The Whiteness of the Whale - The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare 

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare (2010)

Chapter 10. The Whiteness of the Whale

Deathful, desolate dominions those; bleak and wild the ocean, beating at that barrier’s base, hovering ’twixt freezing and foaming; and freighted with navies of ice-bergs…White bears howl as they drift from their cubs; and the grinding islands crush the skulls of the peering seals.

Herman Melville, Mardi

Driving north from Burton Constable, the years fall away with the coastal road, running through familiar names: Bridlington, Filey and Scarborough, childhood memories of amusement arcades and fish and chips, and the burnt-sugar smell of candy floss, and pale green gas-mantle lamps hissing into the night, as fragile as the moths that flutter round them while my mother made tea in our caravan.

If the past is a contraction of what has passed, then the future exists only if we imagine it. These resorts recede into memory, and safe fields yield to wild moorland, wide expanses of nothingness book-ended by impenetrable plantations of black conifers. The car radio turns into white noise as we pass the giant white golf balls of the Fylingdales listening station. Then the road descends to Whitby, another half-hidden place, with its ancient red roofs and its steep streets and snickleways coursing down to its horseshoe harbour.

Here, among these narrow terraces, lived my great-grandfather, Patrick James Moore; a Catholic, too, albeit born to rather less propitious circumstances than the tenants of Burton Constable. The son of a Dublin blacksmith, he had joined the general exodus from Ireland, passing through the same Liverpool docks that Melville had explored; one of Melville’s shipmates on the St Lawrence was an Irishman named Thomas Moore. By 1882 Patrick Moore had arrived in Whitby, with his wife Sarah, a housemaid from Faversham who, six months after they were married, gave birth to their first child, Rose Margaret. Perhaps that’s why they lived in a poor part of town at Grove Street, close to Scoresby Terrace; although at the end of the lane were the riverside works where James Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, was built.

It was there that my grandfather, Dennis, was born in 1885. He would grow up to be a tailor, making suits for J.B. Priestley and an overcoat for Winston Churchill, but by the time I knew him, at the end of his life, he had retired to Morecambe–known as Bradford-by-the-Sea–where he would die in a home facing the great expanse of the bay. I have only vague memories of his visits to us: a dapper, white-haired old man dressed in elegant dark suits. He always wore a watch and chain and, as my parents told me, had such a passion for reading that he would often miss his bus stop, so engrossed was he in his book. I was a young boy, and I had no idea that my grandfather had been born in a town that lived with the memory of whales.

Still less did I know that, around the same time as my young grandfather was playing in its streets, Bram Stoker was holidaying in Whitby, a stay that inspired his most famous work, the sensational story of Dracula. In it, Stoker’s heroine Mina climbs the steps to the town’s clifftop graveyard, where she meets an elderly man who had sailed to Greenland ‘when Waterloo was fought’, and who tells her ‘about the whale-fishing in the old days’. This old sailor, nearly one hundred years old, is a relic of Whitby’s past, and an industry carried out, not in the balmy seas of the Pacific, but in the freezing wastes of the Arctic: the wilderness at the top of the world.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published in 1838, a sixteen-year-old stowaway sails on a mutinous whale-ship out of New Bedford. After murder and shipwreck, Pym and his companions are forced ‘to this last horrible extremity’–to dine on their young shipmate, Richard Parker. Poe’s tale–which Melville must have read–was inspired by the fate of the Essex; it also had a strange reverberation forty years later, when the survivors of a shipwrecked yacht sailing from Southampton for Australia ate their own cabin boy. By remarkable coincidence, his name was also Richard Parker, and his memorial in the local churchyard, close to where I grew up, forever fascinated me with its ghoulish epitaph: Though he slay me yet will I trust in him.

But Poe’s story has other resonances, too, in the lands and creatures that young Pym encounters on his subsequent adventures in the Antarctic, where he sees ice bears with blood-red eyes and murderous Indians with black teeth. Drawing on notes made by his friend, Jeremiah Reynolds, who had undertaken his ultimately disastrous expedition to the Antarctic in 1829 (Reynolds’s crew mutinied on the way back, forcing him off the ship at Chile thus providing the setting for his own story of Mocha Dick), Poe presented his book as non-fiction. He even told friends he had been a whaler himself. Newspapers ran excerpts as factual accounts, convincing readers of a new and unknown land where the waters grew warmer rather than colder as one travelled towards the pole and where superstitious natives regarded anything white as taboo, fearful of ‘the carcass of the white animal picked up at sea’, and ‘the shriek of the swift-flying, white, and gigantic birds which issued from the vapoury white curtain of the South’.

As its adventurers sail into the furthest unknown, they encounter a ‘shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men’, its skin ‘of the perfect whiteness of the snow’. This eerie otherworld, teetering between travelogue and science fiction, was the birthing-ground for Melville’s monster. It is the source of the whiteness that appals Ishmael and on which he expands compendiously, if erratically, like a nineteenth-century search engine: from albino humans, ‘more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion’, to ‘the tall pale man’ seen in the forests of the ‘fairy tales of Central Europe…whose changeless pallor unrustlingly glided through the green of the groves’. Whiteness for Ishmael is as much the colour of evil as of good; it is an intimidating absence: ‘Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are?’

