Herman Melville, in Moby Dick observes, “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began,” and of course we have revenge obsessed Captain Ahab (echoed marvelously by Khan in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan) with his angry words to the white whale that crippled him, “To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Clearly, Ahab had some serious adjustment problems, but consider the whale’s point of view. Whales have a lot to be pissed off about. The earliest forms of whale hunting date back to 3000 B.C., and humans have been fairly systematically wiping out whales ever since. In the late 1930’s, it was estimated that 50,000 whales were killed every year, and roughly 2 million in the entire 20th Century. Some whale populations such as the blue whale have been reduced to 1% of their original population. If I was a whale, I would certainly be looking for payback, yet one rarely hears about whales attacking humans, apart from the occasional and somewhat comprehensible Sea World maimings.
Historically, there is one species of whale that is hip to our game and out for blood. The sperm whale, who either out of annoyance at the name we gave it, or tired of being hunted, has generally taken it upon itself to wreak some havoc throughout history.
The sperm whale is the largest of the toothed whales. Adult males (called bulls) average 65 feet long, weighs 56 tons, lives 70 years, feeds on other deep sea monstrosities like giant squid, has the largest brain on the planet, makes the loudest sound of any animal (230 decibels), can dive 3 kilometers underwater, and let’s not forget, it has teeth. We’re not talking about some filter-feeding plankton eater here, rather a monstrously large creature that is not only capable of swallowing you whole, but would happily chew you too. The estimated population of sperm whales in the 18th century was roughly 1 million, but up until 1980, hundreds of thousands of sperm whales were killed. The current population is not known, but commercial hunting of them has ceased, which is probably wise, if not for conservation reasons than because the historical record indicates that sperm whales are willing to fight back.
One of the earliest accounts of an angry sperm whale acting out on its displeasure with us pesky humans is the story of Porphyrius (sometimes Porphyrio), a legendary whale said to have terrorized shipping around Byzantium for 50 years during the reign of Emperor Justinian (482-565 A.D.). Porphyrius reportedly spent fifty long years destroying any boat that crossed its path, and according to Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea (500-565 A.D.), noted for accompanying and documenting the exploits of the famed General Belisarius, recorded that the Death of the monster whale Porphyrius actually resulted when he accidentally beached himself, and was descended upon my locals who hacked him up out of spite.
It was at that time also that the whale, which the Byzantines called Porphyrius, was caught. This whale had been annoying Byzantium and the towns about it for fifty years, not continuously, however, but disappearing sometimes for a rather long interval. And it sank many boats and terrified the passengers of many others, driving them from their course and carrying them off to great distances. It had consequently become a matter of concern to the Emperor Justinian to capture this creature, but he was unable by any device to accomplish his purpose. But I shall explain how it came to be captured in the present instance. It happened that while a deep calm prevailed over the sea, a very large number of dolphins gathered close to the mouth of the Euxine Sea. And suddenly they saw the whale and fled wherever each one could, but the most of them came in near the mouth of the Sangarius. Meanwhile the whale succeeded in capturing some of them, which he swallowed forthwith. And then, either still impelled by hunger or by a contentious spirit, it continued the pursuit no less than before, until, without noticing it, it had itself come very close to the land. There it ran upon some very deep mud, and, though it struggled and exerted itself to the utmost to get out of it as quickly as possible, it still was utterly unable to escape from this shoal, but sank still deeper in the mud. Now when this was reported among all the people who dwelt round about, they straightway rushed upon the whale, and though they hacked at it most persistently with axes on all sides, even so they did not kill it, but they dragged it up with some heavy ropes. And they placed it on wagons and found its length to be about thirty cubits, and its breadth ten. Then after forming several groups and dividing it accordingly, some ate the flesh immediately, while others decided to cure the portion which fell to them (Procipius, History of the Wars, VII. xxix. 9-21, English translation by H.B. Dewing).
Edward Gibbon, the 18th Century authority on Roman and Byzantine history felt Porphyrius was remarkable enough to comment on, noting that the court attendants of Justinian I and Theodora were unhappy with the Emperor’s summer residence as they were frequently frightened by the monstrous whale, who was also credited with dragging boats far out to sea, and generally terrifying seaborne folk, in addition to outright destroying boats.
On the Asiatic shore of the Propontis, at a small distance to the east of Chalcedon, the costly palace and gardens of Heraeum were prepared for the summer residence of Justinian, and more especially of Theodora. The poets of the age have celebrated the rare alliance of nature and art, the harmony of the nymphs of the groves, the fountains, and the waves: yet the crowd of attendants who followed the court complained of their inconvenient lodgings, and the nymphs were too often alarmed by the famous Porphyrio, a whale of ten cubits in breadth, and thirty in length, who was stranded at the mouth of the River Sangaris, after he had infested more than half a century the seas of Constantinople (Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 7, Chapter XL, Part IV, 1787).
