Which type is the big Squid in Moby-Dick?


Pygmy Octopus
Apr 19, 2003
I read some news items on the web on the Colossal Squid, all saying that the species was first discovered in 1925 and that the new find is only the second capture of this squid at all (no article provides information on the first encounter).

I am wondering whether this could be the type of squid that is depicted by Herman Melville in chapter 59 of Moby-Dick, simply called "Squid." You can easily find the chapter online by using "Melville" and "Squid" as keywords. Going by the size of the squid being described in the chapter, I would guess that it must either be the Colossal or the Giant Squid. This should be of some interest to Melville scholarship, since it appears to me that not much scientific knowledge was available to Melville when he wrote the book, so if his description is accurate, he may have seen a Squid himself when he was whaling.

In chapter 59, the crew almost forgets Moby Dick, as they now gazed "at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach."
Moby Dick, this is so exciting! and makes me want to reread Moby Dick. I named an enormous, deaf, white cat Moby after the whale. He never did answer.

The chapter describes whale egest including 20 foot arms!

"At times, when closely pursued, he will disgorge what are supposed to be the detached arms of the squid; some of them thus exhibited exceeding twenty and thirty feet in length."

Can Tintenfisch and Steve tell us whether squid arms have been found this way? Do whales vomit? :yuck:

i believe the first confirmed knowledge of the giant squids came from whalers because in their death throes, the whales do indeed vomit up squid pieces.... i dont know if they do it other times.. but i think getting harpooned would probably make me lose my lunch too....
Melissa said:
Do whales vomit? :yuck:

They do. Under duress of being harpooned / thrashing about in their death throes, sperm whales frequently disgorge their stomach contents, which have on many occasions included recently ingested giant squid (and possibly colossals) in reasonable condition.
Don't whales vomit something called "Ambergriss" (pardon the spelling) that is actually used in some perfumes?

No kidding, a book I read in grade school made reference to this point, and it's always stuck with me. Anyone know for sure?

It's true. Ambergris is a grey, waxy substance that forms in the gastro-intestinal tract of sperm whales (sometimes around clumps of squid beaks). It was used as a fixative in cosmetics. I don't know which end of the whale it comes out of.

Somebody around here will hopefully give you a better, more detailed explantion of the stuff's composition and function.


Ambergris was used in perfumes, but I don't remember it being vomited. I don't think it is used this way any longer, but I'm unsure. There is a section of Moby Dick in which Melville describes flensing and other procedures, including a description of ambergris. I don't remember more but now I'm going back to the original to find it! You may get a more scientific answer, but I'll post where to look for the literary clues too.

Here is a url for chapter 92 of Moby Dick,

Moby Dick by Herman Melville: Chapter 92 - The Literature Page

which describes ambergris and says

"Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is."

Matt, literature says you are right, and I'm going to keep looking for the vivid descriptions of blubber.

Talking about "a more scientific answer," Melissa, it seems that Melville's answers are just about as scientific as they could get in 1851. His information on whaling is usually correct.

The most important books about whales and whaling that Melville used as sources are discussed in Howard P. Vincent, The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, still the major book on the subject despite being half a century old.
Hey, I just noticed the topic is moved to the section on Pop Culture, but Moby-Dick really is a great work of literature which hardly fits the description Pop Culture, so it is not less misplaced here than in the former section.
:smile: Hmm... I'm not so sure I agree! While I do believe that another forum or two may be needed here to ensure there's a home for everything (and int he meantime The Octopus' Den is in part the repository for all things lost), I do believe this forum is the most appropriate place for this discussion...

Doing a search on Google for +"pop culture" +"moby dick" yields about 900 responses... that might not be worth much, because of course they're not all in context... and I wasn't able to find a link worthy of making my point.

I don't think pop culture necessarily is "trendy", but trendy is a subset of pop culture... The definition of pop culture seems a bit elusive, but here's one take on it:


I believe that great works such as Moby Dick can be considered pop culture, at the same time as the Spice Girls. I guess it would be any form of entertainment (and Moby Dick is indeed a form of entertainment, is it not?) that has mass appeal / exposure / recognition.

Still, I'm sorry that I moved the discussion without your knowing. Going forward I'll try to be more sensitive to the thread authors when moving a thread, by sending a private message informing them of the move.

Thanks Tony,

An interesting sidenote (keep in mind that it has been almost ten years since I last read Moby Dick: I noticed that they kept referring to the "physeti" (the Sperm Whale's scientific name is Physeter catodon) as a fish, even though the whalers knew that they produced milk. They even described the taste of the milk as that of "strawberries" (I doubt we'll be producing any whale dairies soon). I swear that they really didn't consider them mammals, even though they probably had the idea that they were.

Great novel, BTW.

Sushi and Sake,

Thank you for your reply, Tony. Yes, Moby-Dick is indeed a form of entertainment, as all literature is (no matter how pretentious some critics may want to talk about it). The funny thing about it being placed in Pop Culture here is that one guide to Melville studies contains an essay about the influence of the novel in pop culture. It is probably this kind of studies that accounts for your 900 hits. But if the novel itself were part of pop culture, the world would surely look different, since the effort and concentration it takes to read the whole book are not activities usually associated with the term.

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