The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.
This is yet another in a series of chapters in which Ishmael examines and ponders various parts of the whale’s anatomy. In this chapter, it is the mighty tail. On a full-grown sperm whale, the tail may grow as large as 20 feet across! The tail being the whale’s main appendage, it is used for various purposes: propulsion, as a weapon, for touching other whales, for playing, and for diving.
Ishmael ends this chapter with a sense of frustration at his inability to truly understand the whale—the meanings of all his various movements and sounds, his internal world: “Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will.” What Ishmael is getting at is less of a scientific understanding of the whale, and more of a metaphysical one. Ishmael is indeed a ponderous philosopher of the sea.