As far as books go, it's a narrative, which is kind of like a gussied up encyclopedia entry. "This person did this and then this event happened, etc." But it's absolutely chock full of interesting details that I knew nothing about regarding the Essex and the port it sailed from called Nantucket (in 1820). For one, the culture of Nantucket was a kind of fascinating place. If young men were to find a wife to marry, they needed to have a pin that proved they had killed a whale at sea. The only way to get one of these pins was to sail as a "greenhand" on a ship like the Essex on an adventure that could last up to three mind-boggling years. This (of course) made it so that the local economy was run by women who even had a song that expressed how sad they were to see their men go away, but it also expressed how wonderful it was to be free of men for years to come.
And then there were other interesting tidbits too. Some of the women kept plaster sex toys to pleasure themselves while their men were at sea. Additionally, the local economy (though dependent on whale oil) was also one of the healthiest in the world because of the high demand and high price of whale oil. I guess the stuff was used in everything in the days and years before fossil fuels pulled from the ground emerged as a more long-lasting alternative to hunting whales to extinction.
And about that whale hunting...the Nantucket whalers started whaling by killing off whales that were in their immediate vicinity. They called them "right whales" as they were the "right whale to kill." But to this day, that particular kind of whale is still called a "right whale" so that's where the name comes from. Later on, when the first Nantucket whaler killed a much larger sperm whale, well that became the one that everyone wanted. It's oil burned cleaner, brighter, and the animals were so huge that they literally had a cavity in their head filled with 500 gallons of oil. According to the book, you could ladle it out into a bucket, and it was a viscous white color similar to human semen. They called it "spermaceti," which is also where the "sperm whale" got its name.
The Nantucket community was also deeply conservative, and they had no trust of outsiders whatsoever. What they learned about the world, they shared with each other. But knowledge from the outside was always distrusted with a kind of "fake news" mentality. For example, even though there were healthy colonies in places like Tahiti, the Nantucket sailors believed it was a dark and evil place where cannibals lived and homosexuality was rampant. It didn't matter if someone that was not from Nantucket told them the truth of things. If you weren't from Nantucket, you were an outsider, period, and anything you said could not be trusted.
Of course, the thing that most people have heard of regarding The Essex and its ill-fated voyage is that the ship was attacked by an 85-foot enraged bull sperm whale. That part is gloriously detailed in the book, and you are led to believe that it happened because the first mate was patching a smaller whaling boat and using a hammer, which (underwater) might have sounded like the mating click of a sperm whale cow that was ready to get busy. The account of the encounter is that the whale was confused when it first rammed the ship, as it must not have expected to plow into something so hard. It actually knocked itself out for a minute or two before it came to its senses. The men, fearful that by stabbing it, they would enrage it so that it would damage the tiller, did nothing. When it finally came to, it attacked the ship again, this time knocking a hole in it that quickly filled the ship with water. Then it swam away never to be seen again.
The men of the Essex salvaged what they could from their sinking vessel, built up the walls of their whale boats to try and keep the ocean out, and then set sail in three of these boats loaded to the brim with food, water, and live giant tortoises from the Gallapagos Islands (they stopped there to get bunches of them to eat on their journey). They purposely avoided a nearby Tahiti because of "cannibal" rumors and headed for South America in a tremendously long journey that saw most of them dead from starvation and dehydration and where the remainder became cannibals just to keep going. There's a deep irony in that the decision to stay away from lands where "rumored cannibals lived" because it turned them into actual cannibals.
Anyway, In the Heart of the Sea is filled with fascinating details and accounts from men who survived to tell the tale. I suppose there are a lot of lessons to be pulled from its pages, chief among them being poor decision-making and the Captain taking the advice of his men after they lost the Essex. He should have been an authoritarian in that instance and told his crew to make way for Tahiti. But because Pollard was a green captain, he took into consideration all the superstitions and fears of his men and made a bad decision that cost many people their lives.
Now, I'm excited to watch the movie, which came out in 2015. I just hope it's as good as the book, but it probably won't be. Such things rarely are, and Ron Howard (director) is really hit and miss with book adaptations and movies in general.