Mocha Dick


The greatest of them all was an albino male first spotted by man close off Mocha Island. Unlike the whale that sunk the Essex, this one displayed behaviour so inexplicable in terms of ethology that, to this day, no academic has ever attempted an explanation. This sperm whale had, not one point of human observation, but data from more than a hundred encounters, each with multiple witnesses. Though scholars might have placed this animal in the ‘too hard’ basket, the same cannot be said of the nineteenth century whalers and general public.

Such was his status that it was said that when whaling vessels rounding the Horn in the 1830s, sailors exchanged stories and updates of little else. One bestselling book was written about him (the book cover on the right below).


It is often claimed that Melville’s classic, Moby Dick (on the left above),was based upon him. Certainly, the similarity of name and skin pigmentation was no coincidence. I see Wikipedia describes Mocha as ‘notorious’ but that is quite unfair as whalers own accounts attest.

In the nineteenth century, whaling ships didn’t attack their prey directly, but sent out smaller boats with harpooners. Thus a moderately clever whale who had seen it all before would be able to distinguish whalers from other ships, and to recognise when they were on the hunt. Mocha Dick must have at least made that association, as it was these longboats that he habitually joined as they made their way towards pods of females.

Mocha’s approach is often described as in the manner of a friend, whose only sin was to try to maneuver them away from their work. In general, it seemed that he would only attack if they tried to harpoon the great whale himself, to which purpose he was always very careful to expose only the least vulnerable parts of his body (especially his tail) to their weapons. If attacked in person, he would then proceed to splinter their longboats with his powerful flukes. Most whalers knew better, with at least 80% of encounters running without incident.


It is very hard to explain Mocha’s actions without invoking sapience, given that his modus operandi involved approaching professional whale killers. His actions took place over so many decades, that the whalers had every chance to adapt their techniques. He didn’t better one human, he outwitted a hundred teams of our most skilled mariners. This is not like a mouse repeatedly raiding the mousetrap, since there is no clear gain such as cheese for Mocha. Actually, there is a clear personal loss, as a whale this size needs to spend as much time feeding as he can, not socialising with humans.


One last thing I should add in fairness. Though Mocha’s actions were overtly friendly to most involved in this tragedy, that didn’t always include those who tried to kill him with a harpoon (they were easily identified since only one sailor on each boat carries a harpoon, and they usually occupy the same front position on the boat). To those he had an unfortunate tendency to pluck them from the water, once their boats were destroyed, then consume them. We shouldn’t prejudge his motive here as there are just too many potential reasons. Did he dare to think the others, who he carefully left alone, would take a more powerful lesson home with them? Did he think most humans were good, and all would be resolved if he removed the few bad eggs? Was he trying to expedite his release from the harpoon rope? Or was he, despite his size, so terrified of monsters that it was reflex self defence? We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we know.

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