Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and the NHA’s Whaling Logs: Some Comparisons

In 1998, the NHA initiated a project to index the Nantucket whaling logs held in its archives and to make these indices available via its online collections catalog. Leslie Ottinger, a volunteer who indexed 76 volumes, was knowledgeable about Melville’s Moby-Dick and found that many observations and events in the book paralleled what he was seeing in the logs.

The selected readings in this 2019 video by Harvey Young and Caleb Kardell were compiled from Ottinger’s observations. Further comparisons follow below.

Whale and Whaleboat

Ch. 133: “The Chase—First Day”

Now, by reason of this timely spinning round the boat upon its axis, its bow, by anticipation, was made to face the whale’s head while yet under water. But as if perceiving this stratagem, Moby Dick . . . in the manner of a biting shark, slowly and feelingly taking its bows full within his mouth . . . now shook the slight cedar as a mildly cruel cat her mouse.

Log 132 Ship Mary, 1843–45, Charles Pitman Jr., master and keeper:

Tuesday the 17—First part light airs . . . hands employed in boiling . . . at daylight saw whales going to leeward . . . lowered [and] struck one large whale and one small whale the large whale eat our boat up and got clear.

The Owners

Ch. 109: “Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin”

. . . “Starbuck! I’ll not have the Burtons hoisted.” [Burtons: a small tackle used to tighten the shrouds—Ed.]
“What will the owners say, sir?”
“Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab? Owners, owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience. But look ye, the only real owner of anything is its commander; and hark ye, my conscience is in the ship’s keel.—On deck!”

Log 368 Ship Susan, 1841–46, Reuben Russell, master and keeper:

12/21/1845—At 6 PM spoke the ship Montano Russell 4 months out. . . . Went on board & got letters from the owners requesting me to Stay out 5 years . . . all moon shine . . . we are four years now & everything worn out. Intend to leave soon.

The Whizzing Line

Ch. 60: “The Line”

The whale line is only two-thirds of an inch in thickness. At first sight, you would not think it so strong as it really is . . . . Before lowering the boat for the chase, the upper end of the line is taken aft from the tub . . . [to] the extreme pointed prow of the boat, where a wooden pin or skewer the size of a common quill, prevents it from slipping out. . . . Perhaps a very little thought will now enable you to account for those repeated whaling disasters . . . of this man or that man being taken out of the boat by the line, and lost. For, when the line is darting out, to be seated then in the boat, is like being seated in the midst of the manifold whizzings of a steam-engine in full play, when every flying beam, and shaft, and wheel, is grazing you.

Log 48 Ship Christopher Mitchell, 1841–45, William Keene, master; Seth Delano, William Swain, M.S. Barnard, keepers:

1/27/1843—At 6 AM saw a shoal of sperm Whales . . . lowered all of the boats for them . . . took 2 Whales Mr. William Swain the Chief Mate was taken out of the boat by the line and drowned in about half an hour . . . we then succeeded in taking him in to the boat and took him on board of the ship and lade him out.

The Life-Buoy, or Bucket 

Ch. 126: “The Life-Buoy”

But the bodings of the crew were destined to receive a most plausible confirmation in the fate of one of their number that morning. At sun-rise this man went from his hammock to his mast-head at the fore . . . he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was heard—a cry and a rushing—and looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the blue of the sea.
The life-buoy—a long slender cask [Sometimes called a bucket.—Ed.] was dropped from the stern . . . but no hand rose to seize it, and the sun having long beat upon this cask it had shrunken . . . and the studded iron-bound cask followed the sailor to the bottom, as if to yield him his pillow, though in sooth but a hard one.

Log 73 Ship Edward Cary, 1854–58, Perry Winslow, master; Joseph E. Ray, boatsteerer/journal keeper:

4/12/1855. At 9 AM the cry of man overboard Resounded throughout the Ship . . . the wind blowing heavy the boats was lashed up and the oars on deck. Being in my berth at the time and hearing the noise went on deck just as the Starboard Boat was going down. I jumped into her with the mate and a few others, and after pulling for some time oars succeeded in reaching him as he was about to give up. . . . He had a Bucket under him which fortunately happened to go over at the same time.


Ch. 86 “The Tail”

It is a little significant, that while one sperm whale only fights another sperm whale with his head and jaw, nevertheless, in his conflicts with man, he chiefly and contemptuously uses his tail. In striking at a boat, he swiftly curves away his flukes from it, and the blow is only inflicted by the recoil. If it be made in unobstructed air, especially if it descend to its mark, the stroke is then simply irresistible. No ribs of man or boat can withstand it.

