Posts Tagged 'whales'

There Were Whales

D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century is a whale of a book. He traces the… evolution (?) of whale science from the cutting room floor of factory ships by scientists who were more or less creatures of the industry, flensing their way through interesting collections of oils (which lubricated ICBMs, among other things) and data, ever so much more data, as species were hunted to the brink, to a rather sudden transformation, a re-mystification in many senses, of whales in the late 1960s.

By the 1970s, Greenpeace and other factors had made saving the whales a rallying cry, the focus of environmentalism. Weirdo-weird guy John C. Lilly, he of the dolphin “mind” and, uh, other parts, best (?) represents the transition: from Defense Department funded explorer of brain-washing and sensory-deprivation to Navy-funded (briefly) dolphin evangelist to LSD-dropping freak babbling about alien consciousness. (The Navy still exploits dolphins for war.) Lilly gave LSD to dolphins, too, by the way, but, as Burnett points out, researchers were doing to that to a lot of animals, including the two-legged kind.

The wretched International Whaling Commission, an entity of whale industry states designed to perpetuate the industry, was finally beaten to submission to a whaling moratorium (with too many exceptions) in 1982.

I started this book some time ago. Here’s what I wrote about it then. It’s a deep dive. I got out of the water for a while and only just recently returned. I’m glad I did. The last chapter is fascinating. You could do worse than just reading the conclusion, which breachs one of the great questions of history writing.

Whalers, Ho!

During the First World War, whale oil was used to make glycerin for explosives. The irony here is leviathan: huge numbers of whales were killed so that parts of them could be used to slaughter huge numbers of humans.

Other fats could be used for glycerin, but the British didn’t want to use these other edible oils because of the politics of war-time scarcity. Of course, whale oil was also eaten in the UK and across Europe, transformed into margarine. In the U.S., meanwhile, a federal effort to get Americans to eat whale during WWI was unsuccessful. Of course, by 1900, the heyday of the American whaling industry was over, out like the old sperm whale candles. But whale oils were still used in watches, sewing machines, and industrial lubricants (spermaceti oil was particular prized by the U.S. military). The British and the Norwegians dominated the early 20th century whaling industry. Factory ships took to the seas in the 1920s, peak years for slaughter. The Depression put a damper on things, but as the ’30s progressed, the killing expanded as Germany and Japan entered Antarctic waters.

Whales were turned into fertilizer, pet food, animal feed (for chickens, mink, and silver foxes), soap, and cosmetics. The things made out of whalebone (baleen), like corset stays, horsewhips, and back-scratchers, would eventually be phased out by fashion and petroleum’s child, plastic. At the end of the Second World War, as large parts of Europe and Asia were threatened with starvation, international organizations looked greedily to whales to provide fats and meat for the hungry.(One counter-attack: Disney’s Willie the singing whale of 1946, a Bambi of the ocean, who just wants to sing opera, but is blasted by a harpoon. I generally can’t stand Disney product, but in this case it seems to have formed a generation that grew up to “save the whales.”)

We Americans don’t have a tradition of eating whale. (I wrote about this in my other venue.) We just liked them because money could be made from them. Whale products are now illegal in the U.S., but since there was no tradition of killing whales for food outside of aboriginal populations (who were made an exception to the rule) in North America, the ban was no hardship for the great majority of us. Those are the easiest bans of all. The nations that do go against the world-trend of not eating whale — Norway, Iceland, Faroes, Japan, etc. — maintain their defiance.

I have of late been reading D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century. It is a big book, deeply researched, about the personalities, politics, and bureaucracies of whale research and science’s often entirely too close relationship with industry. I thought reading this would be a chore, but it is in fact hard to put down.

One particularly intriguing section details how American mammalogists took a leaf from the ornithologists who’d fought to save birds from being eradicated by hunters, the fashion industry, and even the state, which paid bounties on pest species. There was an interesting sense of pessimism amongst mammalogists in the Teens and Twenties. Looking back on the great extinctions of the end of the Pleistocene, they thought mammals were on their way out. (A century later, they’d be sickened at the devastation since). Disturbing statistics from the Antarctic whale fishery only added to the gloom.

Burnett’s earlier book, Trying Levianthan, is about a curious 1818 New York legal decision that firmly declared whales to be fish. The case was fought over taxes, but it was part of a larger debate between the new field of taxonomy and common sense, which is sometimes profoundly overrated. The jury came in on the side of biblical truth, evidence be damned, and as late as 1851, Melville’s Ishmael was sure as Jonah that whales were fish, too. Did I say “as late as”? 75 years later, the Jonasistas were going strong at the Scopes trial in Tennessee, which is usually remembered as the “monkey trial” but also very much concerned with the evolution of whales, the emergence of mammals, and the return of some of them to the sea.

Further Extracts of a Sub-Sub-Librarian

I live in Brooklyn, located on the westernmost end of Long Island, but I also have a family connection to another island east of here. I graduated from high school on Nantucket, Mass., back in the last century, and go there still with some frequency. Between here and there there’s also a geographical connection: both Nantucket and Long Island were formed by the same glacial and hydrological forces.

