We’ve all heard of the famous American novel, Moby-Dick, but not many of us know that it was inspired by a true story. The new film, In the Heart of the Sea, tells that agonizing tale, but we discovered a few interesting facts the filmmakers left out.
1. Herman Melville’s own sailing experience
Moby-Dick is based on Melville’s actual experience on a whaling ship called the Acushnet. On Dec. 30, 1840, he signed on as a green hand for a voyage that was to last four years.
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2. An albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick
American explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds published his personal account of hunting a vindictive white whale with numerous harpoons sticking out of its back. The whale was spotted off the coast of Mocha Island near Chile around 1810, earning him the name Mocha Dick, inspiring Melville to call his mythical whale, Moby Dick. In Reynolds’ article, Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific, he wrote, “This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature… a singular consequence had resulted — he was white as wool!”
3. Mocha Dick wasn’t the only white whale in the sea
In 1859, a Swedish whaler claimed he killed a possibly 200-year-old white whale off the coast of South America. In 1902, Captain Thomas McKenzie claimed he also killed an albino sperm whale near the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean by attaching an explosive device to his harpoon.
4. White whales aren’t necessarily albino
Albinism is a genetic disorder where an organism doesn’t produce the pigment melanin and usually has a white or pink skin color, with pink eyes. Some white whales, such as Migaloo, a humpback whale that’s recently been spotted off the coast of Australia, have brown eyes, indicating their skin is simply hypopigmented, or has color loss.
5. Why the whale from In the Heart of the Sea isn’t white
Even though the whale is referred to as a “white whale” in the film, it appears more grey. Apparently, production designer Mark Tildesley thought the image of an all-white whale wasn’t frightening enough. “We tried a few images of white whales and they looked fantastic, but unfortunately, the pure white also engendered a very ethereal, calm image. But in our research we learned a lot of older whales start to lose their skin, so we made the whale darker, but you see the white coming through in patches where the skin has flaked off.”
6. Real-life multicultural crew
The cast in the film, In the Heart of the Sea reflects the diversity of crew members that Melville saw firsthand on his own whaling adventure. The crew on the Acushnet included three black men and four Portuguese men.
7. The real Starbuck
According to the the diaries of 19th century seaman, George Atwater, as reported in the New Haven Register, fellow crewman, Edward C. Starbuck, was actually a real jerk. “Starbuck was a braggart, according to Attwater, and represented all that was wrong with Nantucket whale men. It was Starbuck who Attwater mouthed off to before the Captain throttled him.” Melville used his name for the Moby-Dick character Starbuck, who is a 30-year-old Quaker in the the book.
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8. Inspiration for the world-famous chain of cafés, Starbucks
Yes, it was Melville’s character Starbuck who inspired the name of coffee giant, Starbucks, but not so much because of any connection to coffee. Starbucks co-founder, Gordon Bowker, said he was looking for a name that started with an “st,” and said, “Somebody somehow came up with an old mining map of the Cascades and Mount Rainier, and there was an old mining town called Starbo. As soon as I saw Starbo, I, of course, jumped to Melville’s first mate in Moby-Dick,” Bowker told The Seattle Times.
Below is a clip from the 1956 movie version of Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck as Ahab, who tells Starbuck (Leo Genn), about his quest to seek revenge on the white whale.
9. The world ran on whale oil
in the 1800s, whale oil, derived from whale blubber, was used for lighting and heating. Profits from sales of whale products totaled as much as $11 million a year. By the end of the 19th century however, the whaling industry declined for two main reasons. Firstly, whales were being over-hunted, diminishing their numbers. Secondly, the popularity of another oil called petroleum, began to increase. We still use petroleum today.
10. Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne may have been lovers
While living in Western Massachusetts, Melville befriended the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne and exchanged a series of letters that were “deeply affectionate,” according to biographer Walter E. Bezanson. Playwright Juliane Hiam did extensive research on the relationship between Melville and Hawthorne for her play, A Tanglewood Tale. When asked if she thought they were lovers, Hiam said, “When I read the letters Melville wrote to Hawthorne, they absolutely felt like some of the most beautiful love letters I had ever read. Was this love sexually charged? Yes. I believe so. Were they actually lovers? Doubtful. But they’re heartbreaking. And rife with longing and admiration.” Moby-Dick is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
11. The link between whaling and fashion
Baleen, or whale cartilage, was very popular for making umbrellas and ladies’ corsets. In 1907 however, one fashion designer would change that. Parisian designer, Paul Poiret, created a line of women’s clothing he called “slim, up-and-down.” The look became very fashionable and, because women no longer needed corsets, it caused the market for baleen to decline.
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12. Moby-Dick was a commercial failure
First published in England, the book garnered mostly unfavorable reviews. By the mid-19th century however, Moby-Dick was considered one of the best works of American fiction, ever.
13. How the musician Moby got his nickname
Richard Melville Hall, better known as Moby to fans of electronic dance music, is a distant relative of Herman Melville. Because of this, his parents began calling him “Moby” when he was a child. The musician claims he’s never read Moby-Dick.
In the Heart of the Sea opens Dec. 11.
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