Sperm Whale Tales
whales were the main quarry of American whalers from
about 1712 to 1870. Tiny wooden ships of 200 tons or less
and under a 100 feet long would often set off on voyages
that took them around the world for 3 to 5 years. Needless
say there is much lore and many stories of adventure and
mishap that occurred during these days. Some of these are
As we passed under her stern,
I read the name Cachalot, of New Bedford; but as
soon as we ranged alongside, I realized that I was booked
for the sailor's horror - a cruise in a whaler.
T. Bullen -
The Cruise of the Cachalot
The whale strikes back!
Whaling adventures in the
days of small boats and men wielding metal harpoons
on the end of wooden hand lances
were not always a one-sided affair.
The Whale Ship Essex
On the 20th of
November 1820, the Nantucket whaling ship ship
feet long with a 21 man crew) found a
group of sperm whales in the South Pacific,
the whaling boats were launched and the hunt
began. A man named Owen Chase the first mate
harpooned a large bull which trashed about with
its hugely powerful flukes and smashed a hole
in the boat. The men on the boat managed to
stuff some cloth into the hole, reluctantly
cut the whale loose and made it back to the
This in itself
was not an unusual occurrence, whale boats not
uncommonly sustained damage from whales and
a certain amount was expected. What Owen Chase
and the other whalers saw next however was most
definitely unusual. The stricken whale had come
close to the ship and was swimming headlong
towards it, Chase recalled "He came down
on us with full speed, and struck the ship with
his head ... and he gave us such an appalling
and tremendous jar as nearly threw us all on
The whale had
made a hole in the stout timbers of the ship
and the crew began to pump out the water and
attend to the hole. A few minutes later however
and one of the crew shouted out "Here he
is - he is making for us again".
Chase said "I
turned around, and saw him ... coming down apparently
with twice his ordinary speed, and to me at
that moment, it appeared with ten-fold fury
and vengeance ... The surf flew in all directions
about him, and his course towards us was marked
by a white foam ... which he made with the continual
thrashing of his tail; his head was about half
out of the water, and in that way ... he came
upon, and again struck the ship."
The ship had
been so badly damaged by the enraged whale that
the crew had to abandon her. There were two
other whaling boats out hunting at the time
and by the time they returned to the Essex,
she was nearly all below the water. Few supplies
were able to be recovered from the Essex and
the crew set them selves to for a row of over
They were about
2 000km (1 250 miles) from the nearest land (sperm
whales are creatures of the deep sea and are
not usually found near to land) in three small
open boats with very few supplies.
The voyage to
rescue was terrible with little food or water.
Their bread was soaked and too salty to eat
once dried out, when it eventually rained and
the rain caught in the sails, the sails were
so salty from earlier wettings with sea water
that the rain was too salty to drink. For ninety
days they drifted slowly dying of thirst and
hunger, the survivors eventually eating the
dead. Of twenty one men shipwrecked, only eight
The story of the whale ship Essex - book
This story was the inspiration for Herman Melville's
The Whale Ship
Along with the story of the
Essex above, this is the only other certain
case of a ship being attacked and sunk by a
whale. This account is related from "Whales
and Whaling" by Charles Boardman Hawes
published in 1924.
"The New Bedford whaler
Ann Alexander was cruising the offshore
sperm whaling grounds in the Pacific on the
20th of August 1851. Whales were sighted and
two boats sent out. About noon the mate's boat
struck a whale and was off on a "Nantucket
sleigh ride" when the whale stopped, turned
on the boat and "chawed it up". The
other whaling boat with the ships captain John
S. Deblois came to the rescue and the men taken
back to the ship.
Once again the men went out
to search for the stricken whale and once again
the mate's boat made a strike and was smashed
up requiring another rescue by the captain.
Once on the ship, they headed for the whale
who at last sounded (surfaced) and began to
swim rapidly towards the ship. As he came near
the ship "hauled on the wind" and
let him pass. They tried to get another chance
to strike, but it was too late in the day and
the chase was given up for that day.
The ship was making about
5 knots and the captain was at the rail when
suddenly he saw the whale rushing at the ship
at about three times her speed. There
was no time to make any avoiding action and
the whale struck the ship which juddered as
if she had hit a rock. The whale had hit abreast
of the foremast about 2 feet above the keel
and had knocked a great hole through the bottom.
Water rushed in and anchors, cables and anything
that might help keep her afloat was thrown overboard.
Finally the captain ordered
all hands into the only two boats that were
remaining while he jumped from the sinking ship
into the sea and swam to the nearer boat. The
ship lay on her beam ends (on her side) with
topgallant yards under water (ropes servicing
the uppermost sails). They waited by her all
night and the next day the captain boarded her
- none of his crew would take the risk - and
cut away the masts. She then righted herself
and they were able to retrieve some supplies
and set out for land.
They must have all known the
grim story of the Essex and its crew,
but had no other choice. Fortunately for them
however, two days later on the 22nd of August,
the ship Nantucket from that town picked
them up and took them to land."
