The Sinking of Essex

essex vs sapient intelligent sperm whale

On 20 November 1820, the 238 ton whaleship, Essex, was repeatedly rammed by a large male sperm whale. The vessel sunk when its side caved in. Previously, its crew had noticed that whale watching them as they hunted an adjacent pod of females, yet survivors often described the ramming as unprovoked. From the whalers perspective its actions didn’t make sense.

Foremost in the minds of the whalers was that they never moved to attack that particular whale. Even if they had, in this era, whales were not hunted directly from the decks of the mother whaleship, but from smaller longboats sent out for that task. To deepen the mystery, giant male sperm whales have no permanent attachment to any pod, so what actually did motivated this one to attack?

I do not like anthropomorphising motives, but the actual problem that male faced is easy to understand. Each year they travel thousands of kilometres from the polar waters of their main feeding grounds to meet their female counterparts. Once they arrive in the subtropics and tropics, they go from pod to pod building up rapport. Female pods pay far more attention to some males than others, on occasion changing course to meet them. They greet their favourites with fair excitement, irrespective of whether they are ready to mate. It might be as much as ten years before they are ready and willing to actually copulate, so these ‘unproductive’ social meetings, and their intensity, would make sense only if they they could each recognise the other from season to season. Recorded matings are so rare that it is not a particularly big assumption that the males would remember that also. So… even if the male had no idea of the concept of paternity they would almost certainly be aware of the height of their social investment in each female pod. Now, back to the story…

According to surviving human witnesses, at the time of the attack, two females had been harpooned and were dragging longboats off toward different points on the horizon. Once exhausted, each would have been repeatedly skewered by the crew until dead but, for now, they were on ‘Nantuket sleighrides’. That watching male could have picked his favourite female, and swum off to save them, but there was no way to save both. Or was there?

Up until that day, sperm whales had only ever assailed the smaller longboats of the whalers. They had always attacked with their powerful flukes, but their flukes would be ineffectual against a larger vessels. It has been speculated that this male – an animal with the largest known brain in the universe, mistook Essex for a rival male suitor. It has also been argued, by at least one scientist (in a much criticised paper), that ramming might be a normal part of male aggressive behaviour. Male sperm whales certainly do, on occasion, fight, but in all history they have never been recorded to ram each other. Unlike other whales, ramming would be problematic for this species, since the head of a sperm whale is filled with an elaborate sonar focusing system. If they damaged it, neither engaging male would be able to locate their food effectively. Such mortal dangers would explain why observed male fights start with a mutual locking of jaws. Let me put it this way – the only ramming behaviour ever observed in sperm whales has been against ships whaling*.

A more likely confusion by the whale might be his expectation of the ship fleeing, or sailing away from the vector of his charge. This, however, could only explain that whale’s first charge, and certainly not why it backed off, then charged again. We could throw in, ad hoc, the assumption that its subsequent behaviour was confused by concussion, except that once the Essex was holed, the whale’s behaviour immediately changed yet again. According to the ship’s first mate this entailed dragging the ship back against its tail until water poured in far enough to sink it. I am not prepared to say that that last action was deliberate, but I can point out that from parsimony alone, we can infer ramming was more likely the whale’s original intention than frightening the ship off.

 On 20 November 1820, that whale probably made the ultimate sacrifice. It was not in vain since we know that all whaler chases were immediately abandoned at that point, and both females set free.

essex hit

While the Essex was the first whaleship attacked by a sperm whale, it was not the last. Sixteen years later, three more ships were sunk by ramming, and two more thirty years on. The last sinking was of Kathleen in 1902, and is the whaleship of which we have the next best account. At the time Kathleen was hit, three females were being dragged separately on Nantuket sleighrides. Of the other sunk ships, one went down only a hundred miles from where the Essex was hit. Coincidence? – hard to say.

*Above I wrote ships whaling, not whaling ships because one of the ships sunk (Ann Alexander) was a lumber ship. At the time of its ramming it had been captured as a prize of war, and was being used by its new crew as a platform for a whaling operation.

CONTINUE to meet the most famous sperm whale

or REVISIT how evidence of more typical whale behaviour during whaling has been badly misinterpreted by those who suggest it implies low intelligence.

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