“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.  Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks.  Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.”

The most famous Dick in the world is Moby Dick, the monstrous white whale who terrorized Pacific fleets in the 1800s, but he is fictional.  Mocha Dick is far less known but was a real whale who inspired Herman Melville’s tale. 

Born some time in the 1700s, we know not when, Mocha Dick grew to fame and misfortune in the 1820s and 1830s.  Named after his home territory of Mocha Island, a small patch of land off the coast of Chile, Mocha Dick would be recognizable to modern readers, for he possessed all the physical attributes that Melville later assigned to Moby.  He was a massive seventy feet long, his skin was white all over, his head was encrusted with barnacles that gave him both a fearsome appearance and an armor plating that enabled him to ram ships.  Dick was uncharacteristically aggressive, attacking small rowboats and large ships alike, and when he was finally killed, his body bristled with over twenty harpoons and produced over one hundred barrels of oil.

Unlike most sperm whales who spouted water in a misty cloud, Mocha Dick breathed in such a way that his watery exhalation shot straight into the air in a powerful stream, accompanied by a noise that reminded sailors of a freight train.  Imagine the chill in your blood upon hearing that on a moonless night in the middle of the ocean.

Mocha Dick became something a folk hero, not only among the whaling fleets but in New England, home port for most of the whalers, and his story was told and retold around home fires and tavern tables until he grew into a legend.  But the crux of the stories were true.  Nearly every whaling vessel saw him, for he lived in a stretch of water frequented by all the ships transiting back and forth around South America.  Many tried to take him, as witnessed by the number of harpoons found buried in his flesh.  But he gave better than he got, being responsible for many deaths and injuries and the destruction of quite a few boats.

Mocha Dick died just the way Melville killed off Moby.  He came to the rescue of a female and her calf who were under attack by the whalers.  After repulsing the rowboats he attacked the main ship, but his heroism was his undoing.  He brought himself within range of the mortal weapons that are the tools of the trade of the whaling industry and was gorged to death.  He died heroically but tragically. 

It was anyone’s guess how old he was.  The sailors estimated he was past one hundred years, but I am not sure how they measured such things.  In any case, he may have been close to the natural end of his life.  Going out the way he did ensured his immortality.  A book written by Jeremiah Reynolds, who had personally seen him, was read by another ex-whaler, Herman Melville, who built one of the world’s greatest novels around him, altering his name slightly to Moby.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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