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-colour, 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 clutch 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!”
The predator/prey relationship of Sperm whales and giant squid has captured the imagination of scientific societies the world over—the poetry of these giants, these beasts that have inspired so much mythology, doing battle in the deepest oceans of the world, is not lost on those men aboard the Pequod. With only the evidence of their own eyes and the lore of their brotherhood, they expounded endlessly upon this relationship without knowing too many of the details.
Still, there are mysteries in this hunt. The Sperm Whale, after taking several breaths at the surface, will sound to unbelievable depths, perhaps nearly two miles, and the air in its lungs will take up a 100th of the space it did on the surface. This journey is made to find the giant squid that live out their entire lives at this depth. The Sperm Whale’s weapon appears to be generated by the very thing whaling men of the 19th century held most dear—the spermaceti case, taking up much of the head of the whale. This is now believed to be something of a giant nasal cavity, through which the Sperm whale sends an immensely powerful sound wave, at an extremely low frequency (somehow amplified by the spermaceti cavity) to stun the giant squid. If the squid is incapacitated by this blast of deep vibrations, the whale may more easily snag the body of the squid in its powerful jaws, and swallow him whole. If the squid is still alert when the Sperm Whale approaches, the fight is more balanced—the squid fights back with its tentacles, scarring the whale badly around the mouth and head, and perhaps escaping.
The Pequod’s sighting of a squid at the surface of the water is both a terrifying near glimpse of Moby Dick (the white body of the squid is mistaken for him from afar), as well as the heralding of another hunt. Queequeg sharpens his harpoon in preparation for the whale that he rightly assumes is nearby. Since the sighting of a squid then in our game heralds the hunt of a whale, but does not name that whale’s size or strength, a fateful roll of one die determines how big an enemy you’ll face, and how much oil is in him.