The narrator introduces himself to the reader with one of the most famous first lines in literature: "Call me Ishmael."
He begins his story "some years ago," at one particular moment when he decided to go on a sailing voyage.
Ishmael explains that, whenever he feels depressed and suicidal, he always goes to sea.
Ishmael claims that most people and most cultures around the world have a special attraction to water in general and the sea in particular.
In Manhattan, he tells us, people crowd around the wharves, looking out at the sea and trying to get as close to it as possible. Niagara Falls is a major tourist destination. Ancient cultures in Persia and Greece worshipped the sea. You get the idea.
Ishmael doesn’t want to go to sea as a passenger, because then he’d have to pay.
He also doesn’t want to be in an important position, such as captain or cook, because then he’d have responsibilities, and that would really get him down (which, frankly, we can totally sympathize with).
He just wants to be an ordinary sailor.
Ishmael says that being a lowly sailor and getting ordered around does take some getting used to, especially if you’ve held a powerful position before—like, say, a schoolteacher. (We get the idea Ishmael’s been a schoolteacher.)
However, Ishmael doesn’t mind being ordered around on board ship, because he knows that "everybody else is in one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view" (1.9). In other words, everybody’s got a boss, even if it’s just God.
Ishmael especially likes getting paid instead of paying (who doesn’t?), which is another motivation for being a sailor.
The last reason Ishmael chooses to be a sailor is that it involves exercise and fresh air.
Although Ishmael has explained that going to sea and being a sailor are his decisions, he also says that going whaling instead of sailing on a merchant ship is his fate.
Still, even though Ishmael thinks his participation in the whaling voyage is predetermined, he acknowledges that he wants to go, in part, to satisfy his genuine curiosity about these enormous, mysterious creatures we call whales.