While the gigantic, murderous white whale in Herman Melville’s classic novel was a fictional creation, the author did draw inspiration from real-life whaling horror stories—and an actual albino sperm whale named “Mocha Dick”—to paint his indelible portrait. In addition to first-hand whaling experience (he sailed on a voyage to the Pacific in 1841), Melville also read widely, including many contemporary accounts of whaling voyages. In writing “Moby Dick,” he skillfully wove his own experiences in with these accounts, creating one of the most complex and compelling narratives in American literature.
The most famous source of inspiration for “Moby Dick” was the story of the whaleship Essex, which in November 1820 was attacked and sunk by an 80-ton sperm whale some 2,000 miles off the coast of South America. Twenty crewmembers escaped the sinking whaler in three open boats, but only five would survive to be rescued in coastal waters 89 days later. In one gruesome incident, the men drew lots to determine which of them would be shot to provide sustenance for the others. The captain of the Essex, George Pollard Jr., returned home to Nantucket, Massachusetts, but after a second whaler under his command, the Two Brothers, struck a coral reef, he was branded as a “Jonah” (an unlucky mariner) and no owner would hire him. Pollard spent his remaining years on land, working as the village night watchman, and Melville met him in person during a visit to Nantucket shortly after “Moby Dick” was published.
In the course of his reading, Melville certainly encountered a magazine story published in 1839 by the American journalist and adventurer Jeremiah N. Reynolds, entitled “Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific.” In the article, Reynolds shared a tale he had supposedly heard from the first mate of a Nantucket whaler, about a giant albino whale with a violent streak that prowled the Pacific Ocean. According to Reynolds: “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… a singular consequence had resulted – he was white as wool!” Mocha Dick was reportedly killed off the coast of Chile, near Mocha Island, in the 1830s, but stories about his attacks on boats circulated long after his supposed death.