Mocha Dick: the Real Life Basis for Moby Dick

Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the PacificAs I’ve probably mentioned, I got an unabridged book-on-CD of Moby-Dick, which I’ve been listening to on my nightly walks. Listened to, it is hard to believe that it isn’t meant as comedy. Of particular note is Chapter 32, Cetology. In it, Ishmael writes down a little book-within-a-book about whales. But what would one expect of Herman Melville? This is the kind of thing that made him so great. But in checking out some of the facts he claimed, I came upon the story of Mocha Dick. He was an actual albino sperm whale that the novel was based upon.

Apparently, Mocha Dick was a very large male. He survived many attacks through a combination of size, strength, and ferocity. According to Jeremiah Reynolds’ 1839 book Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific, he may have survived over a hundred attacks. That’s amazing! But there is something even more amazing: the whale seemed to have been extremely easy going. He was like a dolphin — very comfortable around humans. It’s just that, like the intelligent creature that he was, he didn’t take well to others trying to kill him.

A Sight to Behold

He must have been a sight to behold as well. When he was finally killed after what was apparently two decades of different attacks, he turned out to be 70 feet long. His white skin breaching the surface of the blue ocean must have been magnificent. And the human reaction was, of course: let’s kill him!

“Oh, lonely death on lonely life!” —Captain Ahab

Hearing the story of Mocha Dick made me ashamed to be a human. I understand: the chain of life. I eat meat. People in the early 19th century needed whale oil. But still, it seems so horrible. Is there no beauty that we will not destroy for a buck?

Regardless, knowing this takes some fun out of the novel. The ending of the book is unclear as to exactly what happens to Moby Dick, but it does seem that he survives. In fact, it’s nice to think of him swimming around the sea, dragging Captain Ahab until he is eventually consumed by wandering sharks. No on in the novel is terribly likable. Ishmael has to survive to tell and tale. (And even he survives only because of Queequeg’s coffin!) So it’s easy enough to think of Moby Dick as the “good guy” — even if he is not presented so in the novel. And it is nice to think of him now and forever alive.

Mocha Dick Does Not Live On

Unfortunately, we know that Mocha Dick is now and forever dead. Of course, death comes to us all. And it is doubtless truth that the whale was very old — much older than anyone reading this can reasonably expect to live. And he probably died because of a decline in his health. Of course, that may not have been natural. According to Reynolds, when Mocha Dick was killed in 1838, he had 19 harpoons stuck in him. And he was killed when trying to help out a female sperm whale that had just been killed by whalers.

Male sperm whales live alone except for breeding. And I wonder if Mocha Dick’s being albino caused him to be shunned in that regard too. We all know Ahab’s famous line, “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” But right before that, he says something more thoughtful and true, of himself and of Mocha Dick, “Oh, lonely death on lonely life!”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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