But that whiteness was also an invitation. Before the last of the wild lands were mapped, it was left to storytellers to fill in the fictional spaces on the map–from men such as Poe who had never travelled further than New England, to the mulatto boat-steerer Harry Hinton of Nimrod of the Sea, who imagined a shining wall of ice beyond which was an open sea, home of mermen and krakens with golden antennæ a sanctuary where ‘worried whales find peace, and grow in blubber on the crimson carpets of medusæ’, safe from hunters who sought ‘to harpoon and lance, to mangle, tear, and boil’.

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THE SEA BEYOND THE SHIPPING WALL.

Such imaginings crept into what claimed to be reality, too. In a remarkable frontispiece created for Oliver Goldsmith’s encyclopædic Animated Nature (‘with numerous notes from the works of the most distinguished British and foreign naturalists’), first published in 1774, but subsequently reissued ‘for the young and tender’, as Ishmael observes, the artist assembled the known denizens of the frozen world, drawing freely on William Scoresby’s An Account of the Arctic Regions, to the extent that its decorously beached narwhal and bucking whale busy throwing its assailants in the air are direct imitations of Scoresby’s pictures.

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Yet among these seals and sea lions–themselves assailed by a ferocious polar bear–sea eagles and auks and walruses, a sea serpent swims blithely through the scene. It is perfectly at home among water spouts and icebergs, all the while observed by another narwhal, as if there were nothing extraordinary about its appearance at all; as if its existence were, by virtue of the many reports of its dalliances in other seas, established as a biological fact, to be represented alongside the other fauna of the polar ocean–even though further inspection reveals that this too is a crib of a creature, copied from the maned monster depicted in Pontippidan’s Natural History of Norway.

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The myth and romance of the Arctic was implicit in its alternative names: the Barren Grounds, Ultima Thule, the North Pole. As white as it was, this was one of the world’s dark places, spending six months in perpetual night, a land so inhospitable it might as well be another planet altogether. Its axial emptiness, both on the page and in the mind, made it a site of sublime extremes. Its virginal whiteness meant death for any living thing unaccustomed to it; yet its temperatures produced the most abundant seas on earth. Delicate snow crystals could freeze a man’s blood; but they also preserved an icy paradise ruled over by the land’s greatest predators, whose fur looked white but was in fact translucent and coal-black beneath. Meanwhile, in its limpid waters swam creatures stranger than any invented by Poe.

And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

The Arctic whales–bowheads, beluga and narwhals–are the most tantalizing of all cetaceans. Rising and falling with the changing seasons of ice, they are barometers of an invisible world, spectrally floating within their bounded sea, locked into its cycle. They are philopatrous animals, loyal to the site of their birth, and the only whales to live in the Arctic throughout the year. One hundred thousand belugas swim in polar seas; the geographical remoteness of the less populous bowheads and their outriders, the narwhals, is such that they are seldom seen.

The beluga and the narwhal are a family unto themselves, the only two species of the Monodontidæ. Belugas, or belukhas, Delphinapterus leuca, owe their common name to the Russian for white, belyy. Their whiteness is not that of an albino as Moby Dick was supposed to be, an animal made unearthly by being devoid of colour; rather, they are born grey, and only achieve pure white in late adulthood, becoming sinless with old age. Their malleable melons (which one observer describes as feeling like warm lard) and their articulated necks allow the beluga to change the shape of their heads, holding them at right-angles and lending them a quizzical, human expression. Sailors called them canaries of the sea on account of their songs–and William Scoresby depicted his white whale perched on rocks like a seal basking in the sun–but to me they look like labradors, snow puppies in search of a master.

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BELUGA or WHITE WHALE.

The narwhal, too, shares the beluga’s sad beauty, a mortality suggested by its name–from the Old Norse, nar and hvalr, meaning ‘corpse whale’, because its smudges resemble the livid blemishes on a dead body. (It is not the only cetacean with such morbid overtones: the Latin name of another Arctic visitor, the killer whale–or, more correctly, whale-killer, Orcinus orca, has its root in orcus, meaning ‘belonging to the kingdom of the dead’, a reflection of its reputation as the only non-human enemy of the great whales.) However, it is the narwhal’s most obvious feature–implicit in its binomial, Monodon monoceros–that is its own emblem of melancholy.

The narwhal’s tusk is actually an overgrown, living tooth which erupts to pierce its owner’s lip on the left-hand side and spirals up to nine feet long, sometimes even longer, but for centuries it was identified as the horn of a unicorn, invested with magical powers. A medieval conspiracy grew up between its Arctic hunters and the apothecaries who passed this natural wonder off as something truly legendary. Worth twenty times their weight in gold, the tusks were prized booty in the Middle Ages, stolen by Crusaders and traded across Europe as talismans of state. Only fifty were known to exist during the mid-1500s, and on his return from an expedition in 1577 to find the fabled North-West Passage, Sir Martin Frobisher presented Elizabeth I with a ‘sea-unicorne’s horn’ valued at £10,000, more than the cost of a new castle. Evidently the Virgin Queen saw royal potency in the tribute, for she used it as a sceptre.

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The powdered tusk was prized, too, as an antidote for poison and for melancholy, ‘the English malady’ whose anatomy, documented by the reclusive clergyman, Robert Burton, Melville had studied. Likewise, Albrecht Dürer’s enigmatic Melencolia of 1514, with its brooding angel and a comet soaring over a distant sea provides Moby-Dick with its secret code according to one modern writer, Viola Sachs: a hidden structure based on the magic square of four. Through this cipher, says Sachs, Melville unites his melancholy theme with the story of the biblical outcast Ishmael and in so doing, ‘expresses his vision of the terrestrial origin of creation’.

