The sperm whale –or spermaceti– was the greatest prize for a New England whaling ship. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael praises the spermaceti as “the most formidable of all whales to encounter.” He calls it, “the most majestic in aspect,” and, “by far the most valuable in commerce.” In Ishmael’s view, this creature also symbolized the profound mystery of nature. Unlike other kinds of whales, the sperm whale spends most of its time well below the ocean’s surface… far away from coastlines. In many ways, it’s the most elusive of whales.
Ishmael revels in the extreme proportions of this animal. He considers its giant forehead “sublime” and marvels that the flukes of the tail can span more than 20 feet across. He loves the fact that the vertebrae in the tail dwindle down to tiny bones the size of a child’s marbles. And he’s especially intrigued with the possibility that the animal’s eyes are set so far apart on its head that they might be incapable of converging on a single object. So the sperm whale sees the world as a split-screen image with a blind spot in between.