Thar she blows
“It’s not down on any map. True places never are”
Moby Dick, Hermann Melville
Some believe Melville’s inspiration for his celebrated novel Moby Dick was more than partially spurred by the Galápagos Islands, in the teeming waters of the Bolívar Channel, for example, where Sperm Whales can still be spotted today. Back in 1820, kilometers from those very waters, a furious Sperm Whale totalled the “Whaleship Essex” during a harpooning spree, resulting in a most tragic end for most of the members of the whaling crew. Melville was very much acquainted with the story, as he had befriended one William Chase, son of Owen Chase, one of the few survivors of the misadventure. Moby Dick was published in 1851, a decade after Melville first reached the Galápagos Islands, one of the most important vantage points from which the whaling industry spread its heartless tentacles across the Pacific Ocean. His fascination for the archipelago was further elaborated in his critically acclaimed book of “sketches” The Encantadas (1854).
There is no higher poetic example of whaling than Moby Dick. The novel lies at the very pinnacle of literature, as it recounts the plight between Man (represented by an almost Babylonic crew of sailors from every possible origin) and the forces of Nature it wishes to bring to heel (personified by the Leviathan itself, the great white whale that eventually will kill them all except for the narrator, who lives to tell the tale).
The Galápagos Islands had become one of the most coveted whaling stations in the world. As pirate presence dissipated, whaling became one of the most profitable ways of, in a few words, looting the planet’s seas. British Captain James Colnett identified the Galápagos as a perfect place to base the industry, and for almost a century, whales were slaughtered throughout the Pacific for their blubber. Competition arrived from the United States in 1812, when Captain David Porter famously seized several British ships, “turning the tables” so to speak, and making New England towns like Nantucket and New Bedford new world leaders in the trade.
In Moby Dick, entire chapters are dedicated to scientifically documenting the intricacies of whaling, describing the whales themselves in biological terms, and every step involved in exploiting the animal’s anatomy for profit. The dramatic end of the book, in which the great Moby Dick remains victor, marks quite a fascinating and almost moralistic vision to one of the most vicious exploitations in history: Man is petty and Nature will win out in the end.
Unclaimed Galápagos has forever laid at the mercy of anyone who ventured to them. They stood in the middle of the ocean for adventurers to seek fruition of their selfish, many times, petty, personal dreams. Today, the plight has changed. The Galápagos’ international community no longer wishes to fight nature to inevitable defeat like Captain Ahab did in Moby Dick. Perhaps that is the twist of fate Melville ends up pointing out in his universal book… perhaps Melville was much more ahead of his time than we give him credit for. Perhaps he suggests the fruitlessness of this ‘war’ and suggests communion with our natural world rather than destruction and violence. In any case, Moby Dick does presage the brink of the American whaling industry. In 1871, nature’s forces would freeze the north Pacific Seas and a loss worth millions of dollars, together with the development of kerosene as a lighting fluid, would eventually force the prime whaling towns of New England to cease their activities forevermore.
The Galápagos Islands are one of the world’s most precious whale sanctuaries, where some 15 species, including Sperm, Minke’s, Humpback, Bryde’s and the Great Blue Whale, can be found throughout the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Sharks and rays are also diverse and relatively common; spotting any of these natural wonders, especially while snorkeling, is undoubtedly an unparalleled experience.
The HMS Rattler and its captain James Colnett were sent to the Pacific Ocean to explore the area in the hopes of establishing a whaling station. Colnett’s fieldwork indicated that the Galápagos was a strategic stopover. One of the first things he did upon arriving to the Galápagos was to create a postal service for marine travelers on Floreana (Post Office Bay), where seafarers could take mail left by other seafarers on their trips home.
Captain David Porter is remembered as one of the great naval figures of the War of 1812 between the United States and the British Empire. He managed to seize a total of 12 British whaling ships on his battleship US Essex in and around the Galápagos archipelago. His efforts were crucial in making the Galápagos Islands a stronghold for the U.S. whaling industry.