Freighted with such symbols and conspiracies, the narwhal became a fantastical beast, redolent with its own melancholy, as if bowed down by its onerous extension. To hold a narwhal tusk requires two hands, and the great ivory spike feels like carved stone in the grip, an ornate weight out of a cathedral mason’s yard, belonging to the same place as a gargoyle. Little wonder that fairy-tale unicorns were, and still are, portrayed with a narwhal’s horn.

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Mark Wallinger/Anthony Reynolds

It was only in 1685, when Francis Willughby described the narwhal in his Icthyographia, that the fraud was exposed. Further evidence came in the shape of the animals themselves, confronting us with their reality. In the 1880s a narwhal swam up the Humber and the Ouse to York, a medieval apparition in the shadow of the minster; a few years later, a beluga was shot in the same waterway, trying to make its way back to the north. In 1949 a pair of female narwhals appeared as far south as Rainham, Essex, and the River Medway in Kent.

Nowadays, microscopic examination has revealed the real magic of the narwhal’s tusk. Unlike other teeth, its surface has open tubules connected to inner nerves; it is, in effect, a giant sense organ, lined with ten million nerve endings to enable the animal to detect subtle changes in temperature and pressure. This may explain why narwhals raise their tusks above water, as if to sniff the air. Other research indicates that the tusk is not only a sensory probe, but may also be a transmitter or receiver of sound, and even of electricity. Such discoveries exceed the narwhal’s mythical powers. Its legendary spike is no dead bone, but an enervated growth producing ‘tactile sensations’ which ‘might be interpreted as pleasurable’. Males rubbing their tusks together were formerly thought to be duelling over females; clearly, this behaviour has other aspects. So sensitive are these appendages that if broken, the animal suffers such severe pain that, in a remarkably philanthropic gesture, another narwhal will insert the tip of its own tusk in the exposed space, and break off the end to plug the aching gap.

Given such facts, who could resist a narwhal, with its shadowed damask, shrouded in black and white and grey and brown, monochrome daubs on a painter’s palette? Perversely, it is the animal’s other end that I find most beautiful: its wonderfully ornate flukes, flowing from a central notch in an exuberant sweep to the tips and back in an ogee curve to the tail stock. They may look back to front, but they are made for performance as much as any spoiler on a sports car.

The reader may guess that I am inordinately fond of the holarctic whales. Like belugas, narwhals also change colour as they age. It is an improbable sequence. They are born light grey, a nursery colour that endears them to their mothers; as they approach maturity, they darken to a purplish black. This then separates into black or dark brown spots, so that young adults resemble leopards or thrushes; in old age these marks recede, revealing the white below, just as the fine hair of an elderly woman turns silvery grey, making them seem wise as well as old.

This transformation is often thwarted by fishing nets or Inuit harpoons. The narwhal’s blubber is a particular delicacy, and when a harpooned animal is hauled out of the sea, slices are eaten warm from its carcase as mak taq–a vitamin-rich fast-food to forestall scurvy. The Inuit carve its tusks into decorative objects, a useless embellishment for a thing of natural beauty. Yet to them, the narwhal is an entirely utilitarian catch: its lance makes fishing rods and its intestines supply the line; its fine oil is burned in moss lamps. In the past, both the narwhal and beluga have furnished soft leather for gloves, pale grey, white or mottled, ready decorated for a dandy’s hands. One Hull company manufactured beluga bootlaces, with a somewhat self-defeating warning on the box, ‘should not be pulled or jerked violently’.

In the mid-twentieth century, Canada imposed licences for hunting belugas, although native peoples and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were still allowed to kill them ‘for their own domestic use and for feeding their dogs’. Thousands of narwhals and belugas are still hunted every year from small boats or shot at from the ice, a cull in which nature itself is complicit. In winter, the inlets up which the animals swim can freeze over, creating a barrier too wide for them to cross in one breath. The whales are sealed in a blue-green world, one that threatens to become their collective tomb.

It is a heart-rending notion. At Point Barrow, Alaska, nine hundred belugas were forced to share an ice hole or savssat one hundred and fifty yards long by fifty yards wide. Unable to find open water, the animals surfaced every twelve to eighteen minutes, taking ten or fifteen breaths, then dove again, singing their distress. Their innate sense of community compounded the crisis as they rose to respire at one and the same time, a deadly synchronicity that caused some animals to be bodily squeezed out of this frozen hole of Calcutta and into the arms of the Inuit. In one day, they took three hundred whales.

But of all the Arctic cetaceans, the bowhead or Balæna mysticetus is the most mysterious. It is perhaps my favourite whale, although I have never seen one, and probably never will. Closely related to the right whale–distinguished mainly by its lack of callosities–it is able to break through the ice with its massive bow-shaped head, thereby avoiding the pathetic fate of its lesser cousins. It also has the longest baleen of any whale, measuring up to fifteen feet in length. Hanging in crystalline water with its huge white jaws decorated with a ‘necklace’ of black spots, this ebony-grey giant seems to embody the silent, ominous spirit of the Arctic–although, like the humpback, it too sings a low, resonant song. Living at the top of the world, it is the first whale, one that struck even hardened whalers with a kind of awe. In 1823, the crew of the Cumbrian from Hull watched in fearful wonder as a fifty-seven-foot female bowhead circled their ship, then calmly pushed the vessel backwards with her snout to repel their invasion. For centuries the bowhead lived in icy obscurity; that was its salvation. Preserved by the very harshness of its environment, this vast creature simply vanishes when winter closes over the pole as though disappearing from a radar screen, upending its lacquer flukes and slipping back into the sea, along with its secrets. It has good reason to seek such sanctuary: the blubbery, baleen-heavy creature has learned to its cost that there is no hiding place so remote that it cannot be sought out by man.

