Death of a legend


The first and biggest selling book on Mocha Dick was published in 1839, and contained an account of his death that placed it in 1838. It was a glorious death befitting such a hero of legend, with only his gallantry to a mother and calf pair providing his fatal flaw. Some still follow that tale but, unfortunately, that’s impossible. Here is one of many account of Mocha on a whaleship from three years later. I suspect that the book on him had excited much interest, from those who had never met, and come to respect him

… account from 1841, the skipper of the John Day (whose name is now lost) sighted Mocha Dick off the Falkland Islands and immediately lowered three whalers – flimsy eight-metre long wooden boats – to give chase.

One boat managed to harpoon the whale, but Mocha Dick then took off (on what is known as a Nantucket [Sl]ayride) and dragged the chasers for four kilometres. Then the whale unexpectedly turned and smashed into the side of the little whaling boat, swimming over it and flogging it to pieces with its flukes (its tail). Two crewmen were killed.

Now Mocha Dick stayed a little way off, waiting. The second boat approached him, and launched another harpoon. Mocha Dick dived and surfaced beneath the third boat – a whaler’s worst nightmare – and threw it into the air. No one was killed, but the whalers didn’t try again.

It seems the first reports of Mocha’s death have been greatly exaggerated. I suspect what has happened here is that Mocha has become the hero of the whalers also, so a skipper’s tall tale to Reynolds might claim victory but never the glory.

death of a hero

A giant albino sperm whale was harpooned in 1902 but, if it were Mocha, his minimum age at death would be 120. Most now lean towards an 1859 account by a Swedish whaler of the coast of Brazil. In both those accounts, Mocha was slowed through age, his greatest exploits well behind him. A plain inglorious death, his reward for having never been outwitted.