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10 great escapes

By: MNN Admin on Oct. 12, 2010, 4:39 p.m.
Whaleboats and sperm whale

Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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Essex whaling disaster

On Aug. 12, 1819, the U.S. whaling ship Essex set sail from Nantucket, Mass., to hunt sperm whales in the South Pacific. It arrived there six months later, and things went smoothly for the following nine months as the crew hauled in a fortune in whale oil.

But their luck ran out on Nov. 16, 1820, when a sperm whale sank one of the Essex's small whaleboats with its tail. Four days later, another whale smashed into the Essex itself, sinking the ship and forcing its crew into their three remaining whaleboats. They sailed for weeks until spying a desert island on Dec. 20, but quickly realized it was too small to support the entire crew. All but three returned to sea, where several died before the survivors resorted to cannibalism; the final five were eventually rescued in February 1821.

The three who had stayed behind on the rocky outcrop — now known as Henderson Island — lived there for 107 days until they too were rescued in April 1821. The captain's son later recounted his father's ordeal to a young whaler named Herman Melville, inspiring him to write the novel "Moby Dick."