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Leviathans’ revenge: Whales that attacked ships


Graham Faiella, author of the Thrilling Tales of the Sea series, recounts five tales of ships that were attacked by whales.

The Essex

The whaleship Essex sailed from Nantucket on 12 August 1819, commanded by Capt. George Pollard and crewed by twenty men for a whaling voyage to the Pacific. A year or so later she reached the whaling ground along the equator in mid-Pacific.

On 20 November 1820 the Essex got into ‘a shoal of whales,’ according to first mate Owen Chase’s later account of the incident.[1]

 All her boats were launched to pursue them. A large sperm whale ‘about eighty-five feet in length’ charged ‘with full speed, and struck the ship with his head’ against the bow of the Essex. The ‘appalling and tremendous jar’ shook the ship and the men on board. A second charge ‘completely stove in her bows.’    

The Essex began to sink. The men salvaged whatever provisions and other useful items they could take from the wreck. Two days later, on 22 November, the twenty castaways in their three boats sailed away from the wreck, steering towards the south. Capt. Pollard planned to reach the coast of South America within, ‘at the very utmost,’ 56 days.

In December they landed at Henderson Island, one of the Pitcairn Islands. Three of the men stayed there when the rest left a week later.

The voyages of the Essex men in the three boats became notorious for the cannibalisation of some of their shipmates as they died.

In February 1821 the survivors in two of the boats were rescued near the coast of Chile. The third boat got lost and was never heard from again. The three Henderson Island men were rescued on 5 April 1821 by a passing ship. Of the twenty crew of the Essex, just eight survived.

The sinking of the Essex famously inspired the denouement of Herman Melville’s 1851 leviathan novel Moby Dick: the sinking of the whaleship Pequod by the great white whale.

But another whale attack on another whaleship mightily impressed Melville, too.

The Ann Alexander

On 1 June 1850 Capt. John S. DeBlois commanded the whaleship Ann Alexander out of the old whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Around mid-August 1851 the Ann Alexander reached the so-called ‘Off-Shore-Ground’ in the Pacific, along the equator and a few hundred miles west of the Galapagos Islands.

On 20 August the Ann Alexander got amongst a pod of sperm whales. Two boats – the first mate’s ‘larboard’ (port) boat and Capt. DeBlois’ starboard boat - pursued the whales. One whale harpooned by the ‘larboard’ boat turned on it and, ‘rushing at it with tremendous violence, lifted open its enormous jaws, and taking the boat in, crushed it into fragments as small as a common-sized chair!’[2]

After the whale attacked several more boats, Capt. DeBlois got all his men back to the Ann Alexander, and they continued to pursue the ‘monster of the deep’ which had devastated their boats.

But, as the Ann Alexander approached it, the whale ‘settled down deep below the surface of the water.’ It then came ‘rushing towards [the ship] at the rate of fifteen knots! In an instant the monster struck the ship with tremendous violence shaking her from stem to stern…’ The whale knocked a hole in the hull of the Ann Alexander ‘through which the water roared and rushed impetuously!’

Capt. DeBlois gathered what provisions, fresh water and navigation aids he could from the ship before ordering the boats to be launched. The next morning the two boats headed ‘northwardly’, as DeBlois had insisted, to reach ‘a rainy latitude’ that would sustain them with fresh water.

The Ann Alexander men were lucky. On 22 August, just a few days after their ship was attacked, they were rescued by the whaleship Nantucket. All the men eventually reached home safe and sound.

Early in November 1851, Evert A. Duyckinck, a New York publisher and close friend of Herman Melville, sent the Moby Dick author a newspaper clipping about the Ann Alexander incident. To which Melville replied a few days later:

‘It is really & truly a surprising coincidence – to say the least. I make no doubt it is Moby Dick himself… Ye Gods! What a Commentator is this Ann Alexander whale… I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.’

The Kathleen

The whaling barque Kathleen, commanded by Capt. Thomas Jenkins, set off on an Atlantic whaling voyage from New Bedford on 22 October 1901. On 17 March the following year it was some 1,000 miles off the northeast Brazilian coast when one whale amongst a pod charged the ship and knocked a hole in the Kathleen’s hull.

The men got what fresh water and bread they could before abandoning the sinking ship in two boats which included Capt. Jenkins’ wife. Later they came across the two other boats they’d been looking for a distance away. The men in these ‘were very much surprised to hear that the Kathleen was gone.’ [3]

The next day a steamer, the Borderor, of Glasgow, picked up the men and Mrs. Jenkins from three of the boats and landed them at Pernambuco (Recife), Brazil, nine days later. The fourth boat arrived at Barbados also after nine days.

The King Oscar

On 15 December 1871 a whale took up position near the barque King Oscar on a voyage between Hobart, Tasmania, and Newcastle, New South Wales. After three days of peaceable companionship, the whale suddenly turned and rammed the King Oscar, causing her to leak until she reached Newcastle on 26 December.

Why the whale suddenly got its dander up and hammered into the King Oscar, three days into a seemingly friendly relationship, can only be surmised.

The Anna

The Danish merchant schooner Anna was twenty days into a voyage from Iceland to New Brunswick, when, on 28 September 1904, a very frisky whale appeared, played around the vessel for some time, then suddenly, ‘like a warship intent on ramming, came straight at the schooner.’ [4]

With a crash that rang out over the waters, the monster struck the ship, hurling the men off their feet. A sound of rending timbers could be heard…

The Anna’s carpenter confirmed that ‘a huge rent had been made in the ship’s bows…through which the water was pouring in a veritable flood.’

On 30 September, as the men were launching the lifeboat, a steamship, the Quernmore, bound from Liverpool to Baltimore, rescued the seven Anna men. She landed them at Baltimore a week later, none the worse for their trial-by-leviathan - and with a ripping good thrilling tale of the sea to tell forever after. 

By Graham Faiella. Graham is the author of the Thrilling Tales of the Sea series published by The History Press: Vol 1: Cannibals and Carnage (2019); Vol 2: Misery, Mutiny and Menace (2019); Vol 3: Castaways – Adrift and Abandoned (2021); Vol 4: Mysteries and Sea Monsters (2021)

[1] Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex… (1821)

[2] Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript, New Bedford (4 November 1851)

[3]  Bark Kathleen Sunk by a Whale, by Thomas H. Jenkins (H.S. Hutchinson & Co, New Bedford, Massachusetts: 1902)

[4]  ‘Rammed By a Whale,’ by W.S. Stevens (Wide World Magazine, May 1905)


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