Ahab’s Historicism: Changing Whale Behavior in History

“Vengeance on a dumb brute that simply smote thee from blindest instinct? Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous”

So cried the fictional Mr. Starbuck, first mate of the Pequod, in Herman Melville’s whaling epic, Moby Dick. Starbuck, a representation of rational, modern thinking in Melville’s tale, dismissed his eccentric captain’s obsession with capturing the white whale as impractical, even sinful, because he saw it as equating personality and reason with what he considered a “dumb brute”—the sperm whale. Yet, beyond Melville’s allegory, did the fictional Ahab have a point in attributing more to the whale?

Too often, we err too closely to Starbuck’s unquestioning rationalism when thinking about nature’s role in history. Rather than considering the natural world as a set of dynamic forces, we conceptualize nature as a static setting, a background to the lively history of human actors. But “nature” is not some catchall term for a passive historical element. AE_IntoDeepWeather, animals, plants, natural disasters, microorganisms—all these and more played significant roles in history. Their historical narratives become especially important as they change over time and intersect with our own, embodying the dynamism we often ignore. Ahab’s sperm whale, as it happens, provides one of the best examples of how nature’s organisms could be historical actors in their own right that, as a species, changed and adapted over the course of human history.

In his secluded home of Arrowhead in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, Herman Melville received a letter a week before Moby Dick was to be published in October 1851. The writer informed Melville of news just in from the South Pacific, of a whale that attacked a ship the year earlier on the “Offshore Grounds,” a thousand miles west of the Chilean coast. On August 20th, 1850, the Ann Alexander, a Massachusetts whaler under the command of John Deblois of New Bedford sighted sperm whales around nine o’clock in the morning and lowered boats to pursue them. A bull smashed one of the whaleboats around noon after being harpooned, but whale-attacking-harpersweekly03this type of accident was fairly common in the whaling industry—these creatures were bound to react when harpooned, and given their enormous size, often caused damage to the flimsy whaleboats attacking them. Upon returning to the ship, the crew once again sallied forth to take on the whale, and once again, the whale stove in a boat before the crew could kill it. With evening coming on, the captain and crew decided to give up their efforts.

The whale, however, was not finished. As night drew on, it shifted its attention against the ship itself. Building up to a speed that Deblois later estimated at 15 knots, the whale rammed the ship below the waterline, gashing a tremendous hole in the hull. Water rushed in, and within minutes, the Ann Alexander was sinking. The crew scrambled to gather supplies and lower the boats as the whale swam off, splintered timbers from the wreck stuck fast in the blubber of his head. Luckily, for the crew, another whaler picked them up two days after the disaster. Five months later, another New Bedford whaler, the Rebecca Simms, captured a large bull whale with timbers embedded in his forehead and two harpoons labeled “Ann Alexander” in its side.whaling

This sounds like a far-fetched incident of Moby Dick proportions. At best, it might be chalked up as an isolated incident from a rogue sperm whale, pushed to aggression in defending itself against the very immediate threat of the harpoon. However, looking at the historical record, the attack on the Ann Alexander might have been part of a rising trend. There is evidence of growing aggression in the sperm whale populations of the South Pacific during the first half of the nineteenth century disproportionate to the number of whaling encounters. Some marine biologists today have begun to see incidents like the attack on the Ann Alexander as a sign of shifting species behavior over time, rather than as isolated incidents and anomalies.

When whalers first entered Pacific waters in the late years of the eighteenth century to pursue the lucrative sperm whale, they described their quarry as abundant, easily approached, and docile. One observer described them as “a most timid and inoffensive animal.” They were swimming buckets of oil, waiting to be killed, captured, and turned into profit for the Nantucketers and New Bedford men willing to risk Cape Horn to hunt them. As more whalers entered the Pacific waters, however, and sperm whales became accustomed to the hunt, this behavior seemed to change.

In March 1805, the British schooner Waterloo was reportedly attacked and sunk by a whale. By 1810, Mocha Dick, an albino whale that would later serve as Melville’s inspiration, was terrorizing whalers off the Chilean coast with its seventy feet of cetacean fury. Other whales like “Timor Jack” and “New Zealand Tom” also gained fame as hostile “boat eaters” as whaling men began to experience their prey’s changing demeanor.

