Ishmael speculates on Ahab's motivation for continuing to look for whales other than Moby Dick. As Queequeg and Ishmael work on a mat to lash to the boat, Tashtego spots a school of sperm whales and sounds the alarm, "There she blows!" Almost immediately, the men spring into action and begin lowering boats. Suddenly, "five dusky phantoms" surround Ahab. Ishmael's boat is swamped in the ensuing whale chase, but all aboard escape with their lives.
Ishmael offers further insight into the captain's character as he surmises that Ahab may continue to seek other whales because it is in his "fiery whaleman's" nature or because he resents all whales. More likely, he suggests, Ahab realizes that his men need short-term goals and are interested in pursuits that will fill their purses. They also need some practice. As a wise leader, he encourages the hunt. Ahab is also a very private man who tells the crew only what he thinks it should know. The mystery of the shadowy figures (on Christmas morning) and the sounds below deck are solved when five "aboriginal natives of the Manillas" suddenly surround the captain at the first lowering. A whaling captain usually stays aboard ship during the actual hunt; during this voyage, Ahab will join the chase with the aborigines as his crew. Their leader is a white-turbaned old man named Fedallah, of whom we will hear more later. There is a continuing aura of secrecy and perhaps even evil about the aborigines. Ishmael points out that some white mariners believe that natives of the Manillas are "paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord."
Ishmael has previously discussed the dangers of pursuing whales in an open boat; here they are demonstrated. Chapter 48 is an exciting account of an unsuccessful whale chase, culminating in the loss of Starbuck's boat on which Ishmael is part of that day's crew. Ishmael is amazed at the other men's light-hearted response to this near-death experience. When he returns to the ship, he promptly draws his will.
surmises conjectures, speculations, guesses.
impunity exemption from punishment, penalty, or harm.
ostentatious showy, pretentious.
inscrutable difficult to understand, mysterious.
cataract a large waterfall or deluge that is difficult to see through.