Fact of the day: Moby Dick was based on a real whale

I just found this out while writing a talk. The whale “Moby Dick” in Melville’s eponymous novel was in fact based on a genuine white whale, one called “Mocha Dick.” (You never know where new talks will lead.) The cetacean has its own Wikipedia entry which includes, among other things, these facts:

Mocha Dick was a male sperm whale that lived in the Pacific Ocean in the early 19th century, usually encountered in the waters near Mocha Island, off the central coast of Chile. American explorer and author Jeremiah N. Reynolds published his account, “Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal” in 1839 in The Knickerbocker. Mocha Dick was an albino and partially inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick.

Mocha Dick survived many skirmishes (by some accounts at least 100) with whalers before he was eventually killed. He was large and powerful, capable of wrecking small craft with his fluke. Explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds gathered first-hand observations of Mocha Dick and published his account, “Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal”, in the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker. Reynolds described the whale as “an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength… white as wool. According to Reynolds, the whale’s head was covered with barnacles, which gave him a rugged appearance. The whale also had a peculiar method of spouting:

Instead of projecting his spout obliquely forward, and puffing with a short, convulsive effort, accompanied by a snorting noise, as usual with his species, he flung the water from his nose in a lofty, perpendicular, expanded volume, at regular and somewhat distant intervals; its expulsion producing a continuous roar, like that of vapor struggling from the safety valve of a powerful steam engine.[2]:379

Mocha Dick was most likely first encountered and attacked sometime before 1810 off Mocha Island. His survival of the first encounters coupled with his unusual appearance quickly made him famous among Nantucket whalers. Many captains attempted to hunt him after rounding Cape Horn. He was quite docile, sometimes swimming alongside the ship, but once attacked he retaliated with ferocity and cunning, and was widely feared by harpooners. When agitated he would sound and then breach so aggressively that his entire body would sometimes come completely out of the water.

In Reynolds’ account, Mocha Dick was killed in 1838, after he appeared to come to the aid of a distraught cow whose calf had just been slain by the whalers. His body was 70 feet long and yielded 100 barrels of oil, along with some ambergris—a substance used in the making of perfumes and at times worth more per ounce than gold. He also had nineteen harpoons in his body.

Another site says this:

Over the course of the next 28 years Mocha Dick earned a reputation as one of the most cunning and feared whales in the ocean.  During that span, he was spotted and attacked by at least 100 whaling ships.  He successfully destroyed around 20 of those ships that attacked him and escaping all but the last.

Poor whale–killed in defense of one of his species. I wonder, though, whether Mocha Dick was a true albino, in which case he’d have had pink eyes, or was merely leucistic, with normally pigmented eyes.  Here, at any rate, is a book about him, still available on Amazon.

24 Comments

  1. Posted May 9, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    More accurately, Moby-Dick was based on two real whales (apart from Melville’s own whaling experience): Mocha Dick and the whale that sank the whaleship Essex.

  2. Posted May 9, 2017 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the details on the Essex that inspired the novel.
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-true-life-horror-that-inspired-moby-dick-17576/

  3. Posted May 9, 2017 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Interesting, I had not heard of this before. I am aware of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, “In the Heart of the Sea” that chronicles the story of the whaling ship the Essex being sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. The ships First Mate, Owen Chase, wrote a book about the sinking and it was this book that Herman Melville learned of in 1840 while working on the whaling ship the Acushnet. The rest, as they say, is history. If your readers do not know of this story, encourage them to read the book. The movie about the ship is not worth watching.

  4. Zach
    Posted May 9, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I have not read Moby Dick. I am a philistine.

    • Frank Bath
      Posted May 9, 2017 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Woody Allen, when taunted by reporters on the steps of the court, after Mia Farrow divorced him to his cost, was asked, ‘If you lived your life again is there anything you wouldn’t do?’
      ‘Yes,’ Woody fired back, ‘I wouldn’t read Moby Dick.’

      • Zach
        Posted May 9, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

        Classic.

        • busterggi
          Posted May 9, 2017 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

          Except for its connection with the Lone Ranger the book is overrated.

          • Posted May 10, 2017 at 7:02 am | Permalink

            Agreed. I was required to read it in school.

      • johnw
        Posted May 10, 2017 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        I too found it more effort than it was worth when I first attempted to read it. Lately though I listened to the audio version by Anthony Heald a few times thru on my commute and was transfixed each time. He brings the 19th century prose to life and captured the waggish voice and old New England accent of Ishmael perfectly. I’m now squarely in the “it’s one of the greats” camp, and despite my atheism consider the sermon chapter the best 30 minutes of car audiobook I’ve listened too.

