T he great white whale, Moby Dick, from Herman Melville’s epic novel of the same name, is thought to be fictitious. Remarkably, however, Melville based this whale on a real animal!
Mocha Dick, a “notorious sperm whale that lived in the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century”, was the subject of an account given by Jeremiah N. Reynolds, an American newspaper editor and explorer. Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal was first published in The Knickerbocker, a 19th century literary magazine. It was around this time that Melville would have read the lengthy article and been inspired to write Moby Dick. He changed Mocha to Moby in an attempt to disassociate the whale with the colour mocha.
Some of the earliest accounts of Mocha Dick came prior to 1819, when Herman Melville was born. Up until 1838, when Melville began writing his first draft, Mocha Dick was still terrorising the island of Mocha, off the coast of Chile, until he was killed. Although Mocha Dick was said to have been killed in 1838, sailors still reported their ships being capsized by a ‘giant white whale’, albeit similar to Mocha Dick.
In 2009, artist Tristan Lowe created a scaled model of Mocha Dick entirely out of felt. The model was on display until 2010 in the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts. The model can be viewed below. A video of the installation of the artwork, Mocha Dick, can viewed below.