A WHALE attack that sank a ship and inspired the novel Moby Dick was provoked by DIY, according to a Scots academic.
In 1820 the American whaleship Essex was sunk by a sperm whale while its crew were hunting in the south Pacific ocean.
The ship’s 20 men were cast adrift in small lifeboats – 1,200 miles from the nearest land – and spent 90 days at sea, resorting to cannibalism to fend off starvation.
Only eight sailors survived, and grisly accounts of their ordeal inspired Herman Melville’s 1850 novel Moby Dick – a tale of the obsessed sea Captain Ahab, locked in a deadly grudge with a white whale.
But now Dr Luke Rendell, a lecturer at the University of St Andrews, has claimed that the whale attack that sparked the real-life shipwreck could have been caused by sailors doing DIY repairs on the ship.
Sailors of The Essex were repairing their ship after a previous run-in with a whale they were hunting when a huge bull whale rammed its head into the ship’s side twice, sinking the ship.
But Dr Rendell says the whale probably attacked after mistaking hammering sounds made by sailors repairing their ship for the the banging sounds male whales use to communicate with each other.
The noises – known by scientists as the “slow click” – is often made by male sperm whales challenging each other, and can elicit an aggressive response from whales.
Dr Rendell – who works at the sea mammal research unit of the university – said: “They were known as ‘carpenter fish’ at the time as they would make this banging noise that was so similar to the noise a carpenter makes.”
“We know males compete with each other, we’ve seen it, and since only males make the slow click it’s quite reasonable to suppose that it may function at least partly as an antagonistic signal.”
“I have been researching sperm whales since 1993, and the only time I have seen anything remotely approaching aggression to our boat is when we were trialling some sound playback techniques and played these slow clicks to a young male at the surface—it turned around and began swimming towards us, at which point we ceased playback, and it went back to its business.
Herman Melville wrote his famous novel Moby Dick, based on his own experiences on a whaling ship, combined with an account of the sinking of the Essex, which was written by First Mate Owen Chase.
His novel tells the story of Captain Ahab – a whaleboat captain obsessed with hunting Moby Dick – a white whale that destroyed his ship and severed his leg on a previous voyage.
The book was a commercial flop at the time – selling fewer than 300 copies in its first four months – but it has gone on to become one of America’s best-known literary classics.
Meanwhile, the sinking of the Essex has also inspired a new movie starring Chris Hemsworth and Brendan Gleeson – set to be released on Christmas day.