In Search of Moby Dick

Nearly everyone is familiar with writer Herman Melville (1819-1891) and the novel that gained him lasting fame, Moby Dick (1851)—the tale of a sea captain’s obsessive pursuit of the white whale that maimed him. Though American literature’s most famous hunt has enthralled readers for one and one-half centuries, few have seriously entertained the idea of actually attempting to find a living example of a white sperm whale. Tim Severin, a writer with an incurable case of wanderlust and a history of retracing the journeys of people both fictional (Sinbad) and real (Genghis Khan), does precisely this.

In his quest Severin takes the reader to some of the remotest areas in the south Pacific, where the natives of the Philippine island of Pamilacan catch manta rays and whale sharks by hooking them by hand. Even more impressive is Severin’s account of the natives of the Indonesian island of Lamalera, the only remaining group of people who still hunt sperm whales with harpoons in traditional open boats. Severin’s book, however, is more than a search for the white whale. He juxtaposes Melville’s version of life in the south Pacific with reality and demonstrates that much of Melville’s material was either borrowed or fabricated.

Significantly, Severin skillfully interweaves portions of Melville’s text with his own experiences and the mythology of the modern whale hunters he so astutely describes. Severin is a gifted observer in that, though he is appalled by the slaughter of sperm whales, he can still admire the skill and bravery of the hunters who risk their lives to provide food for their community. Unlike Ahab, Severin never finds his white whale, but the search itself yields ample rewards.