While the two crews were yet circling in the waters, reaching out after the revolving line-tubs, oars, and other floating furniture, while aslope little Flask bobbed up and down like an empty vial, twitching his legs upwards to escape the dreaded jaws of sharks; and Stubb was lustily singing out for some one to ladle him up; and while the old man’s line—now parting—admitted of his pulling into the creamy pool to rescue whom he could;—in that wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils,—Ahab’s yet unstricken boat seemed drawn up towards Heaven by invisible wires,—as, arrow-like, shooting perpendicularly from the sea, the White Whale dashed his broad forehead against its bottom, and sent it, turning over and over, into the air; till it fell again—gunwale downwards—and Ahab and his men struggled out from under it, like seals from a seaside cave.

—The Chase – Second Day 

While encounters with truly malicious Sperm whales were probably few, and most sailor deaths resultant from encounters with whales had more to do with the whale’s instinctual panic or death throes, Sperm whales were known to attack the boats and indeed the ships that pursued them. The whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by a Sperm whale in 1820, her men forced to abandon ship in open boats. This story, and others like it, were perpetuated among whaling men throughout the long history of South Seas whaling, and the idea of an angry or vengeful whale, offering ‘appalling battle on every side’ was certainly a popular belief among them, and perhaps seen by not a few. The roll to prevent a second death is meant to reflect this portentousness, and if your sailors can’t keep a cool head under attack, the price must be paid.

Original Image Courtesy of The New Bedford Whaling Museum.