Running & Unflagging Spirit

[A]s for his strength, let me say, that there have been examples where the lines attached to a running Sperm Whale have, in a calm, been transferred to the ship, and secured there; the whale towing her great hull through the water, as a horse walks off with a cart.

—The Affidavit

 Look now at Stubb; a man who from his humorous, deliberate coolness and equanimity in the direst emergencies, was specially qualified to excel in pitchpoling. Look at him; he stands upright in the tossed bow of the flying boat; wrapt in fleecy foam, the towing whale is forty feet ahead. Handling the long lance lightly, glancing twice or thrice along its length to see if it be exactly straight, Stubb whistlingly gathers up the coil of the warp in one hand, so as to secure its free end in his grasp, leaving the rest unobstructed. Then holding the lance full before his waistband’s middle, he levels it at the whale; when, covering him with it, he steadily depresses the butt-end in his hand, thereby elevating the point till the weapon stands fairly balanced upon his palm, fifteen feet in the air. He minds you somewhat of a juggler, balancing a long staff on his chin. Next moment with a rapid, nameless impulse, in a superb lofty arch the bright steel spans the foaming distance, and quivers in the life spot of the whale. Instead of sparkling water, he now spouts red blood. 


According to Melville and other sources, fleeing from its pursuers over the surface of the water was perhaps the most common response a Sperm whale had to being hunted. Its decision to stay on the surface of the water rather than dive made it possible to actively continue the hunt, as long as weather and crew strength permitted one to do so. Simply put, a running whale required a lot of rowing. When a Fastened whale runs, it is again a matter of the crew’s resolve, and the act of hauling in can be just as strenuous as hard rowing.

The efficacy of lowering small boats after a whale in some instances seems problematic. The precise moment to lower those small boats away after the whale was always a question in the mind of a whaling captain. If the whale(s) were alerted to the presence of the hunters, and began to flee before the boats could get close enough to become Fast, the ship itself must be steered after the pod or singular whale. Oftentimes the boats would be lowered, the whale would run, and the men would bear down over their oars, or even set a small sail in their boats if the wind permitted, and in effect be lost from the ship. The shipkeepers best hope was to steer in whatever direction the boat(s) disappeared, and hope to regain contact with them. When boats were pursuing multiple whales in multiple directions, this task was made even harder, and sometimes boats were left on the open ocean overnight, or even lost entirely.

The Finback whale is made mention of in Chapter 81; The Pequod Meets The Virgin, as being a whale too fast and strong to be taken by men in boats. The fleetness of a given whale was in essence the greatest challenge of whaling in wooden boats. The sea is after all the whale’s natural element, and man’s contrivances can easily falter and be left behind in this alien world.