In Pacific discovery, traces of Nantucket and ‘Moby-Dick’

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By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011

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NANTUCKET — Remains of an 1800s Nantucket whaling ship with a poignant tie to the book “Moby-Dick’’ have been discovered on a remote reef almost 600 miles northwest of Honolulu.

The Two Brothers is the first wrecked Nantucket whaler to be discovered, and the chance find illuminates an era when close to 150 whaling ships from this tiny island set out across the world’s oceans in search of the lucrative oil extracted from blubber and left behind the near-extinction of many whale species.

While marine archeologists are ecstatic at the information they hope to glean from the coral-encrusted cooking pots and blubber hooks, the artifacts also complete the tale of a famously cursed captain: George Pollard Jr., who had commanded the Essex, the whaler from Nantucket that was sunk by an enraged sperm whale and inspired Herman Melville to write his classic novel.

Pollard survived the sinking of the Essex, resorting to cannibalism to do so, and returned home to Nantucket. He soon took command of the Two Brothers, only to have it sink on Feb. 11, 1823. Pollard again survived, but he never went whaling again.

“Pollard is the heart and soul of the whole story,’’ said Nathaniel Philbrick, who recounted the Essex tragedy and examined Pollard’s psyche in a best-selling book “In the Heart of the Sea.’’ “He has been through hell once again, slamming into destiny and almost going down with the ship. Something about there actually being physical remains [means] it is not just a story, but it really happened.’’

The ship’s remains were found by marine archeologists in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, an almost 140,000-square-mile US conservation area in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands known for its coral reefs and multitude of marine species. The atoll chain includes the location where the World War II air Battle of Midway was fought, and it is believed to entomb the remains of more than 120 aircraft and vessels.

Nearing the end of a research expedition in 2008, archeologists working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries came across a large anchor, three cast iron pots used for melting whale blubber, ship rigging, and other artifacts in 10 to 20 feet of water near French Frigate Shoals, where Two Brothers sank.

The items were clearly from an early 19th-century whaler, but a definitive identification took several more years. The remoteness of the site prevented the team from returning until 2009, and that year and again in 2010, they recovered more conclusive evidence, including blubber hooks, five whaling harpoon tips, three whaling lances, and glass.

The ship’s wooden hull had long since degraded, but American-made ceramics, probably used by Pollard because such high-quality goods would have been reserved for captains, were also discovered.

“We weren’t looking for the Two Brothers,’’ said Kelly Gleason, the monument’s marine archeologist. “While we know it sank on French Frigate Shoals, it was still like looking for a needle in a haystack. But by 2010, we began to put the pieces together.’’

Researchers feel confident they have located the Two Brothers because they painstakingly compared the artifacts to similar items preserved from the period of the sinking. The design of anchors, blubber hooks, and other ship gear evolved over time, so archeologists were able to date most of the items they found to the 1820s. Gleason also visited the Nantucket Historical Association to examine artifacts and look for clues in an epic poem about the sinking by Thomas Nickerson, who sailed with Pollard on both the Essex and the Two Brothers.

Nantucket still captures a whiff of the whaling heyday in the first half of the 19th century, with its magnificent captains’ homes on cobbled streets. Whalers first plied the cold waters off New England, with their catches providing the oil used to illuminate early America and to make a suite of goods from candle wax to soap.

But as the giant mammals were fished out locally, whalers fanned out from home. Many sailed around South America and passed through the low-lying atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, whaling along the way, and then onto whaling grounds off Japan and in the Arctic.

“These were little gold rushes each time they found new whaling grounds,’’ said James Delgado, National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program director and former president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. “Nowhere was the leviathan safe.’’

Catching the beasts was a fantastically dangerous job. Men would leave for two years or more in boats that, early on, were only marginally bigger than some of the whales they were chasing. Most whalers seemed to have a near-death experience with the sea, whales, or wild weather.

But no story captured the imagination more than the Essex tragedy, one of the first times a whale was reported to have seemingly struck back at its would-be executioners by ramming and sinking a boat.

What followed was even worse: Pollard and a shipmate spent 94 days at sea in a small boat, eventually eating fellow crewmen to survive, including, according to Philbrick’s book, Pollard’s 18-year-old first cousin.

Pollard was rescued, recuperated in Chile, and returned home to Nantucket to an awestruck, silent crowd of some 1,500 who had heard the tale, according to Ben Simons, curator of the Nantucket Historical Association who wrote a recent piece for Historic Nantucket about the Two Brothers. Pollard, meanwhile, had so impressed the captain of the Two Brothers, the boat that brought him home, that he was recommended as its next commander.

About three months later, he set sail again. On that journey, he was asked by a sailor how he could dare go to sea again, according to Philbrick’s book. Pollard reportedly answered “that the lightning never struck in the same place twice.’’

But, of course, it did. The Two Brothers broke up on a shoal in the middle of the night “with breakers apparently mountains high,’’ according to Nickerson’s careful account. Pollard was reluctant to leave the ship, but eventually did and spent a harrowing night with other crew in a small boat. All were rescued the next day by a sister ship.

Pollard never whaled again, instead taking a job as a lowly night watchman. Melville, who had never visited Nantucket before publishing “Moby-Dick’’ in 1851, met Pollard a year later. “To the islanders he was a nobody — to me, the most impressive man,’’ Melville later recalled.

Now, as archeologists plan a return to the reef to look for more of what is left of Pollard’s last ship, they say the seabed may hold new secrets about Two Brothers and other whalers.

“It sparks the imagination; it makes you wonder how many vessels are out there,’’ said Simons.

Earlier this week at the historical association’s library, he carefully opened a manila folder that contained Nickerson’s original account of the Two Brothers in careful script. One verse speaks to the horror Nickerson and Pollard must have felt when they realized they were about to lose another boat.

But here again, new terrors on us seize We have no food, our hunger to appease and thirst steals o’er our parched lips in vain Pale death’s stern visage threatens now again.

Beth Daley can be reached at