Peleg Nye in 1864 had the bad luck to encounter a whale that decided to have him as a snack. As the first mate of the whaling schooner George W. Lewis, he commanded one of the whaleboats that pursued a mammoth sperm whale off the Cape de Verde islands. The encounter came close to killing him.
Much like fracking today, the whale industry in the 1800s drew countless men to the business because of the wealth that could be acquired selling whale oil. The price at one time exceeded $1.75 per gallon, and the rarer varieties used in perfumes commanded even greater prices.
Men overlooked the obvious dangers of the trade to chase their fortunes, and many died in the process.
Nye’s run-in occurred in March of 1863. While much of the nation focused on the ongoing battles of the Civil War, Nye served as first mate aboard the George W. Lewis. The Lewis by then had acquired little whale oil after a nine-month voyage.
Nye had risen to first mate after a setback to his career. Born in Sandwich, Mass., he went to sea at 17. By his 34th year, he captained the whaling schooner Belle Isle. But on April 11, 1851, the schooner collided with a steamship six miles off Cape Ann. The tragedy cost four lives and Nye’s career.
Or so it seemed. By 1863, Peleg Nye was first mate of the George W. Lewis under the command of Hiram Holmes. Holmes, fortunately for posterity, recorded what happened that day in his logbook.
On Nov. 16, 1864, the Lewis got underway at 8 a.m. off the Isle of Sal. At 2 p.m., a lookout spotted a large sperm whale. “John Dyer raised a large lone sperm whale bound towards Bonivista,” wrote Holmes. The crew, no doubt, felt excitement at the prospect of a chase and a large yield of oil.
The seamen lowered two whaleboats into the water, Holmes in charge of one and Nye the other. The whale surfaced near Nye’s boat. Wrote Holmes, “The whale immediately began sounding, and ran out about 100 fathoms of line from the three hundred they had in the two tubs. Then Nye went forward and they began to take in the slack…Mr. Nye shot him.”
Nye would have used a whaling gun, which shot a lance that carried a bomb. When the lance hit the whale, the bomb would have exploded.
Nye shot him again, which seemed to have finished him off. The whale rose and lay on his side. Peleg Nye decided to finish him off. He ordered the men to row close to the whale, and then he shoved a hand lance into him. The whale thrashed and hit the whaleboat with his lower jaw. That knocked Nye overboard, into the whale’s open jaws.
The whale clamped his jaws shut onto Peleg Nye’s legs just below the knees and carried him well below the surface. Fortunately for Nye, his legs fit between the spaces that separated the whale’s teeth.
Nye recalled holding his breath and pressing against the whale’s mouth. He finally took a breath and water filled his lungs. Then he passed out.
“He was down under water so long that when he came up he was most gone,” wrote Holmes in his logbook. “[H]e never spoke for half an hour, one of the bones was fractured to his leg both badly bruised he was nearly full of water took him on board[. I] doctored him as well as I could.”
Holmes managed to revive Nye while ordering the crew to bring the whale alongside the Lewis by dark. Nye later said that whatever Holmes did to bring him back to life, he wished he hadn’t because he suffered so much. He did, however, get better slowly.
Nye returned to whaling after his adventure as a captain of the Montezuma. He and his wife built a house in Hyannis Port, and by 62 he had retired. Nye died at the age of 79. His obituary noted “he was much esteemed as a citizen for his quiet and kind disposition.”
The story of Edmund Gardner is similar. A Quaker, he lived in Nantucket in the days before vacationing Wall Street financiers overran the island. In 1816, he toppled in to the ocean and a whale grabbed hold of him.
Gardner was rescued, but the incident left him the worse for wear . He went through the rest of his life with a stump for a left hand that appeared crippled, but retained some uses.
Captain Edmund Gardner of Nantucket and New Bedford, His Journal and His Family, described his hand. “[T]he stump, or what was visible below the coat-sleeve, look(ed) like a twisted rope’s end, but still retaining clutch enough to carry the chowder-spoon to his mouth…Four of the whale’s teeth were driven into him! one entering his skull, a second breaking his collar bone, a third breaking his arm, and the fourth crushing his hand — the remainder of his body being simply squeezed into a jelly. The healing of the wound in the head left a cavity like the inside of an egg-shell.”
A Third Victim
On June 11, 2021, a 56-year-old lobster diver named Michael Packard said he dove about 45 feet down the waters off Provincetown. All of a sudden, he felt a bump and “everything went dark,” he told WBZ-TV. He thought a shark had attacked him, but realized he didn’t feel any teeth. He also didn’t feel any pain.
Packard realized, “oh my God, I’m in a whale’s mouth … and he’s trying to swallow me,” he told the television station after leaving Cape Cod Hospital. He thought he would die. But after 30 seconds, the whale spat him out, and his crewmate hauled him into the surface boat.
His legs, like Peleg Nye’s, were just badly bruised.
With thanks to Peleg Nye, The Jonah of Cape Cod by Nils Bockman. This story was updated in 2022.