        • busterggi
          Posted May 10, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

          Moby Dick is the book that makes The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich seem like light reading.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      I waded up to about the point of embarking on the Pequod before leaving the book on some rig somewhere.

  5. reasonshark
    Posted May 9, 2017 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Damn right, that poor whale. Big social creatures with enough problems of their own, and along comes a ship and several sharp pains along the creature’s flanks. And to have that done repeatedly until it ends up killing said creature is worse, like a drawn-out death.

    To think it’s still going on in some corners of the world is very saddening indeed.

  6. mikeyc
    Posted May 9, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    My great great grandfather was a whaling captain (Asa Fish of the bark Nile) who hunted whales in the Pacific. Capt. Fish is mentioned in Mark Twain’s “Roughing it” when Twain, late for dinner in Honolulu one night, accepted a ride from Capt. Fish and another whaling captain. The passage is typical Twain; a bit snarky (I append it below…)

    Anyway, grandpa Fish wrote in his diaries about Mocha Dick and how sailors were still afraid of whales like him even though Mocha Dick died almost twenty years before Fish sailed in the Pacific.

    From chapter LXIV of Roughing It;

    “The Captain’s whip came down fast, and the blows started so much dust out of the horse’s hide that during the last half of the journey we rode through an impenetrable fog, and ran by a pocket compass in the hands of Captain Fish, a whaler of twenty-six years experience, who sat there through the perilous voyage as self-possessed as if he had been on the euchre-deck of his own ship, and calmly said, “Port your helm—port,” from time to time, and “Hold her a little free—steady—so—so,” and “Luff—hard down to starboard!” and never once lost his presence of mind or betrayed the least anxiety by voice or manner. When we came to anchor at last, and Captain Phillips looked at his watch and said, “Sixteen minutes—I told you it was in her! that’s over three miles an hour!” I could see he felt entitled to a compliment, and so I said I had never seen lightning go like that horse. And I never had.”

    • darrelle
      Posted May 9, 2017 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

      • abram
        Posted May 9, 2017 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

        Fascinating!

  7. Julie G.
    Posted May 9, 2017 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    The 2015 movie In the Heart of the Sea with Chris Hemsworth is based on this book 🙂

    • Julie G.
      Posted May 9, 2017 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      Or rather, the movie was based on a real story that Moby Dick was based on. Something like that.

  8. Posted May 9, 2017 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    He successfully destroyed around 20 of those ships that attacked him and escaping all but the last.

    Pardon my skepticism, but perhaps what is meant is that he successfully destroyed around 20 of the whaleboats that attacked him, not the ships from which they were launched. I think we’d have heard about it if he had successfully destroyed 20 ships like the Essex.

  9. abram
    Posted May 9, 2017 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Moby Dick is, for me, The GAN (Great American Novel); I’ve read it at least seven times and never tire of the surging visceral anarchic power of Melville’s prose.

  10. Posted May 9, 2017 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Mocha Dick. Must have been named by First Mate Starbuck.

  11. Phil Rounds
    Posted May 10, 2017 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    That reminds me of the tale of Moby Grape…a giant purple whale that appeared in 1969 shortly after an encounter with the brown-coloured blotter acid.

  12. Wunold
    Posted May 10, 2017 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Gefährlich ist’s den Leu zu wecken,
    Verderblich ist des Tigers Zahn;
    Jedoch der schrecklichste der Schrecken,
    Das ist der Mensch in seinem Wahn.

    – Friedrich von Schiller

    In English:

    To wake the lion is perilous;
    Destructive is the tiger’s tooth;
    But fearfullest of fears to rouse
    Is Man in his delirious wrath.

  13. Posted May 10, 2017 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    From what I’ve read, I think Mocha Dick was himself a fictional whale, although inspired by a large but apparently normal-coloured whale. Melville’s story was inspired by both Mocha and the whale than sank the Essex. Incidentally, there is apparently a link between Starbucks and Moby/Mocha Dick – I’m told by the General Manager here in NZ that the founder is a descendent of Melville, but thought that the First Mate’s name made a better name for a coffee chain!

  14. frednotfaith2
    Posted June 6, 2017 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I can’t bring myself to read a novel on whale-hunting. The story of Mocha Dick is terribly sad. The greed and cruelty of too many people sickens me.


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