Log 284 Ship Brewster, 1857–60, Crary B. Waite, master; Joseph S. Gelett, keeper:

Tuesday October 19th 1858—This day commences with Moderate winds and pleasant weather at 3 ½ PM Saw Sperm Whales . . . lowered and the waist Boat struck and filled with water . . . the Larboard Boat Struck and while lancing the Whale struck the Boat with his flukes Cut her in two pieces Killed a man—Joseph Ventera . . . a Native of Flores. Got the Boat and Whale along side at dark.

Gooney Birds

Ch. 42: “The Whiteness of the Whale”

What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid. . . . Bethink thee of the albatross: whence come those clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in all imaginations? Not Coleridge first threw that spell; but God’s great, unflattering laureate, Nature.*

*Melville’s Note: I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked Roman bill sublime . . . and turning, asked a sailor what bird was this. A goney he replied.

Log 367 Ship Three Brothers, 1851–54, Joseph S. Adams, master; Tobias Tyler, Charles Coffin, keepers:

1/10/1854. Caught a Gooney and put a label around . . . marked Ship Three Brothers Full Bound Home and let it fly to the four corners and we hope it will bring us to Nantucket.

Log 147 Ship Mary Mitchell 1835–38, Samuel Joy, master and keeper:

10/20/1835 Set whale watches again . . . caught a porpoise and a goney and put a talley on him.

Small Pox

Ch. 71: “The Jeroboam’s Story”

The Pequod’s signal was at last responded to by the stranger’s setting her own; which proved the ship to be the Jeroboam of Nantucket. Squaring her yards, she bore down, ranged abeam under the Pequod’s lee, and lowered a boat; it soon drew nigh; but, as the side-ladder was being rigged by Starbuck’s order to accommodate the visiting captain, the stranger in question waved his hand from the boat’s stern in token of that proceeding being entirely unnecessary. It turned out that the Jeroboam had a malignant epidemic on board, and that Mayhew, her captain, was fearful of infecting the Pequod’s company. For, though himself and the boat’s crew remained untainted, and though his ship was half a rifle-shot off, and an incorruptible sea and air roiling and flowing between, yet conscientiously adhering to the timid quarantine of the land, he peremptorily refused to come into direct contact with the Pequod.

Log 238 Ship Three Brothers, 1846–51, Joseph Mitchell II, master and keeper:

1/17/1848, Paita, Peru—Cash paid Consul . . . for vaxinating the Ships Company 30$. I was particularly advised to have the Ship’s Company Vaxinated for the Small Pox was raging up & down the Coast. . . . Several Ships had got it on board & had to go in & lay some time. . . . So by the advice of the Consul & others I had it done for the good of all Concerned . . . whether the owners will pay me or not I don’t know.

Howling Seals

Ch. 126: “The Life-Buoy”

At last, when the ship drew near to the outskirts, as it were, of the Equatorial fishing-ground, and in the deep darkness that goes before the dawn, was sailing by a cluster of rocky islets; the watch . . . was started by a cry so plaintively wild and unearthly—like half articulated wailings of the ghosts of all Herod’s murdered Innocents. . . . The Christian or civilized part of the crew said it was mermaids, and shuddered; the pagan harpooners remained unappalled. Yet the gray Manxman—oldest mariner of all—declared that the wild thrilling sounds that were heard were the voices of newly drowned men in the sea.

Below in his hammock, Ahab did not hear of this till grey dawn, when he came to the deck; it was then recounted to him by Flask, not unaccompanied with hinted dark meanings. He hollowly laughed, and then explained the wonder.
Those rocky islands the ship had passed were the resort of great numbers of seals, and some young seals that had lost their dams, or some dams that had lost their cubs, must have risen nigh the ship and kept company with her, crying and wailing with their human sort of wail.

Log 136 Ship Lexington, 1853–56, Peter C. Brock,master; Eliza Brock, master’s wife, journal keeper:

6/1/1855. Spoke ship Eliza Adams, Hawse, of New Bedford, seven months out. Two whales. They reported loss of ship Edgar of Fall River on Jonas Island. Went on shore Sunday night lost in the fog. All hands saved. Ship high up on the beach. Why they did not hear the howl of the seals in time to keep off shore is quite a matter of wonder to all; they are distinctly heard one mile or more. They howl and bark like a dog.


Ch. 57: “Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in sheet Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars”

Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hour of ocean leisure. Some of then have little boxes of dentistical-looking implements specially intended for the skrimshandering business. But, in general, they toil with their jack-knives alone; and, with that almost omnipotent tool of the sailor, they will turn you out anything you please, in the way of a mariner’s fancy.

Log 73 Ship Edward Cary, 1854–58, Perry Winslow, master Perry Winslow; Joseph E. Ray, boatsteerer, keeper:

4/30/1857. Thursday April 30—Commences with strong gales from ESE. . . Ship under Storm Sails. . . Emp Scrimshoning. So Ends. Wore ship. [Put the ship on another tack by turning its stern into the wind.—Ed.]

