At What Cost? Mariners Lost at Sea

While only Ishmael survived the voyage of the Pequod, in reality, death at sea was less the result of maniacal pursuits, and more the conse-quence of tragic mistakes and accidents. Between 1724 and 1896, a total of 1,131 lives were recorded lost at sea. Beyond the expected hazards of seas, many mariners died from diseases, infected wounds or in the brig (on-board jail). Striking an unchartered shoal was not uncommon, such as Captain Pollard’s Two Brothers. The NHA compiled a list of named and unnamed individuals that stands as a memorial recognizing the human cost of this industry.

The whaling ship Ann Alexander was rammed and sunk by a wounded sperm whale in the South Pacific in 1851, 31 years after the Essex was stove in and sunk by a whale in the same area. Incredibly it was also the same year the Moby Dick was published!

Whales met a tragic fate if captured in the hunt, though counting whale kills is complicated. Barring the signature whale stamps found in ship’s logbooks, whalers did not often record a headcount for whales killed. The number of oil barrels harvested from a whale is all that we have to go on. But then, whalers caught a wide variety of species of whale, like humpback, northern and southern right, and sperm. Whales differ in length and size just like us, individually producing as low as 10 and as high as 100 barrels of oil. Scholarly consensus places the average yield at approximately 34 barrels per whale. With Nantucket ships reporting imports of over 1.1 million barrels of sperm oil between 1760 and 1869, the total documented number of sperm whale kills is approxi-mately 40,000. But Nantucket went whaling as early as 1690, and the historical record is largely incomplete. We do know that both the size of the vessels and the fleet were smaller. Therefore, we can estimate that Nantucketer whalers killed approximately 50,000 whales. To put this slaughter in context, more whales were killed in one season in the 1960s, one hundred years after Nantucket was out of the bloody business.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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