As the Pequod approaches the equatorial fishing ground, the sailors think that they hear mermaids or ghosts wailing. The Manxman says that these are the voices of the newly drowned men in the sea. Ahab laughs at this nonsense, telling the men that they have passed a seal colony in the night. Many of the men are superstitious about seals, though, and Ahab’s explanation helps little. The next morning, one of the Pequod’s crew falls from a masthead. The life buoy that is thrown in after him is old and dried out, and it fills with water and sinks. The man drowns. Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask decide to replace the life buoy with Queequeg’s coffin.
This chapter is written in the form of a theatrical dialogue followed by a long soliloquy from Ahab. The carpenter grumbles about having to transform the coffin into a buoy. Ahab, aware of the irony of the substitution, calls the carpenter “unprincipled as the gods” for going through with it. He calls Pip to him to discuss the “wondrous philosophies” of the situation: since Pip’s experience in the ocean, the two have been close companions.
The Pequod, still looking for Moby Dick, encounters the Rachel. Captain Gardiner of the Rachel, after affirming that he has indeed seen Moby Dick, climbs aboard Ahab’s ship and begs Ahab to help him find his son, whose whale boat was lost in the chase after the White Whale. Ahab refuses, not wanting to waste time that could be used in pursuit of Moby Dick.
Now that Ahab knows that Moby Dick is near, he spends much of his time walking the decks. One night, Pip tries to follow him, telling Ahab that he won’t abandon him. Ahab tells Pip to stay in the captain’s cabin, lest Pip’s insanity cause Ahab’s compassion for the boy to distract him from his lust for revenge.
Ahab, shadowed everywhere by Fedallah, remains on deck, ever watchful. The crew falls into a routine of stifled silence. This continuous watch sharpens Ahab’s obsession, and he decides that he must be the first to sight the whale. He asks Starbuck to help him get up the main-mast and watch his rope. While Ahab is up there, a black hawk steals his hat, which Ishmael considers a bad omen.
The Pequod then runs into the miserably misnamed Delight, which has previously encountered Moby Dick, with the unpleasant result of a gutted whale boat and dead men. As the Pequod goes by, the Delight drops a corpse in the water. The Delight’s crew remarks upon the coffin life buoy at the Pequod’s stern: to them, it is clear that the coffin is a symbol of doom.