From Myth to Reality

Excerpt from Chapter 59 of Herman Melville's tale of Moby Dick
(complete text from Virginia Tech - 1.2 MB)

  The four boats were soon on the water; Ahab's in advance, and all
swiftly pulling towards their prey. Soon it went down, and while, with
oars suspended, we were awaiting its reappearance, lo! in the same
spot where it sank, once more it slowly rose. Almost forgetting for
the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we now gazed at the most
wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to
mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a
glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms
radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of
anacondas, as if blindly to catch at any hapless object within
reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; no conceivable
token of either sensation or instinct; but undulated there on the
billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life.

  As with a low sucking sound it slowly disappeared again, Starbuck
still gazing at the agitated waters where it had sunk, with a wild
voice exclaimed- "Almost rather had I seen Moby Dick and fought him,
than to have seen thee, thou white ghost!"

  "What was it, Sir?" said Flask.

  "The great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld,
and returned to their ports to tell of it."

  But Ahab said nothing; turning his boat, he sailed back to the
vessel; the rest as silently following.

  Whatever superstitions the sperm whalemen in general have
connected with the sight of this object, certain it is, that a glimpse
of it being so very unusual, that circumstance has gone far to
invest it with portentousness. So rarely is it beheld, that though one
and all of them declare it to be the largest animated thing in the
ocean, yet very few of them have any but the most vague ideas
concerning its true nature and form; notwithstanding, they believe
it to furnish to the sperm whale his only food. For though other
species of whales find their food above water, and may be seen by
man in the act of feeding, the spermaceti whale obtains his whole food
in unknown zones below the surface; and only by inference is it that
any one can tell of what, precisely, that food consists. At times,
when closely pursued, he will disgorge what are supposed to be the
detached arms of the squid; some of them thus exhibited exceeding
twenty and thirty feet in length. They fancy that the monster to which
these arms belonged ordinarily clings by them to the bed of the ocean;
and that the sperm whale, unlike other species, is supplied with teeth
in order to attack and tear it.

  There seems some ground to imagine that the great Kraken of Bishop
Pontoppodan may ultimately resolve itself into Squid. The manner in
which the Bishop describes it, as alternately rising and sinking, with
some other particulars he narrates, in all this the two correspond.
But much abatement is necessary with respect to the incredible bulk he
assigns it.

  By some naturalists who have vaguely heard rumors of the
mysterious creature, here spoken of, it is included among the class of
cuttle-fish, to which, indeed, in certain external respects it would
seem to belong, but only as the Anak of the tribe.

Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

Smithsonian Giant Squid Overview Page

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