Mocha Dick

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Instead of projecting his spout obliquely forward, and puffing with a short, convulsive effort, accompanied by a snorting noise, as usual with his species, Mocha Dick 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.
— Jeremiah Reynolds

A relatively small number of literary works achieve both uniqueness and transcendence, pieces simultaneously sublime and special when it comes to meaning and form. Some books become timeless classics but seem similar to others, perhaps by the same author or another within a movement or genre.

High on the list of singularities is Herman Melville’s masterwork Moby-Dick. Subtitled The Whale, this 1851 novel is wholly unlike anything else. Equal parts swashbuckling adventure, biblical allegory, scientific report, and intense character study, Melville wove a palette of Shakespeare, Milton, Puritanical fire-and-brimstone, and proto-Joyce into an amalgamation of wonder. Partially based on his own time on whaling ships, Melville produced a tome far ahead of his era. His shorter piece, Bartleby, the Scrivener, presaged the absurdist movement, but it was Moby-Dick that sits atop many lists of the “Great American Novel,” despite selling extremely poorly during the author’s lifetime.

Reading Moby-Dick isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s not even enjoyable. Entire chapters are filled with scientific classifications of cetaceans. Moments are filled with prose equal to the greatest bards. The characters are so strong that they can serve as both literary archetypes and blazing abnormalities. Those who meander through its seven seas rarely praise its pleasurability, but they often feel a deep sense of satisfaction. The notion of a “white whale” became and has remained a part of the zeitgeist for nearly 200 years: the object we seek, even into madness. As repulsive and maniacal as Ahab is, rare is the reader who does not have a Moby Dick to some degree.
Illustration of Moby Dick from an early edition by Augustus Burnham Shute

The tormenting whale of the novel is a natural freak in appearance and ability. As with multiple parts of Melville’s work, the author refined the ore of the natural world into a metallurgical legend. Before Moby Dick terrorized fictional whalers, a beast named Mocha Dick terrorized real whalers.

The whale’s moniker is filled with beautiful irony. Mocha, which derives from a city in Yemen famous for coffee, today denotes a dark mixture of Arabica beans and chocolate. Mocha Dick, however, was an albino sperm whale. The white whale features a name that implies darkness! This seeming contradiction arises from a different geographical Mocha, this time an island off the coast of Chile. Isla Mocha – Mocha Island – was the name given to the spit by the Mapuche people, a place where the souls of the dead traveled. Given their vast Pre-Columbian history, the connection to the modern usage of mocha is likely just a quirk of language. However, this mixture of old and new vocabulary and contexts fits perfectly into Melvillian lore.

Isla Mocha - photo by Javiertorresrossi
Depiction of Mocha Island from 1616 by Carrilano

Between 1810 and 1840, Mocha Dick prowled the waters of South America, tormenting whaling ships. Explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds penned an account about the whale in an 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker, titled Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific, just 12 years before the publication of Moby-Dick. 

He was enormous. Porphyrios, who harried ships in Ancient Byzantium and was likely a sperm whale, measured 45 feet long; Mocha Dick stretched 70 feet! Unlike Porphyrios, who seemed to attack boats at will, Mocha Dick was supposedly a docile creature by nature. However, the whaling world of the 19th century was a free-for-all of oceanic big-game hunting. The dollar signs lit up in the eyes of a sailor when they encountered a whale. When attacked, Mocha Dick apparently unleashed the inner Kraken, becoming the destroyer of vessels. He either repelled or absorbed harpoons as if they were mere gnats.

Reynolds claims Mocha Dick was covered with barnacles. When an albino sperm whale, adorned with gnarly ocean sequins, repels the best efforts of Nantucket whalers, a legend is born. He instilled fear in sailors, though many captains sought the prestige that would accompany his capture. When enraged, Mocha Dick breached so violently that his whole body would exit the water, quite a feat for a cetacean of his size.

A cover of an 1870 reprint of Reynolds' tale

According to Reynolds, Mocha Dick survived at least 100 encounters with harpooners. As with Porphyrios, the direct cunning of humans did not lead to his ultimate death. Apparently, Mocha Dick approached a female sperm whale in distress after whalers had killed her calf. Attempting to aid his compatriot, the whalers managed to slay Mocha Dick.

When they tore apart his body to sell oil, they found 20 harpoons.

Mocha Dick featured a bounty of readymade attributes for Herman Melville. The aberrant appearance – an albino whale – provided a visual and metaphorical image. The elemental power of the whale and his ability to escape attack provided an impetus for adventure and a vehicle for obsessive madness. All of this wrapped in the inherent cloak of the sea, danger lurking below the liminal waves and above in the mind of humans. The real inspiration was so fantastic that he essentially borrowed the name itself.

Melville, always the transformational dramatist, didn’t allow his Mocha Dick to perish in an act of cetacean altruism. Humans might triumph over an individual animal, but the fever of our devils will always take us down with the ship. Moby Dick takes the leg, the Pequod, and our hubris to rot on the seafloor, an everlasting, primeval judge of human folly.

Further Reading and Exploration

MOBY-DICK; or, THE WHALE by Herman Melville 

Mocha Dick: or the White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal – The Knickerbocker

Call Me Migaloo: The Story Behind Real-Life White Whales – Smithsonian Magazine

Was There a Real Moby Dick? – New Bedford Whaling Museum

Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *