Study Guide

In the Heart of the Sea Man vs. the Natural World

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Man vs. the Natural World

By 1760, the Nantucketers had practically wiped out the local whale population. (1.18)

Well, that was fast. We're halfway through the first quarter, and the human race is already out to an astounding lead, completely annihilating the local whale population in a matter of generations.

Just as the skinned corpses of buffaloes would soon dot the prairies of the American West, so did the headless gray remains of sperm whales litter the Pacific Ocean. (4.11)

Did you know that America was once teeming with bison? Well, you wouldn't know it from driving around these days, because those bison are all gone, either hunted or killed en masse to make way for railroads. In a similar way, whale populations were once obliterated in order to (literally) fuel the Industrial Revolution.

The sperm whales' network of female-based family units resembled [...] the community [of] the whalemen [...] In both societies the males were itinerants. (4.34)

If only they knew, they might be BFFs: Nantucketers and whales walking (or swimming?) hand-in-hand (or hand-in-fin?). Either way, it's clear to educated Shmoopmasters like ourselves that whales are a lot more like humans than their hunters would like to admit.

Some sailors insisted that the tortoises felt no pangs of hunger during their time on a whaleship, but Nickerson was not so sure. (4.45)

Yeah, we're going to have to agree with Nifty Nickerson on this one. While the sailors are just trying to survive, their actions end up having wide-ranging consequences on several ecosystems—not to mention the immense suffering they put these individual animals through. They'll know those feelings of hunger soon enough, however.

Although the crew of the Essex had already done its part diminishing the world's sperm-whale population, it was here [...] that they contributed to the eradication of a species. (4.51)

Case in point. The turtles that the Essex crew gathered by the bucketload (and ended up dumping in the middle of the ocean) were an important part of the Galapagos ecosystem. Their absence (not to mention the crew's short-sighted pyro spree) ends up doing irreversible damage to an endangered species. In fact, the Galapagos turtle population has yet to recover from such calamities.

Chase and his men had good reason to be amazed. Never before, in the entire history of the Nantucket whale fishery, had a whale been known to attack a ship. (5.18)

How dare that whale fight back? Doesn't he know that human beings are the best animals of all time? Suffice it to say that the whales disagree with this assertion, and now that they know what's up, they're not going down without a fight. And trust us on this one: you don't want to be on the receiving end of a whale punch. Ouchies.

If other sperm whales should start ramming ships, it would be only a matter of time before the island's whaling fleet was reduced to so much flotsam and jetsam. (5.50)

The human race has been bullying whales around for a long time, but here's the truth: whales are a lot bigger and stronger than humans. If they can put their brains to it (and let's be real: their brains are pretty huge) they'll be able to devastate any boat they meet with the flick of a tail.

Instead of acting as a whale was supposed to [...] this big bull had been possessed by what Chase finally took to be a very human concern for the other whales. (5.57)

For the first time in his life, Chase confronts the idea that whales and humans aren't so different, after all. Whales are one of the smartest creatures on the planet, after all, and many scientists believe their inner lives to be very similar to those of humans. You might not be able to say the same about, say, sea snails, but whales are some smart cookies.

The intense darkness of the night was [...] "past conception." [...] Making the blackness all the more horrible were flashes of lightning that seemed to envelop the boats. (7.66)

At this point, the crew is pining for the days when they battled sperm whales. As they've come to learn, there's something scarier here than those monstrosities—it's the sea itself. These men are farther from human civilization than they've ever been in their lives, separated even from the manmade ship that made their journey possible.

In 1837 [...] 6,767 sperm whales were taken by American whalemen. (As a disturbing point of comparison, in 1964, the peak year of modern whaling, 19,255 sperm whales were killed.) (14.60)

This is a real eye-opener. After reading the book, we completely expected the whaling industry to have died out soon after the Essex disaster. On the contrary: the whaling industry has only grown in the hundred-some years since that fateful trip. What gives?