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Fig. 1. BALAENA MYSTICETUS, or COMMON WHALE.
58 Feet long.
The Mouth being open shows the position of the whalebone.

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Fig. 2. CUB of the COMMON WHALE 17 Feetlong.

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Fig. 3. NARWAL Length exclusive of the Tusk 14 Feet.

For imperial Britain the Arctic represented wealth and exploitation, and even its peoples were fair game. In 1847 Memidadluk and Uckaluk, ‘The Two Esquimaux, or Yacks’, were exhibited along with their artefacts to fascinated crowds in Hull, York and Manchester. Fish, flesh, people, blubber, baleen, oil: the Arctic was an index of unsustainable resources ready for the taking, and for the inhabitants of the northern ports of Hull and Whitby there seemed to be an invisible tie between their maritime fastness and the frozen seas beyond.

The British came late to whaling. At the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century, their ships had attempted to compete with the Dutch for the rich, unexploited Arctic grounds: ‘At that time, you see,’ noted a later chronicler, ‘whaling was like finding a gold mine. It was untapped wealth; the mammals had not been scared, and the rewards were immense.’ While the Dutch established their Spitsbergen factory at Smeerenberg, or Blubbertown, British whalers set out from Hull and even from Exeter. But their trade declined in inverse proportion to Dutch success; by 1671, the Netherlands was sending out 155 whalers to Greenland, and sometimes their annual catch would reach as many as two thousand whales. In 1693 there was a move to revive the British industry ‘formerly…very beneficial to this Kingdom’, as Sir William Scawen, London financier and merchant, told Parliament, ‘not only for the great Quantities of Whalebone and Oil which hath imported from thence; but also a Nursery for Seamen, and the Expence of Provisions for victualing the Ships’. Scawen bemoaned that since 1683, ‘there hath not been one Ship sent from England to Greenland; so that Whalebone, which…was sold at Sixty Pounds per Ton, is now sold for Four Hundred Pounds the Ton; whereby Holland and Hamburgh draw out of this Kingdom above One hundred thousand Pounds for Whalebone and Whale Oil.’

Soon enough, business turned back to the whale. In the 1720s the South Sea Company, recovering from the infamous financial scandal of the Bubble, invested in whaling on the advice of Henry Elking, who too had bemoaned Britain’s lack of initiative to be ‘a very great Mistake’. The company fitted up a dozen ships on the Thames and sent its fleet north, encouraged by a government tax exemption for all whale products. The rewards were discouraging–the squadron returned with just twenty-five whales, barely enough to cover the cost of the expedition–and it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the country applied itself seriously to whaling. Once begun, however, Britain excelled, employing the same efficiency it brought to slavery (in which my mother’s own ancestors, living in Bristol, were complicit). On both were built the foundations of empire: the trade in humans, for sugar; and in whales, for oil.

As a result, London became the best-lit city in the world. By the 1740s, five thousand street lamps were burning whale oil, expunging the primal darkness. The capital itself was a whaling port. Unlike the Yankee syndicates, entire English fleets were owned by one merchant such as Samuel Enderby, Thomas Sturge, or Elhanan Bicknell. Their ships sailed from the Howland Great Wet Dock at Deptford, the largest commercial dock in the world, a huge gash cut into the south side of the river, precursor of the time when London would be undermined by its own commerce, its river banks riddled with such inlets. Able to handle one hundred and twenty ships, it was renamed Greenland Dock in honour of its Arctic trade, with quayside bollards made of whale bones. Try-works were established here too, where whales were processed away from the city so as not to offend its inhabitants with the stench. Further rendering was done around the looping bend of the river, on what became the site of the Millennium Dome. Here, where the coffee-coloured Thames widens into the sea, dead whales were brought back to London’s streets. Here, where expensive Docklands flats now preside, blubber was also boiled.

It was on the eastern coast that British whaling truly prospered, however, from ports closer to the northern whale fisheries; pre-eminently Hull and Whitby. They had long experience of the earliest traditions of whaling: a thousand years before, the Vikings had whaled off Norway–in the saga of Beowulf, the sea is called a ‘whale-road’–and by the ninth century were exporting whale meat to England. Eight hundred years later, in 1753, whaling began in Whitby. Only three animals were taken that season, but over the next eighty years, fifty-eight ships sailed on 577 voyages from the Yorkshire port, harvesting a total of 2,761 whales, 25,000 seals and 55 polar bears.

It was hardly a safe occupation for the hunters. During its peak years of whaling, Whitby lost seventeen ships–an awful attrition, added to by such individual tragedies as the death of four men when a boat of the unhappily named Aimwell was stove in by a whale in 1810. None the less, whaling was now a lucrative British trade, and by 1788 The Times was reporting munificent catches for the northern ports. In one week alone, the Albionbrought into Hull ‘500 butts of oil and two tons of fins, the produce of seven and a half whales’ the Samuel arrived in the same port with ‘60 butts of blubber and one ton of fins, the produce of three whales’ and the Spencer arrived in Newcastle with ‘270 butts of blubber, and five and a half tons of fins, the produce of seven whales’–not including a further four ships bringing the bounty of sixteen and a half whales, and two thousand seals. The ‘great slaughter of the Greenland whale’ was truly under way, as techniques were improved to satisfy Britannia’s need for oil to light her subjects’ way, and for baleen to corset her Prince Regent in a ‘Bastille of Whalebone’.

