Heart of the Sea
The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
rowingshirt. 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.
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.
Captain Pollard's House is now the
Seven Seas Gift Shop.
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
Our visit included a walk to Brant Point -- the iconic
welcome to Nantucket!
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
Emilyis 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.
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. TheOne Book One Communitypartnership 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
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 aredefined according to several
and these have helped us to find various geographic perspectives
onDark Tide, Nickel and
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.