There are lots of famous whales, but none as famous as the great white one, Moby-Dick. The great white whale inspired a great long novel about the hunt for him and the adventures that ensued.
Herman Melville became a (somewhat) household name after this book launched him into fame and, for the era, relative fortune, making it worth its whopping 700 pages.
But few people know that "Moby-Dick" isn't entirely fiction and was actually based on a real-world whale that caused just as much grief and awe.
A new report from Smithsonian Magazine recounts the story of Mocha Dick, the great white whale that gave our great white whale its name. Mocha Dick was indeed real, and he lived off the island of Mocha near Chile — which, of course, gave him his name. Mocha Dick truly terrorized the seas, sinking over 20 whaling ships and escaping four times as many.
And like Moby, Mocha Dick was white.
Jeremiah N. Reynolds was an American whaler who sailed the Pacific in 1841 and, once there, encountered the famous Mocha in person. He wrote a travel journal cataloging his experiences called "Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal, of the Pacific."
He describes Mocha in an excerpt:
"But to return to Mocha Dick — which, it may be observed, few were solicitous to do, who had once escaped from him. This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength.
From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature … a singular consequence had resulted — he was white as wool!
Instead of projecting his spout obliquely forward, and puffing with a short, convulsive effort, accompanied by a snorting noise, as usual with his species, he flung the water from his nose in a lofty, perpendicular, expanded volume, at regular and somewhat distant intervals; its expulsion producing a continuous roar … he was a most extraordinary fish; or, in the vernacular of Nantucket, 'a genuine old sog,' of the first water."
Reynolds detailed the full life and times of the infamous Mocha, from the whale's first sighting to his eventual death thanks to a vengeful whaler.
After Reynolds' account, however, no one is quite sure how Melville came to his version. Melville wrote of how whales got their names, which generally consisted of a regular old name like Joe or Tom combined with the place they were first seen. But no one knows of a place called Moby.
There are other famous white sperm whales of the past, such as the one killed by famous harpooner Tashtego and another killed by harpooner Amos Smalley off the shores of Martha's Vineyard, according to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.