Like the Yankee whalers, the British hunted their prey from smaller boats, modelled, in their case, on early Viking craft. Whales were often killed from the ice, too, and dragged onto it to be butchered; unlike the Americans, British whalers did not render down blubber on board, but brought it back wholesale. So many ships were engaged in the business that up to a hundred vessels could be seen along the ice margin, a virtual cordon making it almost impossible for any whale to escape. It was nearly as hazardous for the whalers–one in ten of the ships would never return.

As war with America forced Britain to find new supplies of sperm oil, the government offered bounties of up to £500 to ships owned by companies such as Enderby and Sons. Samuel Enderby had arrived in London from Boston, Massachusetts, in 1775. He was a British loyalist–his ships had carried the famous consignment of tea into Boston Harbour. In 1776, along with Alexander Champion and John St Barbe, Enderby equipped twelve whalers with American captains and harpooneers. They returned with 439 tons of oil.

In 1788, acting on information gathered by James Cook, who had seen sperm whales on his voyage to Australia, Enderby sent out Amelia, the first British ship custom-built for ‘sperming’ to sail into the Pacific, thereby stealing a march on the Yankees, whose first ship, the Beaver, did not leave Nantucket for the Pacific until 1791. With on-board try-works enabling vessels to hunt far from home, these were ‘by far the longest of all voyages now or ever made by man’, as Ishmael says. They were the starships of their day, boldly going after animals whose own ancestors had colonized remote seas millions of years before. Now humans were creating their own new routes of oceanic colonization.

It was a new rivalry of the high seas. Through whaling, the British Empire extended its influence into the southern hemisphere in an ‘atonement’ for the loss of its American colonies. Britain intended to be self-sufficient in the matter of whale oil. ‘We are all surprised, Mr Pitt,’ a sardonic John Adams, the first ambassador of the new republic, told the Prime Minister in 1785, ‘that you prefer darkness and consequent robberies, burglaries and murders in the streets to the receiving, as a remittance, our sperm oil.’ Adams, a future president, spoke with the confidence of a former charge who had stolen a march on his master, ‘seeing that the Yankees in one day, collectively, kill more whales than all the English, collectively, in ten years’, as Ishmael boasts. Whaling was a presentiment of a new world order.

Whale-ships cleared the way for missions to the South Seas; whalers brought God as well as light to the world. As Hal Whitehead remarks, ‘They left behind diseases, non-native animals (especially rats), technology, and their genes.’ Outgoing British whale-ships–which would otherwise be empty–supplied the convict settlements of Australia. ‘Evidence inclines us to believe that these colonies would never have existed had it not been for whaling vessels approaching their shores,’ Thomas Beale wrote. ‘It is a fact, that the original settlers at Botany Bay were more than once saved from starvation by the timely arrival of some whaling vessels.’ In 1791 the enterprising Samuel Enderby opened an office in Port Jackson, Sydney Harbour, and arranged for his ships to carry convicts there, delivering new slaves to New South Wales. The establishment of these colonies gave Britain a great advantage in the southern whale fisheries; soon those same colonies would be supplying sperm oil in their own right, hunting the animals from their own shores and exporting the products ‘at a much less cost of time and capital’ to Britain. Meanwhile, James Colnett, an officer of the Royal Navy, sailed from Portsmouth on HMS Rattler to extend the nation’s whale fisheries in the Pacific, although Ishmael mocks his rendition of a whale: ‘Ah, my gallant captain, why did ye not give us Jonah looking out of that eye!’

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More than ever, whaling was seen as ‘the mine of British strength and glory’, a vital source of maritime experience and mercantile speculation. Later, whale-ships ferried victims of the Great Hunger from Ireland to America, just as my own great-grandfather fled Ireland for England and, eventually, Whitby. In a manner more extensive than even Ishmael suspected, whales played their part in world affairs, in the movement of entire populations, and in shifting spheres of influence to come.

I freely assert, that the cosmopolite philosopher cannot, for his life, point out one single peaceful influence, which within the last sixty years has operated more potentially upon the whole broad world, taken in one aggregate, than the high and mighty business of whaling.

The Advocate, Moby-Dick

Each April, when the weather improved, Whitby’s ships set off for Greenland, harpooning the easily caught whales of the Arctic. They brought back chunks of blubber, creating a stench that Ishmael compares to a whale cemetery, and which turned the port into one of the most noisome places in England.

Whitby whaling captains–many also Quakers–built their elegant houses high on the West Cliff, out of range of the stinking manufactory of their fortunes. Their Georgian terraces still overlook the harbour, a view framed by Whitby’s famous whale bone arch. When I stood under this monument as a boy, I presumed it had been there for centuries. In fact, its mandibles, from a blue whale, were only erected in 1962, and have since been replaced by the jaws of a bowhead, presented by the people of Alaska. But down in the town, whale bones were used as timbers for roofs and walls. Entire houses and workshops were constructed from these giant ribs and jaws. If a man might stand within a whale’s mouth, why not make a more convenient shelter for himself and his family, swapping bones for bricks? After all, the whale had no need for them now.

