known as spermaceti. The organ could contain up to 500 gallons of the fluid.




The island of Nantucket grew very wealthy selling whale goods for all manner of purposes. Whale oil could sustain an enduring burn, and so was primarily used for light and cooking.





But Nantucketers used whale goods for plenty of less practical purposes as well, even using whale bones to give structure to corsets.




Viewing the sheer extent to which whale oil had permeated peoples’ everyday lives in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, it’s really no wonder that humanity pushed whale populations to the brink of extinction. And it’s also no wonder that whales occasionally struck back with extreme prejudice.




New Bedford Whaling Museum – Could A Whale Sink A Ship?

The History of Whaling in America by PBS

Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex by Owen Chase

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

The True-Life Horror That Inspired Moby Dick by Gilbert King

Cannibals: Shocking True Tales of the Last Taboo on Land and at Sea by Joseph Cummins

Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist? by Susan Beegel

Moby-Dick and Nantucket’s Moby Dick: The Attack on the Essex by Thomas Farel Heffernan

Account of the Ship Essex Sinking, 1819-1821 by Thomas Nickerson


Museum Management

Museum theme by Michael Guy Bowman

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Rachel: Designer #UkuleleWitch @rachelvice

Tour Guide: Emery Coolcats

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Museum of Natural Mystery is part of the POMEcast network, and thanks a million to the ladies of POME for helping this show get up and running! But above all, thank you for listening!

Featured image source: In the Heart of the Sea, 2015

Emery Coolcats

Emery Coolcats

Podcaster. Extinct animal enthusiast. Host of Museum of Natural Mystery!
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