I like how it is a deep-dive into experience and action. As you mention, Melville classifies a whale as a fish with a horizontal tail, pretty much because its business is being a massive fish.
He tells you about something, laying it out, and then, in the midst of the description, dives into the reasoning behind the way that things are playing out, and previous thoughts that he has had upon those matters.
Here's an example that was easy to whip up:
It is noon; and Dough-Boy, the steward, thrusting his pale loaf-of-bread face from the cabin-scuttle, announces dinner to his lord and master who, sitting in the lee quarter-boat, has just been taking an observation of the sun; and is now mutely reckoning the latitude on the smooth, medallion-shaped tablet, reserved for that daily purpose on the upper part of his ivory leg. From his complete inattention to the tidings, you would think that moody Ahab had not heard his menial. But presently, catching hold of the mizen shrouds, he swings himself to the deck, and in an even, unexhilarated voice, saying, “Dinner, Mr. Starbuck,” disappears into the cabin.
When the last echo of his sultan’s step has died away, and Starbuck, the first Emir, has every reason to suppose that he is seated, then Starbuck rouses from his quietude, takes a few turns along the planks, and, after a grave peep into the binnacle, says, with some touch of pleasantness, “Dinner, Mr. Stubb,” and descends the scuttle.
The second Emir lounges about the rigging awhile, and then slightly shaking the main brace, to see whether it will be all right with that important rope, he likewise takes up the old burden, and with a rapid “Dinner, Mr. Flask,” follows after his predecessors.
But the third Emir, now seeing himself all alone on the quarter-deck, seems to feel relieved from some curious restraint; for, tipping all sorts of knowing winks in all sorts of directions, and kicking off his shoes, he strikes into a sharp but noiseless squall of a hornpipe right over the Grand Turk’s head; and then, by a dexterous sleight, pitching his cap up into the mizentop for a shelf, he goes down rollicking so far at least as he remains visible from the deck, reversing all other processions, by bringing up the rear with music. But ere stepping into the cabin doorway below, he pauses, ships a new face altogether, and, then, independent, hilarious little Flask enters King Ahab’s presence, in the character of Abjectus, or the Slave.
It is not the least among the strange things bred by the intense artificialness of sea-usages, that while in the open air of the deck some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly and defyingly enough towards their commander; yet, ten to one, let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner in that same commander’s cabin, and straightway their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air towards him, as he sits at the head of the table; this is marvellous, sometimes most comical. Wherefore this difference? A problem? Perhaps not. To have been Belshazzar, King of Babylon; and to have been Belshazzar, not haughtily but courteously, therein certainly must have been some touch of mundane grandeur. But he who in the rightly regal and intelligent spirit presides over his own private dinner-table of invited guests, that man’s unchallenged power and dominion of individual influence for the time; that man’s royalty of state transcends Belshazzar’s, for Belshazzar was not the greatest. Who has but once dined his friends, has tasted what it is to be Caesar. It is a witchery of social czarship which there is no withstanding. Now, if to this consideration you super-add the official supremacy of a ship-master, then, by inference, you will derive the cause of that peculiarity of sea-life just mentioned.
The plot is there, but so much of what happens is opportunity to reflect and discuss.