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The expansion of the whaling fleet was almost frightening in its speed. In 1782 there were forty-four British whale-ships operating in the Greenland Sea. Two years later, that figure had doubled; and by 1787, 250 ships were sailing from British ports–only for a new war to erode their returns; ‘greenmen’ were imposed on whale-ships as a means of training them for the navy, while experienced whalemen were in turn impressed to fight Napoleon.

As a young sailor, William Scoresby had himself been captured off Trafalgar, and in a daring escape, managed to evade his Spanish jailers, stowing away on a British ship exchanging prisoners of war. Back in Whitby, Scoresby enlisted on the whale-ship the Henrietta, rising quickly to the rank of Specksioneer (a Dutch-derived term for principal harpooneer), then to captain. It was the beginning of a career that would claim the lives of no fewer than 533 whales.

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Arthur Credland/Hull Maritime Museum

Scoresby was a powerfully built man of great vitality, and his talent for whaling was undeniable. On his second voyage as master of the Henrietta, he returned with eighteen Greenland whales; in the next five years, the ship took eighty more animals, yielding nearly 800 tons of oil. Soon Scoresby was commanding a larger ship, the Dundee; on her first voyage she garnered an unprecedented thirty-six whales. Scoresby’s heroic status was only reinforced when his ship faced a French warship off the Yorkshire coast and destruction seemed imminent: at the last moment the Dundee uncovered her eighteen-pound guns, at the sight of which the enemy turned and fled.

In 1803 Scoresby took command of a new, double-hulled vessel with metal plates on her bow, enabling her to plough through Arctic ice. With the Resolution sailed his own son, also named William, fourteen years old and about to become a whaler, explorer and inventor in his own right. He had a heady precedent to follow. Scoresby Senior had come closer than any other man to claiming the £1,000 prize offered to anyone able to sail north of the eighty-ninth parallel in pursuit of the fabled North-West Passage, a search which ‘laid open the haunts of the whale’. He had also devised an enclosed crow’s nest, an ingenious contraption with a protective framework of leather or canvas, storage space for telescope and firearm, and flags and speaking trumpet for communication with the crew or other ships. It was an eccentric device to Ishmael, who satirizes Scoresby as ‘Captain Sleet’, standing in his invention, armed with a rifle ‘for the purpose of popping off the stray narwhales, or vagrant sea unicorns infesting those waters’.

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Arthur Credland/Hull Maritime Museum

Scoresby was no ordinary seaman, often writing his ship’s log in verse: ‘So now the Western ice we leave/And pleasant Gales we doe receive’. He also kept a pet polar bear, which he would walk on a leash down to Whitby harbour to fish for its lunch. Scoresby presided over the peak years of British whaling, the personification of this national harvest. By the summer of 1817, columns in The Times were being devoted to reports from Berwick, Greenock, Peterhead, Aberdeen, Montrose, Dundee, Kirkcaldy, Leith, Liverpool, Hull, Newcastle, London and Whitby as whale-ships returned laden with blubber and bone.

In 1823, after a long and successful career, Scoresby gave up the sea and retired to Whitby. He had never questioned the right of man to take the whale; rather, he reasoned that whaling was a tribute to man’s ingenuity and God’s grace. ‘We are led to reflect on the economy manifestation respect to the hugest of the animal creation, whether on earth or in the ocean, whereby all become subject to man, either for living energy or the produce of their dead carcasses.’

‘The capture of the whale by man, when their relative proportions are considered, is a result truly wonderful,’ Scoresby declared. ‘An animal of a thousand times the bulk of man is constrained to yield its life to his attacks and its carcase a tribute to his marvellous enterprise.’ His was a righteous pursuit, ‘satisfactorily explained on the simple principle of the Divine enactment. It was the appointment of the Creator that it should be so.’ However, Scoresby’s own departure from the world would be as brutal as his butchery of the whales of the Arctic.

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An elevated pavement runs the length of Bagdale, passing the elegant terrace that overlooks a walled Quaker graveyard and, beyond that, Pannet Park, once decorated with whale bone arches, as were many other Whitby gardens. Here Scoresby lived, in a fine Georgian house with classical fanlights and carved sandstone porch. And here, on 28 April 1829, at the age of sixty-nine, he took up his pistol, and shot himself through the heart. ‘He appears to have been in a state of temporary derangement for several months past,’ the subsequent inquest found. It is impossible to know the reason why Scoresby took a pistol to his heart; it would certainly be too sentimental to read into his self-murder any sense of guilt over the five hundred whales he had killed, and for whose deaths he gave thanks to God.

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Arthur Credland/Hull Maritime Museum

From his portrait, William Scoresby appears a refined version of his father; rational, scientific, pious, inquisitive; a combination of disciplines that the era allowed. He too had gone to sea as a boy, but had studied science in Edinburgh before joining the navy, and after his discharge went to London to meet Joseph Banks, the renowned naturalist who had sailed with Captain Cook. Banks received Scoresby at his house in Soho Square; he may have seen something of himself in this young man who spoke so eloquently of the Arctic regions he had already explored on his father’s whaling voyages.

