“Call me Ishmael.” It very well may be the most quoted opening line to a published book and is the first sentence in “Moby Dick,” authored by Herman Melville and published in 1851. In the novel, Ishmael, a sailor, tells the story of Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, a whaling ship. Ahab became obsessed with a white whale, Moby Dick, that consumed him, his ship and his crew. The allegorical story gave birth to one of the most popular sayings: “chasing a white whale” which has come to mean an exhaustive and futile quest to obtain something beyond your reach.
Moby Dick was supposed to be a sperm whale, one of the largest rorqual whales. Hunted nearly to extinction for the large amounts of oil and blubber they contain, sperm whales are able to dive down to 3,000 feet (1,000 m) and can hold their breath for more than an hour.
Melville’s story was actually based on fact. He pieced together anecdotes he heard from various whaling operations, including a white sperm whale killed near Mocha Island off the coast of Chile. Most of the story came from the life of George Pollard, a former captain of the whaling boat Essex, that was rammed by a sperm whale, sinking the ship a thousand miles from land.