Elderly Tom Nickerson recalls how, in 1819, he went to sea as cabin boy on the whaler ‘The Essex’, leaving Nantucket. Its recently promoted captain George Pollard is a kindly man, unlike first mate Owen Chase and Tom notes their mutual animosity though, inspired by tales from his grandfather, envisages life at sea as romantic. A storm and a food shortage puncture his illusions but spirits are raised when a whale is sighted and caught. However some two months later another whale attacks and sinks the ship – in what Tom believes to be an act of revenge – and the crew take to the long-boats. Chase overrules Pollard in deciding that, rather than risk cannibals on the nearby Society Islands, they make the gruelling 2,000 mile journey to Peru. Ninety days later only five of the crew are rescued, the others either dead or never found. An end-title relates what happened to Tom, Pollard and Chase in later life.