A year later, William took command of his first whale-ship, the Resolution, followed by the Esk. On his voyages, he sought to prove that the temperature of the sea was warmer below its surface. Sending his findings to Banks, the two men developed an instrument to more accurately measure the ocean’s residual heat: the ‘Marine Diver’, a brass contraption that could be lowered 7,000 feet into the water. For Scoresby, whaling was a way to finance his investigations. During the Esk’s perilous journey–when he nearly lost his ship to pack ice, and when his men may have cursed their captain’s curiosity–Scoresby made scientific notes in books and papers which flowed out over his desk: calculations, sketches, suppositions and descriptions, a fluid body of work which, for the first time, documented these unblemished seas.

An Account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery was published in two volumes in Edinburgh in 1820, and profusely illustrated with maps and engravings. Scoresby’s became the work by which all others were measured, a compendium of cetology and whaling techniques and the nature of the Arctic itself, complete with ninety-six snow crystals illustrated by this son of Captain Sleet in dizzying pages of repeated patterns.

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A polar counterpart to Beale’s Pacific travels, Scoresby’s text had a religious overtone, as if the animals and places and phenomena he catalogued were evidence of Eden; the book was later taken up by the Religious Tract Society and supplied to the American Sunday School movement as an affirmation of the Creation. For all its scientific rigour, there was no conflict between its author’s beliefs and his investigations. Scoresby’s faith echoed his father’s; and like his father, his avowed aim, by God’s grace, was to find the North-West Passage. But if the whale’s true nature could only be guessed at from its spouting, steamy surfacings, or an iceberg’s entirety could be seen only from below, so the deeper meaning of Scoresby’s facts and figures lay submerged.

Section I. A Description of Animals, of the Cetaceous Kind, frequenting the Greenland Sea.

Balæna Mysticetus: The Common Whale, or Greenland Whale.

‘This valuable and interesting animal, generally called The Whale by way of eminence…is more productive of oil than any other of the Cetacea, and, being less active, slower in its motion, and more timid than any other of the kind…is more easily captured.’ Like Beale, Scoresby drew on his own observations to delineate the leviathan. ‘Of 322 individuals, in the capture of which I have been personally concerned, no one, I believe, exceeded 60 feet in length…’

And how to convey that magnitude, that mass of whalish flesh, that cavern of ceiling-high baleen? ‘When the mouth is open,’ observes Scoresby, as the latest captive was brought to book, ‘it presents a cavity as large as a room, and capable of containing a merchants-ship’s jolly-boat, full of men, being 6 or 8 feet wide, 10 or 12 feet high (in front), and 15 or 16 feet long.’ Such detail is as telling of its author and his time as it was of the whale. ‘The eyes…are remarkably small in proportion to the bulk of the animal’s body, being little larger than those of an ox,’ he continues, writing at his desk by whale-light, ‘nor can any orifice for the admission of sound be described until the skin is removed.’ As with so much of the whale, so little could be discovered until it was dead.

Yet that tiny eye is all-seeing. ‘Whales are observed to discover one another, in clear water, when under the surface, at an amazing distance. When at the surface, however, they do not see far.’ In fact, they sensed one another’s presence by sound, even though, like Beale’s sperm whales, Scoresby considered bowheads to be dumb. ‘They have no voice,’ he concludes, ‘but in breathing or blowing, they make a very loud noise.’ The ice echoes to these trumpets of watery elephants, effortlessly negotiating oceans that defeated mere unblubbered men. ‘Bulky as the whale is, as inactive, or indeed clumsy as it appears to be…the fact, however, is the reverse.’

And age, Scoresby, sir, what of that? ‘In some whales, a curious hollow on one side, and ridge on the other, occurs in many of the central blades of whalebone, at regular intervals of 6 or 7 inches,’ replies the captain testily, somewhat irritated at my interruption. ‘May not this irregularity, like the rings in the horns of the ox, which they resemble, afford an intimation of the age of the whale?’ It took science two hundred years to catch up with another of Scoresby’s discoveries, one that lay buried, almost unnoticed, in his book. In his search for the fabled North-West Passage, he had, accidentally, opened the way to the whale’s most abiding mystery.

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Fig. 1. STONE LANCE Found in a WHALE

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Fig. 2. MARINE DIVER

Set with deliberate anachronism next to Scoresby’s technological Marine Diver is a drawing of a stone tool, a Neolithic contrast to an invention of the Industrial Revolution. ‘The master of the Volunteer, whaler of Whitby, when near the coast of Spitsbergen, July 19. 1813, shewed me part of a lance which had been taken out of the fat of a whale killed by his crew a few weeks before,’ Scoresby related, with a degree of cool amazement. ‘It was completely embedded in the blubber, and the wound was quite healed. A small white scar on the skin of the whale, alone marked the place where the lance had entered.’ But the telling fact was that such weapons were ‘in common use among the Esquimaux a century ago’.

Scoresby found that these tools were ‘struck by some tribe of the same nation, inhabiting the shores of the frozen ocean, on the northern face of the American Continent, yet unexplored’. If whales had been caught in the Atlantic implanted with implements made on the Pacific coast like some early form of tracking device, then there must be a passage between the two oceans. (Three centuries earlier, when Sir Humphrey Gilbert presented his argument for a North-West Passage to Elizabeth I–a year before Frobisher’s expedition–he cited as evidence a narwhal horn found on the Tartary coast.) This was the Holy Grail for which Scoresby and his father had searched, the opening up of the northernmost world. In the pursuit, they were diverted from a yet more extraordinary finding: Scoresby’s Marine Diver may have plumbed the waters to reveal their depths, but this primitive artefact had uncovered the sensational secret of the bowhead.

