Could a Whale Sink a Ship?

Left: Woodcut illustration from The Mariner’s Chronicle of Shipwrecks, Fires, Famines, and other Disasters at Sea, Volume 1 (Boston, 1835).

While it was the business of whalers to hunt and kill whales, sometimes a whale would fight back. Among the more famous of the several incidents of whales attacking whaling vessels are those of the ship Essex of Nantucket in 1820, the ship Pocahontas of Tisbury in 1850, the ship Ann Alexander of New Bedford in 1851, and the bark Kathleen of New Bedford in 1902.  


Left: Woodcut illustration from The Mariner’s Chronicle, of Shipwrecks, Fires, Famines, and other Disasters at Sea, Vol. 1 (Boston, 1835).

All four stories have one element in common. The species encountered was a sperm whale and in each instant the whale rammed the vessel with its head after a prolonged fight with the whaleboats. The Essex under the command of George Pollard, Jr., with Owen Chase, first mate, sank two thousand miles off the west coast of South America in a region called the “Off Shore Grounds.” The whale attacked the ship “with vengeance in his aspect” according to Chase. The event became famous not only for the sinking itself, but for the terrible suffering of the crew members who were at sea for ninety days in three open whaleboats and gradually resorted to cannibalism with only eight of the original crew of twenty surviving. The Essex story provided inspiration for Herman Melville’s great novel Moby-Dick, where Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of the great white whale resulted in the sinking of the Pequod. The same year that book was published the Ann Alexander suffered a similar fate in the same general area of the Pacific.




wood engraving

Wood engraving, “Destruction of a Whaleboat from the ship Ann Alexander of New Bedford,”
from Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion ( Jan 5, 1852).
Kendall collection, 2001.100.7111.1


postcard of whaling bark Kathleen

Postcard issued by H.S. Hutchingson & Co., of New Bedford, 1902

Last modified: December 30, 2016

Newsletter Sign Up
What's Happening