Mocha Dick, the original Moby Dick
1870 UK reprint, Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific by Jeremiah N. Reynolds
The inspiration for Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick, the story of the albino sperm whale, was an albino sperm whale nicknamed “Mocha Dick”.
The name Mocha Dick came from the island of Mocha, the whale having first having been sighted off the coast of that island. The name Dick came from the practice of whalers to bestow names such as Dick and Tom on certain deadly whales.
Usually encountered in the waters near the island of Mocha, off Southern Chile, Mocha Dick survived over 100 skirmishes with whalers between 1810 and the 1830’s before being finally killed.
According to author Jeremiah N Reynolds, Mocha Dick was as "an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength...white as wool” and covered in barnacles
Mocha Dick was a docile animal, often swimming alongside ships, but once attacked he retaliated with a ferocity and cunning that saw him sink 20 ships. Often he would sound and then breach so aggressively that his entire body would come completely out of the water.
In Reynolds’ account, Mocha Dick was killed after observing whalers kill a calf that was with its mother. The mother whale tried to herd her calf, which had been harpooned, away from the whalers but eventually it went belly up. When the mother whale realised her calf was dead she turned on the whalers and tried to destroy their ship. Before she was able to strike their ship, she too was harpooned and killed.
Having observed all this, Mocha Dick joined the fray and attacked the whaling ship. He destroyed one of the smaller whaling boats but was harpooned and killed.
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.
Explorer and author 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, this in turn serving as the inspiration for Melville’s classic tale.
Reynolds’s story has a similar captain to Melville’s Captain Ahab, both captains being single minded in their determination to hunt down the white whale. When the crew in Reynolds’ story first see Mocha Dick, the captain rallies them:
As he drew near, with his long curved back looming occasionally above the surface of the billows, we perceived that it was white as the surf around him; and the men stared aghast at each other, as they uttered, in a suppressed tone, the terrible name of MOCHA DICK!
"Mocha Dick or the d----l [devil],' said I, 'this boat never sheers off from anything that wears the shape of a whale."
Melville also drew upon the sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820, after it was rammed by an enraged sperm whale 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the western coast of South America. First mate Owen Chase, one of eight survivors, recorded the events in his 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.
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