Ishmael notes that, before the “cutting in” of the whale meat can take place, usually those involved in the whale hunt retire below-decks and sleep until early morning. But sometimes, in the South Pacific as the Pequod is, there are so many sharks that the cutting in must start more quickly, otherwise there would be little of the whale left in the morning. Ishmael states that the sharks around Stubb’s whale were gnashing so violently that they sometimes bit each other, and that members of the crew had staves to crush their skulls—although this sometimes only caused others to bite in more of a frenzy. Queequeg, after pulling in one shark to skin it, is shocked that the apparently dead shark’s jaw almost clamped down on his hand while he was handling it. Queequeg states that the sharks seemed possessed by some kind of ill spirit.
A notable chapter, if only for its depiction of the constant dangerous reality of the seas surrounding the whale-ship. The sharks here mentioned do not crop up very much in the text—and, indeed, many whalers are knocked out of their boats, without being troubled by sharks. But sharks of this particular region are much like vultures in the deserts of the American West, feeding on the expired carcass of the whale. In the way the sharks chomp mindlessly at the magisterial and fathomless whale there is an echo of the sharks gnawing at the body of the marlin in Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, in which the sharks are sometimes seen as symbols of those who disbelieved in or abandoned Christ (symbolized by the marlin) after its death.