Gene Notes

Some random and some not-so-random thoughts on family history.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

There Be Whales Here.

No, this is NOT a review of Star Trek: The Voyage Home. Although, being a Trekkie, I really enjoyed this movie. What it is in fact is one of those goosebump moments we family researchers suffer from time to time.

Mine came tonight, when the program for The American Experience  was "Into the Deep: America, Whaling and the World."  This program covered the whaling industry and the voyage of the whaler Essex. The Essex was in effect, the inspiration for Moby Dick.

By the 1820's whales were so hunted out in the Atlantic that whalers were circling the globe in search of sperm whales, the whale with the most valuable product. The Essex left Nantucket in November 1819, sailed around the coast of South America and 3000 miles from land was sunk by a whale that literally attacked the ship. Everyone on board survived the actual sinking, but the actual horror was the deaths from dehydration and starvation that occurred among the crew. Three of the whale boats were filled with men and instead of  letting the prevailing headwinds carry them west, say towards Tahiti, they set sail for South America. You see, they were afraid of cannibals. They did find an island along the way, and three men chose to stay behind. That may have been a good move on their part because of the three boats, one got separated from them and was never seen again, nor its crew. The other two boats sufferered the above mentioned dehydration and starvation. Their condition was so bad that they reverted to cannibalism to survive. Do we sense the irony here?

I can't say specifically, that any of my relatives were whalers, but the Percivals of Massachusetts had their fair share of "seamen" and "mariners" in their number. While none were aboard the Essex, several were lost "at sea" and one spouse of a Percival daughter, one Washington Chipman died in the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru in 1851. Is it possible he was a whaler? Maybe. Within that time frame, it is possible he was on his way to California to work in the gold fields.

It was an interesting program, and if you have sailors from that era in your lineage, it could be very compelling.

Copyright 2010, ACK for Gene Notes


  1. This reminds me of the scariest part of the movie Jaws: Robert Shaw's monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis, and all the men that were killed by sharks as they awaited rescue.

  2. Have you ever seen interviews with any of the survivors? Very scary.

    And I think it was scarier when the shark got Shaw.