The oceangoing Mr. Melville, who first set sail on the Acushnet 150 years ago and died 100 years ago this September, knew that no whaler's tale, no deftly carved scrimshaw or block print, no artificial representation whatsoever, is a satisfactory substitute for meeting a whale at sea.
That is still true today.
A close encounter with a whale in the wild is every bit as dramatic as it was, no doubt, in Melville's lifetime, and today you don't have to sign on with the crew of a whaling ship to come face to face with these graceful marine mammals. The experience is readily available to anyone at the seaside willing to spend at least a few hours and a few dollars to participate in the world's most amazing spectator sport.
For many of us, our first hint of the magnificence of the mysterious leviathan came while watching a nature program on television or reading "Moby-Dick." Unfortunately, a television screen or the pages of a book do not readily convey the majesty and mystery of whales, or even do justice to their size or their variety. Melville's white sperm whale, which has come to represent all whales, is just one of 77 species of whale, dolphin and porpoise in the order Cetacea.
All species of whale have swum in the world's oceans for more than 50 million years. Once they were land animals, but after they entered the sea their noses migrated to the tops of their heads, their eyes to the sides, and their ears became internal organs. They evolved into air-breathing mammals living in water.
Whales and dolphins long have been the inspiration for myths and legends. Melville's great white whale, Moby-Dick, was based on a legend about an albino sperm whale known as Mocha Dick. The exotic narwhal, which sports a 10-foot-long tusk, is thought to be the source of the legend of the unicorn.
Some species have almost human attributes, accounting perhaps for some of our fascination with whales. The rare right whale grows patches of rough, thickened skin in exactly the same places that human males grow eyebrows, sideburns, beards and mustaches. The humpback whale sings haunting songs, with themes and refrains similar to human compositions.
For many people, the most compelling thing about whales is their size. Americans have always appreciated "the biggest" and "the strongest," and whales fulfill our need for superlatives. Whales are big.
How big is big? Consider this: The larger whales can range from 45 to 90 or 100 feet and weigh as much as 1.5 tons per foot; the sperm whale has the largest brain of any living creature and its eyes are as big as grapefruits; and the arteries in a humpback whale are large enough for a child to crawl through.
Yet the humpback whale is only half the size of a blue whale, the largest animal on Earth. It has a heart as big as a Volkswagen Beetle and may weigh 140 tons, or about as much as 25 elephants. Now imagine one of those elephants standing on the blue whale's tongue. There's more than enough room.
Along with their size we also admire the gentleness and intelligence of whales. These characteristics seemed to have aroused our protective instincts toward the animals. Since the 1960s they have served as a symbol of concern for the environment.
Whatever the reason for the whale's appeal, most people report a sense of deep privilege after seeing one at sea.
Fortunately for any would-be watchers, the waters off North America are rich with whales, and the shores are lined with
whale-watch tour operators. More than 200 commercial operators stand at the ready to transport you from New England shores, along the entire West Coast, in Hawaii, Alaska, Mexico and Canada. You may go whale-watching almost any month of the year for an hour, an afternoon, one day or several days in big boats, little boats, historical schooners, rubber rafts or kayaks. You may go just for fun, or you may opt to join a research expedition and help scientists conduct studies of whales. The trip will cost you anywhere from $7 (one hour off Depoe Bay, Ore.) to $3,850 (a 10-day trip off southeast Alaska), with a full range of options in between.
Most trips are scheduled to coincide with whale migrations, when certain species are feeding, mating, giving birth or just passing through a given area. Those well-tracked migration routes ensure that whales will keep annual appointments with tour operators. Many operators are sufficiently confident to guarantee sightings, and they offer a "whale check" for a free trip if the whales don't show.