I have read Moby Dick, and watched "In The Heart of The Sea". It's absolutely fascinating but what I can't figure out is the logistics of whaling in the 1800s.

In the movie I mentioned, you see them on the deck of their ship with their slain whale, melting down the blubber. How did they have space to do that there? It didn't look like that big a ship. And then Owen Chase at one point says that on one trip they returned with 1800 barrels of oil. Where the heck did they put that many barrels? The ship's hull had to accommodate all the provisions, the crew's quarter, etc etc etc.

There is a paucity of information on how these ships were laid out. Same thing for any ship of that era for that matter. The HMS Bounty etc.

Question: has this information been lost to history? All my google searches return nothing but small images with little detail and there does not appear to exist any book on the subject. What would be great is a book of the sort that exists for Star Wars ships - cross sections, technical specifications, etc - but for real ships!

Edit: Owen Chase actually says they returned from his last journey with 1800 barrels, not 8000. He also says that he hopes to return from the fateful journey with 2000. Therefore we can infer that the maximum payload was 2000 barrels.

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    Will await an answer from someone with better data, but I think flensing of blubber was usually done in the water, lifting only sections onto deck. Sep 22, 2019 at 17:50
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    gazette665.com/2017/06/15/… Which year was the 8000 barrels of oil figure supposed to be? It certainly seems a bit high if we consider that this source gives a top displacement of 400t by the 1850's.
    – SJuan76
    Sep 22, 2019 at 17:54
  • Please note that similarly sized combat ships carried dozens of cannons, the gunpowder and a large number of cannonballs for them, and a lot more crew (one gun required at least 3-4 crewmen to operate), and the provisions for that extra crew. Remove them and you have plenty of carrying capacity.
    – vsz
    Sep 23, 2019 at 6:15
  • I have re-watched the film and corrected the statistic, my thanks for catching that.
    – Duke Leto
    Sep 24, 2019 at 3:46

1 Answer 1


In the Heart of the Sea is primarily based on a famous historical ship, which also was part of the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick. That ship was named Essex. Launched at Nantucket in 1799, it was lost at sea in 1820 along with most of the crew in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. It was apparently attacked and destroyed by an angry sperm whale.

As mentioned in a comment by @AaronBrick, the blubber would have been stripped from the whale still in the water next to the ship, and then hoisted one strip at a time onto the deck. The process of removing the blubber from the whale is known as flensing. Blubber was indeed boiled down to liquid oil and stored in large barels on the holds of ships. These ovens for boiling blubber are known as tryworks.

Here is a nice (if simplistic) diagram of how the Essex would have been laid out. As you can see the tryworks was relatively compact but a large section of the hold would have been dedicated to barrels. The barrels would have held drinking water on the way out to sea and whale oil on the way back home. According to that site, the number of barrels was more like 1,200.

Cutaway diagram based on the Essex

If you're interested in learning more about the Essex disaster and its historical context, I cannot recommend strongly enough the excellent documentary Into the Deep from PBS' American Experience series. There are also many good books about early American whaling, including an illustrated edition of the memoir written by a survivor of the Essex disaster, Owen Chase.

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    Another edition of the The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex is also available to borrow on archive.org. Sep 22, 2019 at 21:04
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    Melting fat over an open flame in a wooden ship, surrounded by +1000 barrels of oil. I take it they didn't tell OSHA.
    – Ryan_L
    Sep 22, 2019 at 23:43
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    @Ryan_L they more likely held OSHA at gunpoint and knocked him over the head, then gave him the option to work for a living or swim home from 100 miles offshore
    – jwenting
    Sep 23, 2019 at 8:37
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    @Ryan_L Whaling was a ridiculously risky job anyway. Start with the risks of being on a tall ship for weeks in the Arctic or Antarctic, which are high enough. Then chasing the whale, with explosive harpoons, in rowing boats. Then chopping the whale up with axes - many whalers lost toes, feet or entire legs at that point. Ironically, boiling whale blubber was almost a safe job in comparison.
    – Graham
    Sep 23, 2019 at 12:22
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    Has the information been lost to history? Not at all. You can visit an actual whaling ship from the sail era in Mystic, Connecticut, and the whaling museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I've been to both and highly recommend them if you want to learn more.
    – Literalman
    Sep 23, 2019 at 15:06

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