The crew lashes the sperm whale they have caught to the side of the ship to be dealt with in daylight. But the men are forced to poke with spades or kill the numerous sharks that attempt to devour the whale carcass. Ishmael warns that it is unwise “to meddle with the corpses and ghosts of these creatures”: Queequeg nearly has his hand cut off by the sharp teeth of one dead shark hoisted onto the ship for its skin.
The gory business of “cutting-in,” or processing the whale, commences. The cutting-in involves inserting a hook in the whale’s blubber and peeling the blubber off as one might peel off an orange rind in one strip.
As he describes the whale’s blubber, Ishmael argues that this strip of flesh is actually the whale’s skin. A thin and cellophane-like layer may be observed outside of the blubber, but this layer is only the skin of the skin. Ishmael admires the whale for its “thick walls,” which allow it to live without being affected by its environment.
After the cutting-in, the whale is released for its “funeral,” in which the “mourners” are vultures and sharks. The frightful white carcass floats away, and a “vengeful ghost” hovers over it, deterring other ships from going near it. Frequently, floating whale corpses are mistaken for rocks and shoals and thus entered on mariners’ charts, causing future whalers to avoid the area. The whale thus continues to inspire terror even in death.
Ishmael describes the “scientific anatomical feat” of the whale’s beheading, which occurs before the carcass is released; the head holds the valuable spermaceti, from which the finest oil comes. While the crew takes a break for a meal, Ahab talks to the whale’s head hanging at the ship’s side, asking it to tell him of the horrors that it has seen.
While Ahab converses with the whale, the Jeroboam, another whaling ship, sails into sight. An epidemic has broken out aboard her, so her captain doesn’t board the Pequod but brings a small boat alongside for a talk with Ahab. Stubb recognizes one of the men at the oars of the boat as a man about whom he has heard from the crew of the Town-Ho during the last gam. This man, who had been a prophet among the Shakers in New York, proclaimed himself the archangel Gabriel on the ship, ordered the captain to jump overboard, and mesmerized the crew. The Jeroboam’s skipper, Captain Mayhew, wanted to get rid of Gabriel at the next port, but the crew threatened to desert if he was put ashore.