Nantucket, which is slightly more than twice as large as Manhattan (49 vs. 23 square miles — a fact I have a very hard time fathoming), was theoretically “deeded” to English colonialists in 1641, and was a part of the Province of New York until 1691. It is now a playground for our ruling classes, with $25 million dollar estates and whatnot (plus all the servants and a few middle middle class holdouts like us). Historically, however, the island is famous as the birthplace of the American sperm whale fishery. This 46-long skeleton of a sperm whale, in the island’s Whaling Museum, washed ashore in 1998. Henry James says somewhere that there were terrible dark things behind the great fortunes of his day. (As ours, of course.) For the wealthy of the mid-19th century Nantucket, it was the butchering of whales for their oil, used for lamps and soap, and later, margarine, nitroglycerine, steel quenching, and leather dressing. The ship owners’ mansions still grace Main Street. But the actual work upon the seas was done by others, of course; it was a hard and backbreaking industry that kept you at sea for three to four years at a time. Successful whale hunts were capped by the melting of the prey’s blubber into oil in the cauldrons of the ship’s try-works; it was a civilization based upon what Melville aptly called “burning a corpse.” Still is, when you consider that petroleum is the transmutation of an ancient riot of life.

Most prized of those burning corpses was the sperm whale. For, in addition to the whale’s rich blubber, sperm whales have massive rectangular foreheads laden with spermaceti, a waxy white substance thought to help with both the whale’s buoyancy (they can dive to an astonishing 10,000 feet) and echolocation. Originally thought to be the whale’s sperm, hence the animals’ ridiculous common name, the stuff became much desired for industrial, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic purposes, as petroleum today fuels far more things than most people realize.

In Moby Dick, the harpooner Tashtego falls into the whale’s head as he is emptying the case, as it was called, of spermaceti. He’s rescued by Queequeg, in a scene written as a kind of Caesarian birth with the practical thought that “Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing.” Had Tashtego drowned encased in the perfumed spermaceti, Melville continues, the only comparable way of dying would have been the Ohio honey hunter who fell into a great store of honey and became embalmed in the thick sweetness. As ways to go, both rather impressive, and much preferable to a hospital bed.

Sperm whales also produce ambergris, a fragrant substance much prized by perfumers as a fixative. Melville notes it was used for “pastiles, precious candles, hair-powders and pomatum.” At times it was worth three times the equivalent weight of gold. In 1912, a record 983-pound piece of it was auctioned off. Oddly, this “grey amber,” which has nothing do with amber, the fossilized tree resin also highly valued throughout history, is created (sometimes) in the whale’s intestines. It may be produced to help ease the horn-like beaks of giant squid through the digestive track. (There is much still unknown about these giant, deep-living creatures). Melville, a lover of paradox, makes much of the fact that this sweetness comes from the “inglorious bowels” of an enormous animal, excreted, vomited, or sliced out it; that lovely ladies of fashion are anointed with digestive mire, that gentlemen wind fine watches lubricated with case oil.
And speaking of paradox and ambiguity: my parents gave me this sperm whale tooth in the late 1960s. It’s posed here on Sam Ita’s clever contraption, Moby Dick A Pop-Up Book. I can remember a barrelful of teeth, mostly smaller than this one, outside a Nantucket store. Tourist tidbits, back when such things were legal. In the 1960s, some 25,000 sperm whales were being killed every single year, mostly by Russian and Japanese whalers, and that was just one of the species being killed. To give you some comparison, American whalers in the mid-19th century (pre-exploding harpoons) took only an estimated 15,000 total sperm whales between 1830-1870. A ban on commercial whaling has been in place since 1982, but countries like Iceland and Japan continue to flaunt it. In Iceland, most of the catch is sent to Japan (where, coincidentally, I was born), making a mockery of their “it’s our tradition” excuse. There was some whale meat being served at a buffet when we were in Iceland a year ago. We passed.

Here be Whales

Thar she blows! Megaptera novaeangliae.

We were off the Atlantic Highlands of New Jersey on board the Whale and Dolphin cruise of the American Princess out of Riis Landing at Fort Tilden on the Rockaways. And we saw a humpback whale spouting and rounding its bulk through the water. Whoa! A whale within sight of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the skyscrapers of the city. The whale, which was thought to be about 30-35 feet long, and hence a juvenile, started slapping the water with its tail. The slapping, which continued for several minutes, was an incredible sight. It isn’t at all a typical whale-watch thing, evidently. There seemed to be a consensus on the boat that the slapping was a feeding strategy, but further research reveals we don’t actually know why they do it. Some think it’s communicative since the vibrations from the slaps travel a good distance. Maybe we were too close … although awed by the experience, I have some reservations about whale-watching: I’m suspicious about wild animals as a form of entertainment, and I wonder what all the boat noises — our 90-foot boat attracted several smaller boats at one point around the animal — and crowding do to the whales. (The plentiful floating trash also darkened my mood, along with the stunning two full barrels of garbage my fellow passengers somehow managed to fill during the 4-hour trip.) I went out to see Wilson’s Storm-petrels (Oceanites oceanicus), reportedly out in force this time of year. They are, sometimes hanging around sport fishing boats because of the bait and scraps available. These small pelagic (ocean-going) birds are dark with white rumps and squarish tails; as pelagics, they spend their lives at sea except for nesting, and are adapted to drinking salt water. Sometimes they will pitter-patter along the top of the waves, looking like they’re water-walking. We’re unlikely to see them from shore. Meanwhile, I thought the chances of seeing whales or dolphins 50-50 at best, but we seemed to have lucked out.

And then I remembered my camera can take short movies:

Oceanites oceanicus. Megaptera novaeangliae. Some lovely scientific names, no? The storm-petrel speaks for itself, I think, as a wanderer on Okeanos, the great world sea. Humpbacks have distinctive wing-like flippers, so Megaptera should remind you of insect order names like Diptera, Hymenoptera, and Lepidoptera. For “ptera” means “wings” in Greek. Although we often say “Latin names,” the binomial system regularly mixes up Greek and Latin. “Novaeangliae”? That’s right, it means “New England.” Big-winged New Englander.

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