Blackfish and Moby Dick.

By: Marie Hale

Last week, my wife and I saw the documentary Blackfish, the attempted exposé of SeaWorld. In particular, Blackfish focused on the plight of one orca, Tilikum, who has been involved in three deaths, including the 2010 killing of his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Originally caught in the wild, Tilikum is an overly large orca who has sired many of SeaWorld’s whales. Blackfish‘s thesis is that captivity and other cruel treatment in captivity has soured Tilikum—and other orcas—psychologically, leading to these attacks.

It didn’t take but a few minutes of seeing Blackfish for me to think suddenly, obviously, of Moby-Dick, which I was (curiously, by chance really) re-reading at the time. Some comparisons are quite striking.

In the pantheon of American novels, Moby-Dick, in this reader’s humble opinion, is there at the top.* Moby-Dick, of course, concerns the Pequod’s hunting of one overly large and tempestuous whale, who shows particular malice toward its hunters. While, as mentioned, Blackfish focuses on how captivity has hurt whales—who, it postulates, prefer to be living free in the ocean with their family units—Melville spends some time discussing open-sea whale attacks on boats, citing to several examples, including the Essex, a whaling ship:

One day she saw spouts, lowered her boats, and gave chase to a shoal of sperm whales. Ere long, several of the whales were wounded; when, suddenly, a very large whale escaping from the boats, issued from the shoal, and bore directly down upon hte ship. Dashing his forehead against her hull, he so stove her in, that in less than “ten minutes” she settled down and fell over.

Ishmael goes on to cite several more examples of hatred and zeal by sperm whales. But the Essex’s plight remains the most interesting. The Essex was a real ship (as you evidently found out if you followed the Wikipedia link above), which sunk in 1820. The Penguin Classics copy of Moby-Dick I have (which is really a lovely paperback; I highly recommend it) provides an extract from the account of Owen Chase, the Essex’s chief mate:

Every fact seemed to warrant me in concluding that it was anything but chance which directed his [the whale’s] operations; he made two several attacks upon the ship, at a short interval between them, both of which, according to their direction, were calculated to do us the most injury, by being made ahead, and thereby combining the speed of the two objects for the shock; to effect which, the exact maneuvers which he made were necessary.

Chase thought the sperm whale that attacked the Essex was doing so maliciously, with calculated harm. This quickly reminded me of one particular attack shown—caught on video actually—of Kenneth Peters by a different whale (not Tilikum, although Tilikum’s attack on Brancheau was vicious, too). That whale took Peters’ foot and kept continuously taking him down to the bottom of the pool for long periods of time, returning him to surface to breathe before pulling him back down again. In other words, it was like the whale version of waterboarding. What saved Peters’ life, ultimately, was his experience as a scuba diver and his ability to remain calm and to hold his breath for obscenely long times. Blackfish argues this attack was motivated by the apparent malice or confusion of the whale—itself caused by harsh treatment (the separation of a calf) and captivity.

Of course, in Moby-Dick, the great white whale seems to have a malice all his own. The whale is not in captivity, but he is being hunted to be killed—as was the whale that attacked the Essex—and so, as I’m sure the purveyors of the Peters video linked above would hold (no approval of  the Animal Legal Defense Fund intended; I know nothing about the organization), the whales have had some cause. But like Tilikum, Moby-Dick’s violent past with Ahab, it could be argued, has warped him to a certain extent.

While Tilikum’s attack—and other attacks—prompted Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, to shoot the documentary, it was the Essex‘s sinking that prompted Melville, 150 years earlier, to write Moby-Dick  (Melville called Captain Pollard, captain of the Essex “one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met.”) Both the documentary and the novel concern unknowable questions we have long wondered: Do animals think? And if so, what do they think? Or do only some of them think? Do some of them have particular malice or psychopathy? One wonders if we will ever know the answers.

*The other serious great—in my dumb opinion—American novel of all time is Infinite Jest. I’m still trying to find more. I’ve been on a slow side-project to re-read a lot of these other classics and attempt to determine for myself which one I’d put up there on my personal top tier.