Ishmael remarks that the Pequod is passing the coasts of Java, known to be rich in whales and also in pirates, who occasionally board American and English ships. A large pod of whales, called by Ishmael a “grand armada,” is seen, and immediately Ahab orders the men to pursue the pod, noting after a few minutes that the Pequod itself is being pursued by Malays who might want to take the whales or overtake the Pequod itself.
An interesting arrangement, wherein the Pequod is pursuing a large number of whales, and is being pursued by a group of sailors (again, Asian sailors, whose motives Ishmael seems always to distrust). Ishmael makes clear that, in life, one may very easily be both a hunter and one who is hunted.
But the Pequod is a quick ship and outgains the Malay pirates. Soon the Pequod lowers its boats to hunt the whales, which stop running and congregate in a “galley,” or a large stationary group. Ishmael watches as Queequeg spears several whales at the same time and uses a “drugg,” or set of wooden spars, to bind several whales together at once. Ishmael notices that many of the whales are pregnant females, or have just given birth to tiny infant whales, still connected to their mothers via their umbilical cords.
With the revelation that some of the whales are pregnant and others are mothers of newborns the sense of the whaler's actions changes and their whale-killing, which before seemed heroic, now seems like committing a massacre. Further, the way the whales form a protective circle suggests a real relationship between them, and so while Ishmael continues to laud the actions of the whalers it is not quite as clear that Melville is doing the same.
But the whales can only be hooked to the boat for so long before one whale, in agony at the deep wound it has received from another of the Pequod’s harpoons, begins to rouse the armada, and to cause the large group of whales to trash around and imperil the three whaleboats. Queequeg leaps down from his harpoon location and picks up his oar again; Ishmael’s whaleboat barely escapes between two whales and squeezes out of the pod. Ishmael notes, with resignation, that “the more whales seen, the fewer caught,” as the Pequod manages to take only one whale from this large galley, despite wounding a great number.
An important lesson in the novel, one that is echoed in Greek mythology as well, and in the fables of Aesop. In all these stories, when a character attempts to get greedy, and to capture more animals, or berries, or prizes than he or she is able to carry, all these objects of the hunt fall away, thus leaving the hero with nothing. If one sets one’s sights on a simple goal, one has a chance to achieve it; but if one tries to do too much, one risks losing all that one has worked for.