Ishmael writes, in the Epilogue, that all this could be reported because “one did survive the wreck,” and it was he, Ishmael. Ishmael “took the place of Fedallah” in Ahab’s boat, and Ishmael survived . The “vortex” created by the sinking Pequod and which caused all the rest of the crew to drown had fizzled by the time Ishmael reached its “center,” and at this point, Queequeg’s coffin splashes up from the depths, allowing Ishmael to grab it and float. Ishmael then notes, recognizing the irony of the situation, that he was picked up also by the Rachel, which had returned “after a night and a day.” He says, to end the book, that, in this way, “Rachel in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”
Of course, for any story to survive it needs a witness who survives it. Ishmael is that witness, and as the solitary witness his name makes more sense. Ishmael—son of Abraham and the slave Hagar—was eventually cast out by his father when his legitimate son Isaac was born. So too has Ishmael lost his society, his community. And so the Rachel, still looking for its “son,” and found an “orphan” instead. And through Ishmael and his story, his dead compatriots live on. Just as Ishmael himself is given life by the coffin that is covered in the tattoos that tell Queequeg's story, so too does Ishmael's story gives a kind of heroic immortality to the sailors of the Pequod.