It was even so; in their headlong eagerness, the men had mistaken some other thing for the whale-spout, as the event itself soon proved; for hardly had Ahab reached his perch; hardly was the rope belayed to its pin on deck, when he struck the key-note to an orchestra, that made the air vibrate as with the combined discharges of rifles. The triumphant halloo of thirty buckskin lungs was heard, as—much nearer to the ship than the place of the imaginary jet, less than a mile ahead—Moby Dick bodily burst into view! For not by any calm and indolent spoutings; not by the peaceable gush of that mystic fountain in his head, did the White Whale now reveal his vicinity; but by the far more wondrous phenomenon of breaching. Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.
“There she breaches! there she breaches!” was the cry, as in his immeasurable bravadoes the White Whale tossed himself salmon-like to Heaven. So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale.
“Aye, breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick!” cried Ahab, “thy hour and thy harpoon are at hand!—Down! down all of ye, but one man at the fore. The boats!—stand by!”
—The Chase – Second Day
The most iconic image, perhaps, to be gleaned from the glut of imagery that surrounds this work, is Rockwell Kent’s Moby Dick Transcendent, in which the breaching whale is depicted, bursting out of his natural element and into the light of day and the world of man. It is on the cover of the Penguin Classics edition, it is in the canon of Melville tote bags, it is all over the internet—but more importantly it has significantly influenced mostly all subsequent illustrative works based on Moby-Dick. If you wish to see the best of the best Moby-Dick illustrations, look no further than Rockwell Kent and Barry Moser.
What makes the breach so iconic is perhaps the true otherness of this form of life, shown in stark relief out of its native element. Perhaps we can conceptualize so little of life under the waves, that it is only when the whale surfaces can we make some kind of conceptual, or even emotional contact. Regardless, it is awe-inspiring, and for Melville, full of portents and metaphoric significance. Though it is rare in nature, it’s inclusion here was obvious, and its effect a mingling of fear and awe, as some strange contact is made between two elemental worlds.
Original Image Courtesy of The New Bedford Whaling Museum.