The story then goes on to
claim that the New Bedford whaler Rebecca
Sims struck and saved a large whale and
found two of the Ann Alexander's harpoons
in him along with several pieces of ships timbers
in his head - this latter part does seem to
be stretching the story a little too far - for
the sake of a better ending to the yarn maybe?
the almost universally known tale of Jonah being swallowed
by a whale,
there are no authenticated instances of this - though
there are many tales with varying degrees of realism.
An apocryphal and oft repeated
This is a copy of a magazine
article that was not uncommon in the latter
half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though
was rarely told the same way twice and always
without any specific verifiable details, even
down to the name of the ship and whether or
not it was a whaler and in the area described
at that time. It is usually preceded with something
along the lines of:
were found "while
browsing through some old records"
"A whaling ship, the
Star of the East was cruising off the
Falkland Islands. A huge cachalot whale - the
toothed sperm-whale of southern waters - surfaced,
and a whale-boat was dispatched in pursuit.
In the struggle the whale-boat was smashed to
pieces and it was found that a young seaman
named James Bartley was missing. The whale was
killed and brought alongside. The next morning
the flensers had been busy for two hours when
they noticed a strange undulating movement in
the whales stomach. They slit it open and found
James Bartley doubled up inside unconscious.
It is stated that he required
four weeks to recover sufficiently to tell his
tale. He had found himself engulfed and sliding
down a slippery channel, the walls of which
quivered at his touch. The great heat of the
whales stomach "drained all his strength";
then he remembered no more until he woke aboard
the ship. The whales digestive juices had permanently
bleached Bartley's face, hands, neck and arms
as white as snow. The opinion was expressed
that a strange combination of circumstances
had given him his million-to-one chance of survival:
(1) The whale's "serrated teeth" had
missed his body. (2) The whale had soon been
killed, which lowered its body temperature."
This is certainly a hoax the
like of which seamen traditionally reserve for
the gullible. In the nature of such hoaxes it
is of course impossible to disprove claimed
events in the past. Several factors point in
this direction; no source is quoted, merely "browsing
through old records". The "well authenticated
facts" are given no authenticity.
If a man were swallowed by
a whale, he would be entirely without oxygen
and the temperature would accelerate heat stress
causing him to die very quickly. Even if a sperm
whale could swallow a man (see below) a live
unharmed one would certainly put up a fight
(wouldn't you?!) requiring him to be bitten
and subdued, possibly (probably) killed in the
day Jonah, from "Natural History"
after P. Budker 1959 - "Whales
"I was greatly interested
in the letter appearing in your April publication
the incredible incident of the unfortunate seaman,
Jas. Bartley, who was swallowed by a sperm-whale
and lived to tell the tale. My interest is in
a sense personal because of my small part in
a similar though not so fortunate accident.
Incidentally, I am inclined to agree with Dr.
Murphy's remarks concerning the dubiousness
of the tale quoted.
It was in February or March
1893 or 1894 when, as a young surgeon, I was
attached to the sealing fleet out of St. John's,
Newfoundland, as much for the adventure as for
my "sealer's share" of the trip. We
sailed on the schooner Toulinguet, one
of a considerable fleet of wooden ships bent
on a winter's take of seal pups.
One of the lads in another
ship had the misfortune, in full view of his
comrades, to become isolated from the others
on an ice pan, from which he fell into the icy
waters in the proximity of a huge sperm-whale.
The whale was apparently as lost and out of
season in those Arctic waters as he was
confused and angered by the sudden appearance
of a fleet of ships and men.
Somehow the poor fellow was
swallowed by the whale, which then made for
one of the smaller sealers. A lucky shot from
a small cannon mounted on her stern mortally
wounded the huge mammal and served to change
his course, though he travelled a full three
miles out to sea before his final death thrashing.
The next day he was found belly-up by one of
the long boats as it was searching for a seal:
and although it was impossible under those conditions
to bring him in, the men, by a valiant effort
and many hours of hard labour were able to hack
their way through his abdomen below the diaphragm
and isolated his huge gas-filled "upper
stomach" which apparently contained their
comrade. This was severed with some difficulty
at the cardia and in the first portion of the
duodenum, They brought it to me for inspection
and also for preservation of the man's body,
as it was hoped he could be returned to his
native Argentia (Newfoundland) for burial.
At first I attempted the dissection
with my scalpel, but quickly gave it up in favour
of one of the sharpest galley-knives. The stomach
was finally opened and gave off an overpowering
stench. A fearsome sight met our eyes. The young
man had apparently been badly crushed in the
region of his chest, which may have been enough
to kill him out-right. (In any event, an examination
of his lungs revealed a general atelectasia
with marked haemorrhage throughout.) The most
striking findings were external, however: the
whale's gastric mucosa had encased his body
(particularly the exposed parts) like the foot
of a large snail. His face, hands, and one of
his legs, where a trouser leg had been pulled
up or torn, were badly macerated and partially
digested. It was my opinion that he had no consciousness
of what happened to him. Curiously enough some
lice on his head appeared to still be alive.
