In “The Tail,” Ishmael refers to the phenomenon of breaching, when the whale bounds out of the water and elevates itself into the air before plunging down again:
As in the ordinary floating posture of the Leviathan the flukes lie considerably below the level of his back, they are then completely out of sight beneath the surface; but when he is about to plunge into the deeps, his entire flukes with at least thirty feet of his body are tossed erect in the air, and so remain vibrating a moment, till they downwards shoot out of view. Excepting the sublime breach — somewhere else to be described — this peaking of the whale’s flukes is perhaps the grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature.
The “somewhere else” to which Ishmael refers is this chapter, “The Chase – Second Day.” The captain of the Samuel Enderby has described Moby Dick breaching, but here the crew of the Pequod sees it first-hand:
The triumphant halloo of thirty buckskin lungs was heard, as — much nearer to the ship than the place of the imaginary jet, less than a mile ahead — Moby Dick bodily burst into view! For not by any calm and indolent spoutings; not by the peaceable gush of that mystic fountain in his head, did the White Whale now reveal his vicinity; but by the far more wondrous phenomenon of breaching. Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.
“There she breaches! there she breaches!” was the cry, as in his immeasureable bravadoes the White Whale tossed himself salmon-like to Heaven. So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale.
Sperm whales, apparently, breach by swimming straight up from the depths and jumping out of the water, whereas humpback whales swim just below the surface and then pull themselves upward.
Why do whales breach? Here’s an answer given by Hal Whitehead, Research Scientist at the University of Dalhousie, Canada:
So, why do whales breach? Young whales likely breach as a form of play or to develop their muscles. Adults likely breach in certain circumstances to transmit a message to members of their group. In fact, as breaching requires a significant amount of energy, a whale may breach to demonstrate its physical abilities; a very convincing signal. Less often, it seems that there are other explanations for breaching. It could be a technique to help cetaceans feed by stunning or scaring prey. It could be a good way of getting rid of external parasites. It could also be a method for inhaling water-free air in rough weather. Who knows? What is certain is that this behaviour is spectacular for those observing it from the surface!
In the chapter on “monstrous pictures of whales,” Ishmael tells us that “there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like” (scuba diving and video not having been invented yet). As a result, “the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him.” This chapter vividly dramatizes those dangers. Ahab’s whaleboat is wrecked, his artificial leg broken again, and Fedallah disappears. Not good.
Starbuck once again renews the arguments that he first made in “The Quarter-Deck“:
“In Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than devil’s madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone — all good angels mobbing thee with warnings: — what more wouldst thou have? — Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh, — Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!”
But Ahab has full embraced predestination and fatalism, and his response swats aside Starbuck’s appeals to piety and domesticity and brings together the languages of agency and drama that are woven throughout the book:
“Starbuck, of late I’ve felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw — thou know’st what, in one another’s eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand — a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.”
It’s time for the final act in the drama.
“The Chase – Second Day” is read by English actor Roger Allam, whom my kids known as the villain Royalton in the Wachoski Brothers’ Speed Racer, in my opinion an underrated film. It is accompanied by the marvelous painting Around the World Alone (The Gloucesterman) (2011; oil on linen; 80 x 54 in.; 203.2 x 137.2 cm) by Sean Landers. It was photographed by Jason Mandella. The image is © Sean Landers and is used courtesy the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York.
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[Cross-posted with Patell and Waterman’s History of New York]