Ishmael considers the heroic history of whaling. He draws from Greek mythology, popular British legend, the Judeo-Christian Bible, and Hindu mythology: Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnu (whose name Melville spells “Vishnoo”) can all be considered whalemen based on the stories told about their exploits.
Ishmael examines the Jonah story—which has shadowed the novel ever since the “Extracts” and Father Mapple’s sermon in New Bedford—through the eyes of an old Sag Harbor whaleman who questions the tale based on his personal experience. Sag Harbor, as Ishmael calls him, doesn’t believe that a whale of the kind described in the Bible could swallow a man, and he thinks that a whale’s gastric juices would not permit a man to survive in the whale’s stomach. Ishmael details various theologians’ arcane responses to such practical questions.
Ishmael describes the process of oiling a harpoon boat’s underside to increase speed. He reports that Queequeg performs this task carefully, seemingly with an awareness that the Pequod will encounter whales later that day. Stubb harpoons a fast and tireless whale. In order to capture it, he must “pitchpole” it by throwing a long lance from the jerking boat to secure the running whale. Stubb’s lance strikes home, and the whale spouts blood.
With an attempt at scientific precision, Ishmael discusses how whales spout. He cannot define exactly what the spout is, so he has to put forward a hypothesis: the spout is nothing but mist, like the “semi-visible steam” emitted from the head of such ponderous beings as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and even himself.
Ishmael then considers the opposite end of the animal, celebrating the whale’s most famous part: its tail. He admires its combination of power and grace, and muses that it represents the whale’s attempts to reach to heaven—the tail is often seen protruding toward the skies. Whether this positioning is viewed as an act of angelic adoration or demoniac defiance (like the shaking of a fist) on the whale’s part depends on the mood of the spectator. Ishmael notes that the tail is the sperm whale’s most frequent means of inflicting injury upon men.
When the Pequod sails through the straits of Sunda (near Indonesia) without pulling into any port, Ishmael takes the opportunity to discuss the isolation and self-containment of a whaling ship. While in the straits, the Pequod encounters a great herd of sperm whales swimming in a circle (the “Grand Armada”), but, as the ship chases the whales, it is itself pursued by Malay pirates. The Pequod escapes the pirates and launches boats after the whales, somehow ending up inside their circle, a placid lake. One harpooned whale flounders in pain, causing panic among the whole herd. The boats in the middle are in danger but manage to escape the chaos. They “drugg” the whales by attaching lines with large blocks of wood attached, which provide resistance and tire the swimming whales. The whalemen also try to “waif” the whales, marking them with pennoned poles as the Pequod’s, to be taken later. They succeed in capturing only one whale.