Ishmael considers well-known graphic depictions of whales. To a whaleman who has actually seen whales, most historical, mythological, and scientific sources are blatantly inaccurate. As a result, says Ishmael, “you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.” The only solution that Ishmael sees for one who seeks to know what a whale looks like is an actual encounter with the creature. In the ocean, only portions of a whale are visible at any one time, the majority of the animal being underwater. Only dead whales are visible in their near-entirety, and those are to the living animal what a wrecked ship is to one afloat. He warns the reader not to “be too fastidious in your curiosity” about the whale, since such curiosity is unlikely to be satisfied.
Ishmael then tries to find some acceptable depictions of whales. To his mind, the only pictures that come close are two large French engravings that show the sperm and right whales in action. He wonders why the French have been best able to capture whales and whaling in art, because France is not a whaling nation.
Ishmael considers versions of whales crafted by whalers, including specimens carved in ivory, wood, and metal. Those with an interest in the creature can see whales everywhere, including in geological forms and in the starry sky.
Brit is a minute yellow substance upon which the right whale feeds. Ishmael moves from a discussion of feeding whales to a generalized comparison between the land and the sea. In the sea, there are hidden horrors and continuous danger, while on land, all is visible and therefore manageable. He applies this assessment to the human soul, which he believes contains a small island of “peace and joy” surrounded by an ocean of horrors.
As the Pequod sails toward Java, Daggoo thinks that he sights Moby Dick. The boats are lowered and the animal pursued. It is a false alarm, however, as it is only a giant squid, which is taken as a bad omen. Ishmael notes that the squid is conjectured to be the sperm whale’s food, but that the sperm whale feeds and lives largely out of sight beneath the sea’s surface.
In preparation for a later scene, says Ishmael, he will describe the whale-line. Made of hemp, this rope is connected to the harpoon at one end and dangles free at the other so that it can be tied to other boats’ lines. Because it is laid out throughout the boat and whizzes out when a whale is darted, it is dangerous for the men of the harpoon crews. All men, according to Ishmael, live with metaphorical whale-lines around their necks, and it is only when a catastrophe occurs that they realize the constant perils of life.