Given the reputed size and ferocity of Porphyrius, scholars have generally concluded that he was a sperm whale, which would have been an extremely rare occurrence in the Mediterranean, although not an impossible one. What exactly the Byzantines did to get on Porphyrius’ nerves so much is never specified, but whatever it was merited a fifty year reign of terror (although perhaps there were several sperm whales conspiring to inconvenience Mediterranean shipping, although it is hinted that Porphyrius was responding to attacks on whales. Given that adult male sperm whales are relatively solitary, that in itself would have been something of an oddity.
Her [Theodora] numerous emissaries were to be observed continually passing and repassing the strait which separated the Heraion from Constantinople, regardless of tempestuous weather, and even of a ferocious whale which had long infested the vicinity and made a practice of attacking the small craft sailing in those waters, often with fatal result to the occupants…This Porphyrio, such was the popular name bestowed on the monster, must have been a cachalot or sperm whale, which inhabits tropical and sub-tropical seas. It grows to a length of 50 or 60 feet. The males fight viciously among themselves. Small ships have been damaged by the animal when provoked by an attack (Holmes, 1912, p368)
Of course, our archetype for the monstrous whale is Melville’s Moby Dick. Yes, I know your English teacher told you he symbolizes the chaos of nature, the obsessive goal, evil, and all those transcendental things the literary set like to find, but Melville actually based his story on incidents well-known among whalers , if not the general public. One in particular was a particular fearsome whale nicknamed “Mocha Dick”. I mean, c’mon Mellville, you’re not even really trying to come up with a new name, but I guess he had other point to make and couldn’t waste the effort. At any rate, Mocha Dick was a familiar figure, and no doubt stories about him got better reviews that the complete critical panning that Moby Dick initially received.
Melville also affirmed the literal meaning of the story, for, according to report, a notoriously vicious whale, called “Mocha Dick,” did roam the seas during the first half of the last century. An account of that whale states that:—”From first to last, ‘Mocha Dick’ had nineteen harpoons put into him. He stove fourteen boats and caused the death of over thirty men. He stove three whaling vessels so badly that they were nearly lost, and he attacked and sunk a French merchantman and an Australian trader. He was encountered in every ocean and on every known feeding ground.” Melville mentions several whales, by name, that had reputations for being terrors, in their time, but he does not mention “Mocha Dick,” so it is possible that Melville used him for his material symbol, and modified the name to “Moby Dick.” (Gleim, 1938, p15-16)
You would think that perhaps Mocha Dick would be brown or black given his name, but it turns out he was white (yet another thinly veiled correspondence with the fictional Moby Dick). Mocha Dick would not only attack boats, but attack them as they retreated, showing a rather high degree of animosity. Of course, getting harpooned repeatedly surely changes one’s mood, so far all we know Mocha Dick was a perfectly congenial whale, and was reacting to someone plunging a spear into him.
But to return to Mocha Dick — which, it may be observed, few were solicitous to do, who had once escaped from him. This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, as exhibited in the case of the Ethiopian Albino, a singular consequence had resulted — he was white as wool ! 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 interval; its expulsion producing a continuous roar, like that of vapor struggling from the safety-valve of a powerful steam engine. Viewed from a distance, the practised eye of the sailor only could decide, that the moving mass, which constituted this enormous animal, was not a white cloud sailing along the horizon. On the spermaceti whale, barnacles are rarely discovered; but upon the head of this lusus natural, they had clustered, until it became absolutely rugged with the shells. In short, regard him as you would, he was a most extraordinary fish; or, in the vernacular of Nantucket, ‘a genuine old sog,’ of the first water. Opinions differ as to the time of his discovery. It is settled, however, that previous to the year 1810, he had been seen and attacked near the island of Mocha. Numerous boats are known to have been shattered by his immense flukes, or ground to pieces in the crush of his powerful jaws; and, on one occasion, it is said that he came off victorious from a conflict with the crews of three English whalers, striking fiercely at the last of the retreating boats, at the moment it was rising from the water, in its hoist up to the ship’s davits. It must not be supposed, howbeit, that through all this desperate warfare, our leviathan passed scathless. A back serried with irons, and from fifty to a hundred yards of line trailing in his wake, sufficiently attested, that though unconquered, he had not proved invulnerable. From the period of Dick’s first appearance, his celebrity continued to increase, until his name seemed naturally to mingle with the salutations which whalemen were in the habit of exchanging, in their encounters upon the broad Pacific; the customary interrogatories almost always closing with, ‘ Any news from Mocha Dick?’ (The Knickerbocker, V. 13, 1839, p379)
Another famous case of sperm whale attacks on humans was the 1819 sinking of the Essex by an enraged whale.
