As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony! Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock. Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said– “Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!” This the creature? this he? Oh! that unfulfilments should follow the prophets. For with the strength of a thousand thighs in his tail, Leviathan had run his head under the mountains of the sea, to hide him from the Pequod’s fish-spears!
In that sloping afternoon sunlight, the shadows that the three boats sent down beneath the surface, must have been long enough and broad enough to shade half Xerxes’ army. Who can tell how appalling to the wounded whale must have been such huge phantoms flitting over his head!
—The Pequod Meets The Virgin
Sounding is the word for a whale’s deep dive, taken both to hunt his own prey, and to escape the hunt of man. Along with swimming briskly along the surface of the water, Running, Sounding is one of the most prevalent actions a hunted whale may take. If a whale untouched by harpoon or whale-line sounds, the whaler must wait for the eventual return of his quarry. If the whale sounds with a harpoon in his back, and the whale line pays out from the boat rapidly, the boat is put in much danger. Melville very early informs us that the whale-line is extremely long, but unattached to the whaleboat, to prevent it being dragged under by a whale sounding to extreme depths. This precaution is set against the desire of these fishermen not to lose their catch—oftentimes the whale line is wrapped around the post at the bow or stern of the boat to slow its progression and tug on the stricken whale all the more. Here is where the danger lies. It’s as simple as a fisherman on a pier, struggling with a particularly large catch. If the fish is too strong for him, he’ll lose his pole, or even perhaps be pulled into the water. In the case of a whaleboat fastened to a sounding Sperm Whale, the situation is a bit more severe.