Thursday, September 2, 2010

In the Heart of the Sea:The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

I just finished reading In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. It tells the TRUE story that inspired Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. This is not fiction. This is history. On November 20th, 1820, a whale sinks a ship and the sailors must find their way to safety across the Pacific Ocean aboard tiny whaleboats. They end up eating each other, becoming the very cannibals they were afraid of encountering on Pacific islands. What else would you do, after months of starvation and dehydration? These men - most of them devout Quakers (!) - took part in an unspeakably taboo act; the eating of human flesh. The religious restraint of these men took a backseat against the power of their survival instincts. In a starvation situation, morality disappears. It becomes eat or get eaten.

The problem is this; after months of starvation, their bodies were completely fat-free. So were the cadavers that they were eating. Unfortunately, the human body requires dietary fat and/or carbohydrates to function properly. Lack of fat/carbohydrates results in a medical condition called 'rabbit starvation', also referred to as 'protein poisoning', a condition in which no matter how much meat is eaten, the patient still wastes away. Also, protein yields little energy compared to fat (17 kilojoules for protein vs. 37.8 kilojoules for lipids). To make matters worse, the human body is unable to store excess protein, thus any protein above what the body can metabolize in a defined period of time is wasted. And these men were gorging on these corpses in huge mouthfuls, thus wasting a lot of precious food.

Why didn't they try fishing, you ask? Well, they were in the middle of the Pacific, in an area with no wind and no currents, therefore in an area with few nutrients, which meant there were very few fish to find.

What the crew of the Essex SHOULD have done instead of eating the lean meat of their dead comrades, would have been to use the human remains as shark bait, and then used one of the whaling lances to kill one of the few sharks that they encountered. 100 grams of shark meat yields 24 grams of protein and 2.3 grams of fat, which is better than nothing, and certainly much more food that they were able to butcher from the starved human corpses.

A good survival tip to keep in mind if you are ever stuck in a 19th century whaleboat without a satellite phone and a GPS.

One more thing: binge on pizza and ice cream in the months before your next whaling expedition.

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