She sailed from Nantucket, August 12, 1819, for a cruise in the Pacific ocean. On the morning of November 20, 1819, latitude 0.40 south and longitude 119 west, whales were discovered and all three boats lowered in pursuit. The mate’s boat soon struck a whale, but a blow of the animal’s tail opening a bad hole in the boat, the crew was obliged to cut from him. In the meantime, the captain’s and second mate’s boats had fastened to another whale, and the mate, heading the ship for the other boats, set about overhauling his boat preparatory to lowering again. While doing this he saw a large sperm whale break water about 20 rods from the ship. The whale disappeared, but immediately came up again about a ship’s length off, and made directly for the vessel, going at a velocity of about three miles an hour, and the Essex was advancing at about the same rate of speed. Scarcely had the mate ordered the boy at the helm to put it hard up, when the whale, with greatly accelerated speed, struck the ship with his head just forward of the forechains. The ship brought up suddenly and violently and trembled like a leaf. The whale passed under the vessel, scraping her keel as he went, came up on the leeward side, and lay apparently stunned for a moment. The vessel began to settle at the head with the whale 100 yards off thrashing the water violently with his tail and opening and closing his jaws with great fury. While the mate was thinking of getting the two extra boats clear, as the vessel had begun to settle rapidly, the cry was started by a sailor: “Here he is; he is making for us again!” The whale came down for the ship with twice his ordinary speed and a line of foam about a rod in width, made with his tail, which he continually thrashed from side to side, marked his coming. The whale crashed into the bows of the Essex, staving them completely in directly under the cathead. The whale after the second assault passed under the ship and out of sight to the leeward. The crew were in a fix, in mid-ocean, a thousand miles from the nearest land and nothing but the frail whaleboat to save them…On Feb. 17th the surviving crew of the mate’s boat were picked up by brig Indian. Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdale, the sole survivors (Jenkins, 1902, p37-39).
Yet another famous encounter with an angry whale was the 1851 sinking of the Ann Alexander.
On the 20th of August, 1851, while cruising on the “Off Shore grounds,” at 9 o’clock in the morning, whales were discovered, and at noon of the same day succeeded in making fast to one. The mate’s boat made fast to the whale, which ran with the boat for some time, and then suddenly turning about rushed at the boat with open jaws, crushing the little craft into splinters. Captain Deblois rescued the boat’s crew. Later the waist boat was lowered from the ship and another attack made upon the leviathan. The mate again in charge of the attacking boat experienced another smashup, for in the battle the whale again turned on the boat’s crew and crushed the second boat. The crew was saved and all hands returned to the ship, which proceeded after the whale. The ship passed on by him, and immediately after it was discovered that the whale was making for the ship. As he came up near her they hauled on the wind and suffered the monster to pass her. After he had fairly passed they kept off to overtake and attack him again. When the ship had reached within about 50 rods of him the crew discovered that the whale had settled down deep below the surface of the water, and as it was near sundown, it was decided to give up the pursuit. The ship was moving about five knots, and while Captain Deblois stood at the rail he suddenly saw the whale rushing at the ship at the rate of 15 knots. In an instant the monster struck the ship with tremendous violence, shaking her from stem to stern. She quivered under the violence of the shock as if she had struck upon a rock. The whale struck the ship about two feet from the keel, abreast the foremast, knocking a great hole entirely through her bottom, through which the water roared and rushed in impetuously. The anchors and cables were thrown overboard, as she had a large quantity of pig iron aboard. The ship sank rapidly, all effort to keep her afloat proving futile. (Jenkins, 1902, p32-33)
There is a certain lack of wisdom to hunting a creature that by all appearances is relatively intelligent, easily angered, is as large as a building, thinks giant squids are a tasty snack, and by most accounts, holds a grudge. We should take note that Porphyrius may have been the aggrieved party initially – probably some capitalist Byzantine stuck a hook in him, but he subsequently spent the next fifty years crushing Byzantine ships. This is a critter that doesn’t let go and obviously has a long memory. The caveat here is that we don’t necessarily need mythology to make monsters. Sometimes we can just irritate another existing species. Better keep an eye on those housecats. I think they’ve developed an attitude.
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A new edition. Basil: Printed for J.J. Tourneisen, 1787.
Gleim, William S. The Meaning of Moby Dick. New York: E. B. Hackett, The brick row book shop, inc., 1938.
Holmes, William Gordon, 1845-. The Age of Justinian And Theodora: a History of the Sixth Century A.D.. 2d ed. London: G. Bell and sons, 1912.
Jenkins, Thomas H. Bark Kathleen Sunk by a Whale. New Bedford, Mass.: H.S. Hutchinson & Co., 1902.
Reynolds, J.N. “Mocha Dick, the White Whale of the Pacific”. The Knickerbocker: Or, New-York Monthly Magazine. New York. V.13, 1839.