Nantucket Whaler’s Tale, Resurrected

February 11, 2011

Herman Melville, shortly after publishing Moby-Dick to middling reviews, travelled to the island of Nantucket to visit a man he’d never met before, a retired town watchman named George Pollard, Jr. The young writer and the old watchman struck up a warm friendship trading stories about a mutual professional interest: whaling.

Melville had worked whaling boats prior to the publication of his novel and, as whaler and writer both, had plenty of stories to trade. But Pollard had him beat: in 1820 he was given the helm of the Essex, a star-crossed Nantucket whaler, which suffered the fantastic fate of actually being attacked and sunk by an enormous sperm whale. The former Captain Pollard and his crew thereafter took to the sea in small life boats and skiffs made to chase whales, drifting and starving till rescue. Rescue, when it came, had been so delayed that Pollard, starving and mad, had already eaten his cousin.

Apparently an optimist, Pollard accepted command of another ship, the Two Brothers, shortly after. He returned to the whaling waters off the coast of Nantucket with plans to explore the newly opened Japan Ground, but promptly sank again. Pollard then settled on Nantucket island and took the watchman job, living a landed life and enjoying the company of fellow islanders, many of them retired captains also.

Now, marine archeologists have discovered the remains of the Two Brothers and, among them, a trove of whaling treasure: harpoon tips, blubber hooks, whaling lances, and three intact anchors. “Very little material has been recovered from whale ships that foundered because they generally went down far from shore and in the deepest oceans,” Ben Simons, chief curator of the Nantucket Historical Association, recently told The New York Times. “We have a lot of logbooks and journals that record disasters at sea, but to be taken to the actual scene of the sunken vessel — that’s really what is so amazing about this.”