Ishmael tries to understand the whale by measuring its bones. In an effort to bolster his credibility in describing the whale, he tells of a visit to his friend Tranquo, king of Tranque (apparently a fictional place). In Tranque, a large sperm whale skeleton is used as a temple, with its skull as an altar. Although the priests protested, claiming that it is impossible to measure God, Ishmael took the whale’s dimensions and had them tattooed on his right arm. He had the dimensions recorded in short form because he wished to save as much space on his body as possible for “a blank page for a poem [he] was then composing.”
Ishmael offers his findings, based on the skeleton of the whale that he measured in Tranque. He believes that the largest sperm whales are around ninety tons, and “would considerably outweigh the combined population of a whole village of one thousand one hundred inhabitants.” He then gives detailed dimensions of all parts of the whale’s skeleton. These bones, he cautions, give only a partial picture of the whale, since so much flesh is wrapped around them and they don’t capture the essence of the living animal. He adds that a person cannot find a good representation of a whale in its entirety.
Ishmael admits that he is “manhandling” the whale in his description, but he says that he is doing the best that he knows how. He decides to look at the Fossil Whale from an “archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view.” He states that it is impossible for him to exaggerate with the words that he uses to describe the whale because the whale itself is so grand. He establishes his credentials as a geologist and presents his findings. Once again, he is unsatisfied with the picture of the whale that he has created: “the skeleton of the whale furnishes but little clue to the shape of his fully invested body.” This chapter gives a sense of the whale’s age as a species and his pedigree, and allows Ishmael to meditate on time as a construct of man.
In awe of his subject, Ishmael finally admits defeat in his attempts to capture the whale through description. Now he questions whether such a fabulous monster will remain on the earth and if, as reports have it, its size is diminishing over time. Based on the fact that man and other animals have actually gotten larger throughout history, Ishmael believes that it is not likely that the whale has diminished in size. As for the whale’s continued survival, Ishmael says that though whales may not travel in herds anymore and though their haunts may have changed, they remain nonetheless. He believes that their survival owes to the new home base they have established at the poles, where man cannot penetrate. He also notes that other large mammals have been extensively hunted and that the whale population is likely not in danger because it has an enormous home environment and because many generations of whales are alive at the same time. In fact, whales are particularly likely to endure—if there is another Noah’s flood, Ishmael remarks, whales will not drown.
Ahab asks the carpenter to make him a new leg, as the one that he uses is not trustworthy. After hitting it heavily on the boat’s wooden floor when he returned from the Samuel Enderby, Ahab feels that his leg won’t continue to hold together. Indeed, just before the Pequod sailed from Nantucket, Ishmael relates, Ahab had been found lying on the ground with the whalebone leg twisted around and almost piercing his groin.
The carpenter, the do-it-all man on the ship, has to make Ahab a new prosthetic leg. The carpenter is an able man, but he views everything, even parts of the human body, as pieces of a machine.