“Moby-Dick” was inspired by a real whale named Mocha Dick.

  • Moby-Dick the white whale
Moby-Dick the white whale
Credit: Kadumago/ Alamy Stock Photo

“Call me Ishmael” is the legendary first line of Moby-Dick, but the protagonist’s name is hardly the most famous in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel. Indeed, he’s probably a distant third to both Captain Ahab and the eponymous whale himself, who was based on a real albino sperm whale named Mocha Dick. Named for the Chilean island near which his decades-long reign of terror took place, Mocha is said to have destroyed more than 20 whaling ships in addition to escaping 80 or so before finally being felled in 1838. His story was told by explorer and newspaper editor J.N. Reynolds, whose article “Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific” was published by The Knickerbocker the following year.

Described by Reynolds as “an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength,” whose albinism made him “white as wool,” Mocha was made even more fearsome by the fact that his head was covered in barnacles. He was actually quite docile until he was attacked, and measured 70 feet long at the time of his unjust and untimely passing. As for why Melville changed the name from Mocha to Moby when he wrote his novel, no one knows. The author never revealed his reasoning, and no one has been able to figure it out.

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