Finally, after countless days of searching, Ahab sights Moby Dick’s spout from the top of the main mast of the Pequod. Although Tashtego and several others claim they saw the whale at about the same time, Ahab claims the gold doubloon for himself, saying that “it was always to be his,” that no one else should rightfully claim it, as Moby Dick is his prey. Ahab leaves Starbuck in command of the Pequod and takes to his own whaleboat, with Fedallah as the harpooneer, and the crew of stowed-away Chinese sailors.
It comes as no surprise that Ahab is the one to spot Moby Dick. Perhaps this is because Ahab was motivated by the idea of keeping his gold to himself, but it is more likely that he is uninterested in the financial value of the coin than in its symbolic value. Ahab sees himself and Moby Dick as the central characters in this story, and under that logic the doubloon must be his. The cautious Starbuck is left behind as Ahab now goes to confront the white whale himself.
Stubb and Flask also take out whaleboats, and each rows in furious pursuit of Moby Dick. Ishmael says that Moby Dick appeared so beautiful as to resemble a god from Greek myth or the Bible—indeed, Moby Dick appeared more beautiful than a god. Ahab’s boat approaches the whale first, and Ahab grabs his harpoon from Fedallah—the one made for him by Perth—and attempts to ram it down Moby Dick’s throat, as the whale opens its jaws wide. But Ahab cannot reach the whale to stab it, and after diving for a time, Moby Dick rises again, bites Ahab’s whale-boat in two, and sends Ahab flying into the water, face-first, as the rest of the crew cling to the boat as best they can.
Now the action-sequences of the novel begin. Some critics might object that the novel’s action and its climax are concentrated at the very end of the text, with little room saved for “denouement,” or unraveling after the climax has passed. But Ishmael appears to have wanted to arrange the narrative in this way, perhaps because it allows the reader to experience the horrible power of Moby Dick and then to end the novel on this note—in awe of the whale and his strength.
One of the other whaleboats picks up Ahab and the rest of the crew, and no one is hurt by the whale, who now begins spouting at regular intervals. Ahab and his crew help the other crew of the rescue boat to row back to the Pequod, and once there, Ahab resumes his watch, saying that whoever sights Moby Dick on the day he is killed will truly get the doubloon—and if Ahab does so, he will give ten times that money to all the crew. Ahab also sees Starbuck worrying about the whale, and Stubb laughing about Moby Dick, and condemns both, saying they represent the two “poles” of humanity, and that Ahab “stands alone among millions of men” as the only one sensible and courageous enough to catch the whale.
The first day of the hunt ends in a stalemate, with both Moby Dick and Ahab alive. Ahab's comment about Starbuck and Stubb are important. Ahab recognizes that these two mates represent two options for how a man can live his life—with a crippling excess of caution or seriousness, or with a frivolous lack of either that leads to a lack of purpose. True to his monomania, Ahab sees himself as the sole person to stand between these two poles, to have the seriousness of purpose without the crippling paralysis of being caught within morals or conventions that allow him to truly act, to truly kill and catch the White Whale that has come to symbolize the unknown, the uncaring, the truth of existence which is that there is no truth or meaning in existence. Ahab thinks he himself can confront that white leviathan and define it through death.