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

by Nathaniel Philbrick  

Geography Lesson Plans
Prepared by students -- and future teachers -- in 
GEOG 441: Geography Frameworks
James Hayes-Bohanan
Department of Geography
Bridgewater State University
Update: November 25, 2015
In the Heart of the Sea
Read interview on
Philbrick's website

Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea is an excellent example of a nonfiction history book that sheds light on the importance of geography in historical events. It is also an excellent work of public scholarship that uses a compelling narrative to tell some of the most important stories of a pivotal epoch in U.S. history. In the town of Bridgewater through the program one book one community, the university, high school, middle school and elementary schools have read different variations of the novel. Below are lesson plans offered to teachers who want to use them as activities for students who are reading this novel in the classroom.

The day I met Nathaniel Philbrick was the day he met Ron Howard. Unfortunately, this did not mean I met the famous director, best known to me as Opie, the relatively "urban" kid of whom I was jealous growing up in the rural South. But the author was wonderful, and was clearly on a bit of a high from that encounter earlier in his day, when he could see that his book really on its way to the big screen. It seemed to me that the movie was completed very quickly after that, in less than two years. It has actually been done for many months as of this writing, but is being held until December 11, 2015 so that it is fresh in the minds of the Academy when it is time to vote on Oscars.

The story of the Essex, of course, was Melville's inspiration for Moby Dick. Based solely on the trailer, it seems that the film incorporates some elements of the fictional story into the historic account.

Both the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Nantucket Historical Association have prepared a variety of programs and exhibits to mark the opening of the film. This includes a robust exhibit at Nantucket to last throughout 2016.

Captain Russell Whale Walking
This image of Captain Russell riding the flukes of a whale with two whaleboats in pursuit is part of the Nantucket Historical Association collection. It is included in Philbreck's Smithsonian article, "How Nantucket Came to Be the Whaling Capital of the World." Of course, Mystic and New Bedford dispute that claim; each was the top port at a different time.

(Titles link to plans in Word.doc format)

Mapping the Essex
Grade Level: 2
Standards: 1, 4, 12, 15

Reality vs. Stereotypes of Foreign Locations
Grade Level: 4
Standards: 1, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, 17, 18

Marine life Ecosytems
Grade Level: 6
Standards: not listed

Lesson Resources (in PPT)

Geography of Sperm Whales
Grade Level: 4
Standards: 1, 2, 8, 9, 14
Lesson Resources (in PPT)

Photo at right: Students who prepared these lesson plans visited the Nantucket Whaling Museum to learn more about the geography of whaling and life aboard whaleships such as the Essex. The museum houses a whaleboat and gear, which is dwarfed by the sperm whale skeleton whose recovery is described in the epilogue of In the Heart of the Sea.

Standing in the far corner for scale is Yours Truly (Dr. Hayes-Boh) in his whaleboat rowing shirt. Rowing as a hobby is good exercise, but provides only the merest hint of the work involved in the life of a real whaleboat crew.

Whale Over Whale
Photo by Kayla Leary
In August 2015, I saw John Shea perform as Ahab in the bow of this boat during an amazing performance of Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed. I was almost in tears, it was such a passionate performance.


The "standards" indicated above refer to 18 components of geographic education that are defined in Geography for Life. Educators can find more geography lesson ideas related to a wide variety of topics on the LESSONS page on National Geographic Education.

Places of In the Heart of the Sea

View In the Heart of the Sea in a larger map. Zoom in on Nantucket for a sense of the tiny scale of a nautical community with global reach.

Field Trip

The Seven Seas
Captain Pollard's House is now the
Seven Seas Gift Shop.
Lei Niho Paloao
Whale-tooth pendants were status symbols in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, where islanders often traded with passing whalers to obtain them. This Lei Niho Paloao -- made with human hair -- was acquired during an 1893 scientific expedition.
Brant Point

Our visit included a walk to Brant Point -- the iconic welcome to Nantucket!

Related Books

The sinking of the whaleship Essex is rife with geographic and historic lessons, but it is also among the most gruesome nautical tales ever told. Educators who enjoy the lessons of In the Heart of the Sea but wish to provide something more age-appropriate for younger readers have quite a few excellent choices. For the youngest of these, Alexis O'Neill's Loud Emily is an excellent tale, full of adventure and nautical lore, and laced with sea chanteys. Peter Cook has written You Wouldn't Want to Sail on a 19th-Century Whaling Ship!: Grisly Tasks You'd Rather Not Do, an illustrated book that perhaps revels in the details that some educators would like to avoid, but in a way meant to appeal to young readers of a certain age. Philbrick himself wrote Revenge of the Whale, an abridged version of the tale for young readers,

See more options -- including an interactive version of Cook's work -- on the MaxGuide.

Project Background

Every spring I teach a course that is intended to help future geography teachers think creatively about ways to create geography lessons. Because geography is often missing from the formal curriculum, I try to prepare geography educators to find their own connections between the discipline they have studied and other material they may be teaching. The One Book One Community partnership between my university and my town began at about the same time I started teaching this course, and always provides an excellent opportunity for exactly the kind of stretching I want my students to do. Every spring and fall, the partnership selects a book to be read by university classes, primary and/or secondary classes, local book clubs, and the public at large. Once a book is chosen, many related activities are planned on campus, in schools, at local libraries, and elsewhere in the community. The experience of many people in a community sharing a common reading experience is very rewarding, and many of my students are likely to encounter similar programs in their future employment in schools. 

For several years, I have assigned many of the "One Book" selections to my students, and challenged them to write about how they could use them to teach geography at particular grade levels. Geography curricula are defined according to several different schemes, and these have helped us to find various geographic perspectives on Dark Tide, Nickel and Dimed, Fast Food Nation, and other titles over the past few years. This spring, the book was Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. This true story documents the journey the Essex Ship and its crew. The novel was created after a journal of the cabin boy was found. It depicts the tragic events that occurred to the ship and the crew, before and after the Essex was attacked by a sperm whale.

Pamela Hayes-Bohanan, librarian and member of the One Book One Community committee, has created the In the Heart of the Sea MaxGuide as a comprehensive guide to related library resources.

One Book One Community

Many thanks to the Bridgewater/BSU One Book One Community Committee and the Adrian Tinsley Program.