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moby dick
About thirty kilometers off the coast of Chile is a small teardrop-shaped island called Mocha, inhabited by the indigenous Mapuche people. The island was well known among sailors, especially pirates and privateers, who used the island as their supply base, exchanging steel and manufactured goods for livestock, corn and potatoes. English and Dutch privateers would often stop at the island, load their ships with supplies, and after a brief stay, sail up the Pacific coast sacking Spanish ships and ports along the way.
It was around the waters of this island that Mocha Dick was first spotted in 1810.
Mocha Dick, named after the island where it was frequently seen, was famous among English and Nantuck whalers. The enormous, albino sperm whale was actually quite docile, sometimes swimming alongside the very ships designed to kill its race. But once attached, Mocha Dick would turn violent and retaliate with such aggression that many whaling ships and boats have been lost to his attacks. Mocha Dick’s ability to give the slip to even the most experienced whaling captain earned him reverence, and as his notoriety increased “his name seemed naturally to mingle with the salutations which whalemen were in the habit of exchanging, in their encounters upon the broad Pacific,” wrote American explorer Jeremiah N Reynolds in an 1839 issue of the magazine The Knickerbocker. “'Any news from Mocha Dick?,” whalers would ask each other at port.
mocha island
Depiction of Isla Mocha from the book that narrates the adventures of Dutch pirate Joris van Spilbergen.
Reynolds describe Mocha Dick as a freak of nature—“white as wool”, and covered with barnacles. From its back protruded no less than twenty harpoons—”rusted mementos of many a desperate encounter.” The whale also had a peculiar method of spouting:
Instead of projecting his spout obliquely forward, and puffing with a short, convulsive effort, accompanied by a snorting noise, as usual with his species, he flung the water from his nose in a lofty, perpendicular, expanded volume, at regular and somewhat distant intervals; its expulsion producing a continuous roar, like that of vapor struggling from the safety valve of a powerful steam engine.
Mocha Dick was eventually killed in 1838. His carcass was measured and found to be seventy feet long.
In twenty eight years, Mocha Dick had, by some accounts, over one hundred encounters with whaling ships, reportedly killed over thirty men, and attacked and damaged or sunk close to twenty whaleboats.
But Mocha Dick was hardly unique. It wasn’t the only white whale in the sea, nor was it especially hostile. In fact, sperm whales are known to be aggressive towards ships. In 1820, a giant sperm whale, about 85 feet long attacked a whaleship named the Essex, causing her to sink. Her crew were left adrift in three whaleboats thousands of miles from land. One by one the men succumbed to starvation and dehydration until only eight of the original twenty men remained. They were rescued more than three months later. Seven of them had given up their lives so that the others could eat their bodies to stay alive. It’s a tale of unfathomable hardship and extreme desperation.
mocha dick
When Herman Melville heard the story, he met with the captain of the Essex and was inspired to write his classic novel Moby Dick, expertly intertwining fact with fiction along with his own experience as a sailor. The notoriously hard-to-catch white whale in Melville’s novel is based on Mocha Dick.
The legend of Mocha Dick continue to survive among inhabitants of Mocha Island. According to Mapuche mythology, there lives four elderly women on the island who are transformed every evening into four whales. The whales, called trempulcahue, take the souls of the dead to “Ngill chenmaywe” (place for people’s reunion), from where the souls began their journey westwards. It is believed that Mocha Island is the Ngill chenmaywe.
Approximately half of the island today is protected under the National Reserve program. Because of its sparse population, the island has a thriving bird population and lush virgin forest. The waters around the island is also teeming with numerous historic shipwrecks.
Perils of Whaling

Perils of Whaling, sketch by F. A. Olmstead, 1841

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