I’m not normally bloodthirsty.
But watching “In the Heart of the Sea”, I rooted for the white sperm whale.
In my head, I screamed for the leviathan to kill the humans harpooning his pod mates, wiping out his entire species.
After he rammed and sank the whaling ship Essex, I never felt sorry for the whalers. Not even when they drifted three months at sea and ate each other.
They got their just deserts.
I wish worse fates befall today’s Japanese, Icelandic and Norwegian whale murderers.
For millenia, men have slaughtered cetaceans. To this very moment, Japan, Norway and Iceland wantonly slaughter whales in the guise of “scientific research” although they’ve been protected since 1986.
Despite their size – 67 feet, average, from head to tail (they reached 87 feet before men nearly wiped them out), despite being formidable hunters of half a hundred foot long giant squids 7,000 feet under the sea, sperm whales are gentle giants.
These mammals are sentient, capable of caring, loving, protecting pod-mates and family. They possess the largest brain in nature. Despite their size and power, they are extraordinarily placid, even timid.
Unless, of course, men stab them with harpoons, riddle them with bullets, slaughter their babies and butcher them alive – which was what whalers did in 1820, at the time of the movie “In the Heart of the Sea”, when men hunted sperm whales for the oil in their heads which people used in candles, lamps, lubricants and others.
Significantly, the movie was billed as the real life account which Herman Melville fictionalized in his novel about a vindictive white sperm whale, “Moby Dick”.
However, “Moby Dick” ended when the leviathan sank the ship. “In the Heart of the Sea” told the aftermath of the sinking.
Still, 122 minutes of screen time can only show so much.
In a flashback, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), Essex cabin boy and youngest crew member, aged 14 during the sinking, now an old innkeeper, narrated his story to young Melville (Ben Whishaw).
He maintained it’s all about two square-jawed machos – Essex ship Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), two centuries ago.
But if there was one thing the movie did, it was to pique my curiosity about what really happened to the Essex and seek the true end of the real Moby Dick.
I discovered that the real Melville, who himself worked in a whaler aged 21, based “Moby Dick” on not one but at least two sperm whales who sank ships.
The first, Mocha Dick, a scar-faced 70-foot bull sperm whale, “white as wool”, inhabited the Pacific Ocean, near Mocha Island, off southern Chile. He survived a hundred skirmishes with whalers and destroyed 20 ships from 1810.
They killed him in 1838, shot 20 harpoons in his body when he aided a distraught cow whose calf they’ve just slain.
Melville’s second inspiration was the 85-foot sperm whale who destroyed the Essex 3,200 kilometers from the western coast of South America in 1820. The crew harpooned three different whales from three different boats when a fourth whale, an 80-ton bull, deliberately rammed the Essex, turned and rammed it again.
The Essex sank and its 21 men took refuge in three small boats. They drifted into the open sea for three months and only eight survived.
A decade and a half later, in 1835, sperm whales attacked the Pusie Hall, then the Two Generals in 1836.
More attacks followed.
In 1850, a bull sperm whale sank a second whaler, the Pocahontas. In 1851, a wounded sperm whale sank a third whaling ship, the Ann Alexander in almost the same spot where the Essex sank. Harpooners slayed this whale five months later.
No one knew if he’s the same whale who destroyed the Essex. After all, sperm whales can live over 70 years.
In 1896, Seminole, a passenger steamer, accidentally ran over a resting whale and its pod mates rammed the ship four times, seriously damaging its steel hull.
But one thing stood out. Sperm whales never attacked without provocation. Even the real Mocha Dick swam peacefully alongside the boats. He never showed aggression for as long as they don’t try to harpoon him and his pod mates.
And in reality, the men of the Essex were boys, mostly, though they wreaked massive destruction wherever they went.
Captain Pollard, 28, was one of the youngest men ever to command a whaler. Chase was 23. Many of the crew were in their teens.
En route to hunting sperm whales, Essex helmsman Thomas Chappel burned one entire island in the Galapagos, present-day Floreana, rendering its tortoise and mockingbird species extinct forever.
Captain Pollard ate his cousin, 19-year old Owen Coffin, after the starving survivors drew lots to decide who should be eaten. Owen lost.
After being rescued, Pollard returned twice to the sea, to captain a whaler and then a merchant ship. Both ships were wrecked. No ship owner trusted him again. So, he was forced to retire and take on the job of a night watchman.
First Mate Chase married four times. He suffered terrible headaches and nightmares, began hiding food in his attic, obsessed he might starve again. Eventually, he went mad and died in a nut house.
Cabin boy Nickerson became a captain in the Merchant Service and wrote his own account of the Essex late in life. But his writing was lost. It was only rediscovered in 1960 but people never realized its significance until 1980, after a whaling expert read it.
A couple of other Essex survivors captained whaleships. One became a farmer when he retired; another, a preacher. One other drowned in a whaling expedition.
The true story didn’t end the way it did in the movie, of course. Everyone died, as they had to – eventually, except for the white sperm whale, who passed on to legend.
Nevertheless, one shot “In Heart of the Sea” stuck to my head.
Beyond the spectacle of the leviathan’s fluke and fin bashing, the rain of splintering wood, the Essex going down in fire and smoke, I’m haunted by the vision of the sperm whale swimming between the boats and looking the first mate in the eye.
His giant form sliced through the glassy waters as he gazed at Chase gripping a harpoon while Captain Pollard screamed for his First Mate to throw the weapon.
Zoom in to a close up of the sperm whale’s intelligent eyes.
They really do that, you know. They lift their heads out of the water and look at you. As if they see your soul.
I know because I’ve looked into the eyes of some of the biggest fishes in this planet.
One look is enough.
In the end, Chase chose not to harpoon the whale. And so, the leviathan didn’t lift a fin or fluke against the men and swam away.
Needless to say, I’m sure that scene didn’t happen. At least, not in the Essex story. But it happened elsewhere. It still happens today. And it’s because the whale’s intelligence comes with not just the ability to love and protect, to hate and destroy, but also to forgive.
Despite being slaughtered for centuries, cousins of Moby Dick have “forgiven” humans. As I write this, people are going out in dinghies in San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, California, to commune with wild “friendlies” – gray whales, who by choice, go out to interact with “homo sapiens”.
Mother whales nudge their calves alongside boats, allowing themselves to be scratched and petted. Some even open their mouths and let strangers stroke their tongues. Occasionally, in their eagerness, a few leviathans lift the boats. But it’s all play.
I just wish no man will murder a whale again – not for meat which he doesn’t need, not for sport, which is merciless, not for anything – because it’s akin to murdering another human being.