HONOLULU — In the annals of the sea, there were few sailors whose luck was worse than George Pollard Jr.’s.
Pollard, you see, was the captain of the Essex, the doomed Nantucket whaler whose demise, in 1820, came in a most unbelievable fashion: it was attacked and sunk by an angry sperm whale, an event that inspired Herman Melville to write “Moby-Dick.”
Unlike the tale of Ahab and Ishmael, however, Pollard’s story didn’t end there: After the Essex sank, Pollard and his crew floated through the Pacific for three months, a journey punctuated by death, starvation, madness and, in the end, cannibalism. (Pollard, alas, ate his cousin.)
Despite all that, Pollard survived and was given another ship to steer: the Two Brothers, the very boat that had brought the poor captain back to Nantucket.
And then, that ship sank, too.
On Friday, in a discovery that might bring a measure of peace to Captain Pollard, who survived his second wreck (though his career did not), researchers announced that they have found the remains of the Two Brothers. The whaler went down exactly 188 years ago after hitting a reef at the French Frigate Shoals, a treacherous atoll about 600 miles northwest of here. The trove includes dozens of artifacts: harpoon tips, whaling lances and three intact anchors.
The discovery is believed to be the first of a Nantucket whaler, one of an armada of ships that set sail during the early 19th century when the small Massachusetts island was an international capital of whaling. It was a risky pursuit that led sailors halfway across the world — and sometimes to the bottom of the sea.
“Very little material has been recovered from whale ships that foundered because they generally went down far from shore and in the deepest oceans,” said Ben Simons, chief curator of the Nantucket Historical Association. “We have a lot of logbooks and journals that record disasters at sea, but to be taken to the actual scene of the sunken vessel — that’s really what is so amazing about this.”
The discovery was, in some ways, as fortunate as Pollard was cursed.
The Two Brothers — which was bound for the newly opened Japan Grounds after whalers had fished out the Atlantic and parts of the South Pacific — was long known to have sunk on the night of Feb. 11, 1823, off the French Frigate Shoals.
A shrimp-shaped collection of reefs, the shoals were a notoriously tricky spot. Charts were not particularly reliable in that area, and Pollard was steering the Two Brothers without the aid of stars, since the sky had been overcast.
Several dozen boats are known to have sunk there or in neighboring atolls, all of which are now part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, an enormous conservation area that covers nearly 140,000 square miles of ocean west of Hawaii.
In 2008, a team of marine archeologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries set their sights on investigating several other wrecks, including a British whaling ship called the Gledstanes, which sank in the remote Kure Atoll in 1837, and the Churchill, which went down carrying a load of coconut meat in the French Frigate Shoals in 1917.
With a few spare days left before returning to Honolulu, however, the team decided to poke around a tiny sandbar known as Shark Island.
Kelly Gleason, the leader of the team, was in the water — crystal-clear shallows about 15 feet deep — when a colleague suddenly signaled that he had seen something.
“All of a sudden,” said Dr. Gleason, a marine archaeologist, “we came across this large anchor.”
The anchor, some 10 feet long, was peacefully resting on the seafloor, and was far too heavy to lift. (The federally protected monument also has strict rules about removal of artifacts.) Anchors, like so many other types of maritime technology, evolved over the years, making them easier to place in a specific time period, and Dr. Gleason was pretty sure the anchor she was seeing was from the early 1800s.
Divers soon found more debris, including several iron trypots, cauldrons in which blubber was boiled down into oil, the ultimate goal of the lucrative but highly speculative whaling trade. It was a brutal pursuit for both the whales, which were hunted nearly to extinction, and the sailors, who faced years at sea, meager rations and the omnipresent possibility of death.
“Nantucket whaling captains were renowned for being what was called ‘fishy men,’ meaning that they didn’t care what was involved,” said Nathaniel Philbrick, a maritime historian and author of “In the Heart of the Sea,” the acclaimed account of the Essex’s sinking. “They were hard-wired to bring in whales, because whales meant money.”
Pollard, however, was different, “a little more contemplative,” said Mr. Philbrick, despite earning his first helm — the Essex — at the young age of 28.
“He definitely garnered his men’s respect,” Mr. Philbrick said. “But he was twice unlucky.”
And understandably gun-shy. According to an account by Thomas Nickerson, who had been on the Essex — and nearly starved to death at sea after it sank, but still re-upped for another voyage with Pollard — the captain froze on the deck of the Two Brothers after the ship began to sink, and he had to be practically dragged into a smaller whale-chasing boat.
“His reasoning powers had flown,” Nickerson later wrote.
Dr. Gleason says she was impressed that Pollard even went back on a boat at all, considering, you know, the cannibalism of his first trip.
“You just imagine this man who had the courage to go back out to sea, and to have this happen?” she said. “It’s incredible.”
All told, archaeologists have found about 80 relics from the Two Brothers, including four cast-iron cooking pots, fragments of glass and ceramics, riggings and blubber hooks. Monument officials say they hope to eventually make some of the smaller artifacts part of a permanent exhibit in Hawaii, though larger items will remain in the water of the Shoals.
For his part, Captain Pollard was rescued a day after the Two Brothers sank. He returned to Nantucket, where he settled into a sedate, quiet and decidedly nonseafaring life, though other sailors quietly deemed him a “Jonah,” or star-crossed mariner.
He eventually took a job as the town’s night watchman. In the 1850s, he was visited by a 30-something writer who had just published a novel — “Moby-Dick” — to middling reviews. A former whaler himself, Melville had sought out Pollard and found, according to Mr. Philbrick, a kind of soul mate in the older man.
“Both of them had experienced the ultimate in terms of living,” he said, “and then went on quietly in their lives ignored by everyone.”
Indeed, Melville worked as a customs inspector until several years before his death in 1891. Pollard died — alone but apparently beloved by fellow Nantucketers — in 1870. But while Melville’s reputation soared, few know of Captain Pollard.
Dr. Gleason, for one, hopes that this discovery in the reefs of the Hawaiian islands, a place that could boggle any sailor, today or in 1823, goes a way toward repairing Pollard’s legacy.
“He was up against these incredible odds,” she said. “And it’s an incredibly hazardous place.”