She Blows!

Ch. 47: “The Mat-Maker”

Thus we were weaving and weaving away when I started at a sound so strange, long drawn, and musically wild and unearthly, that the ball of free will dropped from my hand, and I stood gazing up at the clouds whence that voice dropped like a wing. High aloft on the cross-trees was that mad Gay-Header, Tashtego. His body was reaching eagerly forward, his hand stretched out like a wand, and at brief sudden intervals he continued his cries. To be sure the same sound was that very moment perhaps being heard all over the seas, from hundreds of whalemen’s look-outs perched as high in the air; but from few of those lungs could that accustomed old cry have derived such a marvelous cadence as from Tashtego the Indian’s.

As he stood hovering over you half suspended in air, so wildly and eagerly peering towards the horizon, you would have thought him some prophet or seer beholding the shadows of Fate, and by those wild cries announcing their coming.

“There she blows! there! there! there! she blows! she blows!” “Where-away?”
“On the lee-beam, about two miles off! a school of them!” Instantly all was commotion.

Log 132 Ship Mary, 1843–45, Charles Pitman Jr., master and keeper:

1/11/1844—First part of these 24 hours calm . . . wee in company with the Roscoe . . . employed in bending old sail and other usefull jobs. . . . Middle part light airs from the East . . . wee steering to the Westward . . . with anxious eyes and panting to hear that joyfull Sound of there she blows.

Azorean Recruits

Ch. 27: “Knights and Squires”

As for the residue of the Pequod’s company, be it said, that at the present day not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born, though pretty nearly all the officers are. . . . No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outward bound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores.

Log 238 Ship Three Brothers, 1846–51, Joseph Mitchell II, master and keeper:

8/4/1846— Flores, Azores The 4th First part employed in getting off recruits. . . . We shipped or took 6 men to go the voyage with us. Their fathers & mothers gave their Consent for them to go. . . . I mentioned men but they were only 16 years old.

Night Whaling

Ch. 51: “The Spirit-Spout”

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea. . . . And yet, though herds of whales were seen by night, not one whaleman in a hundred would venture lowering for them. . . . When, after all this silence . . . every reclining mariner started to his feet as if some winged spirit had lighted in the rigging, and hailed the mortal crew. “There she blows!” Had the trump of judgment blown, they could not have quivered more, yet still they felt no terror; rather pleasure. For though it was a most unwonted hour, yet so impressive was the cry, and so deliriously exciting, that almost every soul on board instinctively desired a lowering.

[Whale sightings are regularly recorded in the logs. When there is no lowering of the boats, it is frequently because of approaching darkness, but night whaling was not always avoided.—Ed.]

Log 331 Ship Maria, 1832–36, Alexander Macy, master; Charles Murphey, keeper :

6/14/1833—Fine weather . . . at 1 PM saw a large whale, lowered and gave chase. . . . At 3 PM the Hector Discovered us and bore up for us . . . at sunset succeeded in striking the whale. . . . He immediately turned flukes and staid down ½ an hour at a time when we wanted to see him most. However we Killed him by starlight for it was a Dark night & no moon. . . . At 10 PM took along side . . . latter part cut him in and gave the Hector the Head & one Blanket piece.

But Killing Whales in dark pitch night
To me it does not seem quite right
And if I tell the truth tis certain
There’s nothing in it that’s diverting

The Full Ship

Ch. 115: “The Pequod Meets the Bachelor”

And jolly enough were the sights and sounds that came bearing down before the wind some few weeks after Ahab’s harpoon had been welded.
It was a Nantucket ship, the Bachelor, which had just wedged in her last cask of oil, and bolted down her bursting hatches. . . . Sideways lashed in each of her three basketed tops were two barrels of sperm; above which, in her top-mast cross-trees, you saw slender breakers of the same precious fluid; and nailed to her main truck was a brazen lamp.

As was afterwards learned, the Bachelor had met with the most surprising success; all the more wonderful, for that while cruising in the same seas numerous other vessels had gone entire months without securing a single fish.

Log 102 Ship Harvest, 1828–31, David N. Edwards, master; George Washington Gardner Jr., keeper:

Remarks Friday July 29th 1831—First part finished stowing down and cleaned the deck and set the studding sails. . . . Latter part knocked down the try works and threw the bricks overboard and lashed the Pots between the knees . . . so after a long voyage we have been fortunate to fill our ship completely full and we have stored down 2914 barrels close gauge. So Ends.
At length that happy day has arrived
no longer we delay
Our ship is full and homeward bound
To Sweet America

From the Fall 2011 issue of Historic Nantucket.


Dr. Leslie W. Ottinger, a physician, retired to Nantucket in 1996. He has been a volunteer reader of whaling logs and journals in the Research Library since 1999 and has contributed several articles to Historic Nantucket.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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