The appearance and odour were
so bad that all save I were forced to turn away,
and we were obliged to consign him to the briny
deep - the last resting place of many a good
sealer - rather than carry him back to his rocky
I believe this tends to corroborate
Dr. Murphy's remarks."
Boston, Mass Egerton Y.
The bluff continues: (webmaster - Cool Antarctica)
last story did indeed appear as
modern day Jonah" in "Natural History
- June 1947" and subsequently in the book
"Whales and Whaling" written by Paul
Budker published in 1959. I then made it available on
this web page in early 2004.
After some correspondence
and further research however with Mr. Jolyon Jenkins,
a radio features producer at the BBC, it has now been
determined that even this most likely sounding of the
stories is false. The key feature to begin with was
use of the name "Egerton Y. Davis, Jr".
Egerton Y. Davis was a
nom-de-plume used by Sir
William Osler, an eminent English doctor in the late
1800's to spread tall tales.
seems that in 1947, someone (unknown) used the name
with the "Jr." added for the sake of spreading
another tall tale in the style of Sir William Osler
/ Egerton Y. Davis. Osler had been dead for some considerable
time at this point. A letter in a later edition of "Natural
History" exposed the story as a hoax.
was initially taken in, though now knowing that it is
an untrue story and reassessing it, certain parts of
it sound unlikely - even impossible - hindsight opens
the eyes wonderfully. It is impossible to disprove
such tales and they are even sometimes used to "prove"
the Jonah story:
So why was
I (and Mr. Budker) taken in by this story and how can
we tell it is untrue?
parts of the story are plausible, it was not uncommon
for whales to be mortally wounded and lost, sometimes
to be picked up later by the same or a different ship.
Sailors were notoriously bad swimmers so the loss of
a man overboard wouldn't be that rare. The description
of the man starting to be digested is a bit odd but
believable in the absence of any other existing description.
One of the
least likely parts is of the sequence of events
that led to the "Modern day Jonah", a series
of events get less likely the longer the sequence, the
more so when the individual parts are themselves unlikely
enough to start with.
It is the use of the
Egerton Y Davis name that seals it as a hoax however.
If it is true, why assign it with a name that is synonymous
with tall tales?
Names of ships are usually
given to strengthen the evidence, though are frequently
very difficult to follow up. The ship
Toulinguet is described as "..one
of a considerable fleet of wooden ships..." sealing
and whaling ships were often bought and sold between
companies depending on how they fared in the previous
season. A sale often meant a change of name, and while
some ships were built especially for the purpose, others
were just converted for use as whalers, so a "whaler"
often described a ships use more than its design.
The least plausible part is of a man being swallowed
whole. Sperm whales can swallow large objects and
there are accounts of them swallowing very large squid
(their normal prey item), BUT squid are slippery, malleable
and the length consists mainly of tentacles. Squid are
often described in length for the extent of their tentacles
(to appear more impressive), so a squid that is "25
feet long" (approx. 8m) can be considerably less
wide across the widest part than a man across the shoulders.
Swallowing a clothed man would need the widest part
across the shoulders to go intact down the whale's gullet
and with the added friction of clothing as opposed to
the squid being slippery and without a full skeleton
so allowing it to readily be squashed thinner.
If a man could theoretically be physically
swallowed by a whale (and even this theoretical possibility
has never been proven), it seems exceedingly unlikely
that any animal in danger of its life would pause in
the middle of the struggle and take a meal.
Especially a difficult one to swallow. Even the most
enthusiastic "Jonah" believers don't assert
that just any whale could swallow a man, so the
implication is that it is on the limit of possibility
for only the largest of whales. As mentioned, sailors
were notoriously poor swimmers and whaling often occurred
in high latitudes with low water temperatures, if the
whaler was not rescued very quickly (within about 5
minutes) he would be lost, irrespective of whether a
whale was around or not.
Giant squid, Arciteuthis
sp. 34 feet (10.4m) taken from the stomach
of a 46 foot (14m) sperm whale. The squid presents
less difficulty in being swallowed by a sperm
whale than the approx. 1.8m man would.
Footnote - Why are Sperm
whales suggested as the "man swallowers"
when some rorquals are much bigger?
of all sperm whales are the largest toothed
whales, the next largest - Orcas wouldn't be
Secondly and most
importantly, the large rorquals such as the
blue whales, while
notable for a whole host of extreme large size
records, paradoxically have a very narrow gullet
(oesophagus) only about 4" / 10cm in diameter
- fine for swallowing small planktonic invertebrates
and fish, but far too small to get even a single
human leg down! The largest animal that has
ever lived on earth would probably choke on
If you want truth to go round
the world you must hire an express train to
pull it, but if you want a lie to go round the
world, it will fly: it is light as a feather,
and a breath will carry it. It is well said
in the old proverb;
"A lie will go round
the world while truth is pulling its boots on"