Perhaps the most famous act of sperm whale aggression occurred on November 20th, 1820, when the whaleship Essex was attacked and sunk by a large male sperm whale who rammed it twice with its head. Owen Chase, 804577607_6168f20b32_largeone of the few survivors of the Essex, recalled the “fury and vengeance” of the whale as it bore down on the ship. It is worth noting that the whale that attacked the Essex on that fateful day had not been provoked or pursued by the crew, but rather seemed to act of its own volition.

More evidence of whale belligerence continued after the Essex tragedy. In October 1832, the Hector, “raised a whale, but the whale struck first,” attacking the mate’s whaleboat before any harpoons were thrown. A sperm whale inexplicably struck a merchant ship, the Cuban, in 1857. Multiple cases of sperm whale attacks occurred in 1859 even as the whale fishery itself waned. By 1878, when Alexander Starbuck wrote his definitive history of American whaling, he asserted “the accidents resulting from belligerent whales” were both “numerous” and “well authenticated.” In less than a century, the docile sperm whale had transformed itself, at least in the minds of whalers and their chroniclers.

Today, many discount Alexander Starbuck and his whalers as exaggerating the belligerence of the sperm whales they hunted. However, in recent years scientists have begun to examine the historical trend of sperm whale aggression with more seriousness. Dr. David Carrier, a biologist at the University of Utah and an expert on the “biomechanics of aggressive behavior,” has reevaluated accounts of sperm whale hostility and seen biological credence in this trend towards aggression over time. The sperm whale’s “huge forehead is rugged, padded with tough skin and blubber, and the brain is located many feet back” making it an ideally adapted battering ram against ships and whaleboats. F1.largeEven if the sperm whale’s natural function for its large head is echolocation and sound transmission, the whales could have adapted their head as a weapon in a changing world. Before 1788, humans did not hunt Pacific sperm whales in any great capacity, but within decades, there were upwards of 600 ships plying the south sea waters at any one time in pursuit of the leviathans. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that these sperm whales learned and adapted to this changing situation, sometimes resorting to aggression.


Beached bull sperm whale with signs of trauma on its head, believed to be from ramming.

This seems especially likely because of the highly advanced nature of sperm whales as a species. They possess the largest brains in the world. The cerebral cortex of the sperm whale, for instance, is more developed than our own. Moreover, sperm whale social and kinship structures—also highly sophisticated—imply an extremely advanced capacity for memory and emotions. They have been observed in nature exhibiting signs of love, grief, and mourning. These creatures, with memories and emotional trauma from previous whaling attacks, could very likely have begun to react to human encroachment through heightened aggression, at least in some cases. Remembering wooden ships as the harbingers of past trauma and grief to a kinship group “could well have been the trigger for the whale that rammed the Essex,” says Dr. Richard Bevan, a zoologist at Newcastle University. Taken with the account of the Ann Alexander and others, it becomes possible to take this growing trend in the history seriously for what it is: something in the natural world reacting, and adapting, to humans on its own terms.

So maybe Ahab’s concept of nature holds a lesson for historians. The great fictional duel between man and whale that played out in the pages of Moby Dick holds historical precedent. Ahab, though eccentric, understood the blurred lines between human and animal that so often blinded rational observers like Starbuck. Ahab took the whale seriously, in his own warped but prescient way. We too ought not underestimate the historical trends and dynamic nature of the other species with which humans interact. They too have a role to play in our understanding of the past.


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Carrier, David R, Stephen M Deban, and Jason Otterstrom. “The Face That Sank the Essex: Potential Function of the Spermaceti Organ in Aggression.” The Journal of Experimental Biology 205, no. Pt 12 (2002): 1755-63.

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Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Ortega‐Ortiz, Joel G., Daniel Engelhaupt, Martha Winsor, Bruce R. Mate, and A. Rus Hoelzel. “Kinship of Long‐term Associates in the Highly Social Sperm Whale.”Molecular Ecology 21, no. 3 (2012): 732-44.

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Roderick, Kevin. “Thar They Blow! Gentle Giants?” Smithsonian Magazine (Aug. 2002).

Whitehead, Hal. “Call Me Gentle. (Sperm Whale Behavior).” Natural History 95 (1986): 4.

2 thoughts on “Ahab’s Historicism: Changing Whale Behavior in History

  1. Moby Dick is one of my favorite novels. Love having this additional insight. I know whales have long been listed among the top five most intelligent animals, but seeing this aspect of that intelligence in altered behavior is remarkable. Thanks for the article.

    Liked by 1 person

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