The Real-Life Legend of the White Leviathan

Image: plpalencia

The boat rose and fell on the billowing surface of the high seas, in heady pursuit of the white leviathan that was to prove its undoing. Ahead, the ferocious whale wheeled off its course with an almighty surge, reared up, and charged at the crew. Its gigantic body and terrible flukes breaking and beating against the water, the sea creature known by the name of Mocha Dick bore down on boat, ‘jaws on.’ The men held their breath; it was to be their last.

From the depths: Silver whale assailant
White Whale Image: Moby Dick in the Humanities

Not a peculiarly bad choice of name for an item on the menu of a coffeehouse, Mocha Dick was instead an infamous albino sperm whale who terrorised ships in the Pacific Ocean in the early 1800s. Named after the island of Mocha off the coast of Chile where he was encountered, Mocha Dick was the scourge of whalers and merchant vessels – said to have triumphed in scores of battles with his human adversaries, and survived the wounds of many more harpoons buried in his back.

Into the leviathan’s maw: White whale woodcut
Image: ebay blogs

The most widely read report about Mocha Dick was written by journalist J.N. Reynolds and published in an 1839 issue of New York literary magazine, The Knickerbocker. According to Reynolds’ account, Mocha Dick “measured more than seventy feet from his noddle to the tips of his flukes, and yielded one hundred barrels of clear oil, with a proportionate quantity of ‘head-matter’” – substances for which sperm whales were so destructively hunted in the 19th century and beyond.

Seething skirmish: Whaling battle 1800s
Image: David Bennett. Picture taken at New Bedford Whaling Museum

“Opinions differ as to the time of his discovery. It is settled, however, that previous to the year 1810, he had been seen and attacked,” wrote Reynolds. “Numerous boats are known to have been shattered by his immense flukes, or ground to pieces in the crush of his powerful jaws; and, on one occasion, it is said that he came off victorious from a conflict with the crews of three English whalers.” Reynolds relayed how the whale was vanquished, though other stories suggest he may have lived on.

Carnage on the high seas: Whaling of a sperm whale 1850
Image: Currier & Ives

Describing the lone whale, Reynolds wrote: “From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, as exhibited in the case of the Ethiopian Albino, a singular consequence had resulted – he was white as wool!… 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.”

Whiter than white: Albino sperm whale tail
Image via Nordinho

Such yarns about the “renowned monster” circulated widely and helped inspire Herman Melville’s opus Moby Dick – but could such a massive white creature have existed in reality? The simple answer is yes. Male sperm whales reach up to 67 feet, though extensive whaling may have caused their size to decrease, and specimens from the 19th century are thought to have measured over 80 feet. Albinism, meanwhile, occurs in sperm whales as it does in many other species.

Fatal strike: The Essex sketched by its cabin boy 1820
Essex_being_struck_by_whale_November_20_1820_sketched_by_cabin_boy_Thomas NickersonPhoto:
Image: Thomas Nickerson

As for the tales of death and destruction wreaked by the “old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength” – who can say? Sperm whales have certainly attacked the boats and ships of whalers, the most famous example of which was the sinking of the whaleship Essex, which provided further inspiration for Melville’s great novel. Still, whether Mocha Dick was responsible for the number of attacks attributed to him seems as questionable as the conflicting reports about his lifespan.

Cutting in: Sperm whale jaw 1902
Image: Marion Smith via Curious Expeditions

Less up for debate is that Mocha Dick held potential to be a profound symbol at a time when whaling was at a peak – and when American Imperialism was beginning to carve a furrow through the world in the wake of the British Empire. As for sperm whales, whaling decimated their population up until the 1880s and then again after World War II, until the species was given full protection in 1985. Raise your coffee cups to the recovery of sperm whale numbers so that legends may refuse to die.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4