The fate of the Essex is well-known, in historical circles anyway, but if you don't know the specifics and plan to see the movie -- stop reading now. Broadly speaking, the film version follows the account laid out in the book, which is based on rigorous historical research. The Essex is crushed (or "stove") by a giant white whale, forcing the sailors to abandon ship and attempt to survive in the three remaining whaleboats.
The facts: The Essex was indeed attacked by a large sperm whale on Nov. 20, 1820 -- although it was not a white or albino whale. The ship sank around 2,000 nautical miles west of South America. The survivors drifted for more than 90 days in total, eventually resorting to cannibalism.
Five crew members -- including Captain Pollard, First Mate Chase and 14-year-old Nickerson -- were eventually rescued from their boats, along with three more crew members who had elected to stay on an uninhabited island.
All eight survivors eventually returned to work on whaling ships.