Moby-Dick, the titular whale of Herman Melville’s classic, is one of the most legendary characters in American literature. So it seems worth pointing out that the monstrous whale was based on a real-life whale whose name wasn’t even all that different.
Indeed, Ahab’s chief nemesis spouts from reality. Mocha Dick was a massive albino whale that trolled whalers in the southern Pacific Ocean in the 19th century. By the time the 70-foot Mocha was finally (and allegedly) killed in 1838, he had around 20 harpoons in his back. Wikipedia says some reports suggested Mocha had survived the assaults of more than 100 whalers.
In 1839, the tale of Mocha’s fall was recorded in an article in New York literary magazine The Knickerbocker. The piece’s author, J.N. Reynolds, described Mocha in a way that harkens forward to Melville:
But to return to Mocha Dick — which, it may be observed, few were solicitous to do, who had once escaped from him. This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. 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! Instead of projecting his spout obliquely forward, and puffing with a short, convulsive effort, accompanied by a snorting noise, as usual with his species, 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. Viewed from a distance, the practised eye of the sailor only could decide, that the moving mass, which constituted this enormous animal, was not a white cloud sailing along the horizon. On the spermaceti whale, barnacles are rarely discovered; but upon the head of this lusus naturae, they had clustered, until it became absolutely rugged with the shells. In short, regard him as you would, he was a most extraordinary fish; or, in the vernacular of Nantucket, “a genuine old sog”, of the first water.
The fictional Moby was released in 1851.
photo: artist Tristin Lowe’s sculpture of Mocha Dick, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The 52-foot recreation is 18 feet shorter than Mocha is said to have measured in.
[It should be noted that this article was largely inspired by the Mocha Dick Wikipedia page.]