On 29 April, 1850, Herman Melville withdrew the two volumes of Scoresby’s work from the New York Society Library. As he read the Arctic Regions–which he failed to return for a year–Melville’s imagination was fired by the story of the stone lance. It led him to a startling conclusion. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael reports the finding, during the cutting-in of a whale, ‘of a lance-head of stone…the flesh perfectly firm about it. Who had darted that stone lance? And when? It might have been darted by some Nor’West Indian long before America was discovered.’ Even given his exaggeration, the idea was staggering: if Scoresby’s lance was a century old, then this meant the animal was even older.

Until recently, fact-checking editors have dismissed Ishmael’s airy claims. ‘Anatomical evidence from larger whales suggests a life of up to seventy or eighty years,’ Harold Beaver assured readers in a footnote to Moby-Dick in 1972. ‘But a longer span, stretching to centuries, is sailors’ myth.’ Now, in a belated confirmation of Melville’s musings, scientists are beginning to realize that ideas about how long whales may live have been substantially underestimated. The clues to this revision came from native Alaskans who still hunt bowheads in the Bering Sea. The Iñupiat have observed the whales for centuries, and their storytellers claim to have recognized individual animals over successive human generations. Since 1981, six stone or ivory harpoon points have been found in the blubber of whales–weapons that modern Iñupiats did not recognize, having used mostly metal harpoons since the 1870s.

Long after Scoresby’s discovery, scientists came to their own conclusion: that these whales must be as old as the implements found in them. And as the Iñupiat hunted only young whales, being better eating, it seemed likely that there might be even older animals, hidden in the icy reaches. The bowhead’s Arctic existence seemed to slow down its life, extending it, decade by decade, century by century; a sentient entity suspended in vast vistas of time, virtually cryogenically preserved.

Using a technique for dating animals from changes in the aspartic acid levels in their eyes, Dr Jeffrey L. Bada of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California examined tissue from whales caught by the Iñupiat hunters. Most were twenty to sixty years old when they died; but of five large male bowheads, one was ninety years old, four were aged between 135 and 180 years, and one was 211 years old. Employing other methods for measuring radioactive lead in bone, and samples of skin collected from living whales, Dr Bada stated that ‘what we have assigned the bowheads are only minimum ages…These are truly aged animals, perhaps the most long-lived mammals.’

Since it is unlikely that the oldest whales have been caught–that older whales could and most probably do exist–Bada’s assessment is hardly underestimated. Even as I write, a three-and-a-half-inch lance tip, made in New Bedford in the 1890s, has been retrieved from the blubber of a bowhead caught off Alaska. The consequences haunt me: that these whales swam the same seas that Scoresby had negotiated; that the same animals from which he had made his observations might yet be alive. It is also an exquisite revenge: born before Melville, the whales have outlived their pursuers.

In his chapter entitled, ‘Does The Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?–Will He Perish?’, Ishmael dismisses the idea that whale populations, particularly those of the great baleen species, were declining. On the contrary, he claimed, they had ‘two firm fortresses’, which, he averred, would ‘for ever remain impregnable…their Polar citadels…in a charmed circle of everlasting December’.

Wherefore…we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s ark; and if ever the world is to be flooded again, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.

In his fantasy, Melville saw a new dispensation, a watery version of Hawthorne’s prairie holocaust, Harry Hinton’s icy sanctuary come to life.

It was recently announced that the earth entered a new geological epoch around the year 1800, as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The era of the Holocene has ended, say the scientists; the era of the Anthropocene has begun. In one of the cathedrals in the walled city where the tsars of all the Russias lie in their monumental sarcophagi, there is a medieval mural of a whale. This fragile image has seen off Peter, Nicholas, Josef and Mikhail, surviving human empires like some Neolithic cave painting, like the stone within the whale. Now the whale’s citadels are rapidly receding, making the North-West Passage a permanent reality, opening continent to continent as fresh water locked into polar ice leaches into the ocean, and the world’s northern nations prepare to plunder the Arctic’s resources anew.

What will this mean for the whale, as the sea rises to remind us of its power? Krill, which feed on the algæ on the undersurface of the ice, may diminish, and food sources for the whales are already becoming scarce at lower latitudes as warming oceans push them ever further north, only to find that those everlasting citadels have vanished. On the other hand, the mineral nutrients released by the same process in the Antarctic may have beneficial effects for the food chain and, perhaps, cetaceans. No one really knows. We are living through a vast experiment, one which may result in the flooded world that Melville imagined; a world that the whales will inherit, evolving into superior beings with only distant memories of the time when they were persecuted by beings whose greed proved to be their downfall.

Having published his book, Scoresby returned to the sea in the newly built Baffin, taking leave of his wife and his family in Liverpool–had he but known it, for the last time. He returned home in September 1822, after charting the east coast of Greenland, to be told of his wife’s death. Disheartened, he made only one more trip, before giving up the sea for another vocation: that of vicar. As its erstwhile champion exchanged ‘the clatter of hailstones on icebergs’ for the sound of psalms from pews, Whitby’s whaling fleet dwindled to just ten ships. In 1825, at the parish church of St Mary’s, high on the hill overlooking the town, it was Scoresby’s sad duty to preach on the occasion of the loss of all hands on the Lively in an Arctic storm; and the Esk, his own former command, which sank just thirty miles from Whitby. The terrible toll of sixty dead added up to the end of an industry–as did the depletion of the whaling grounds, and the thousands of slaughtered animals.

Scoresby became Vicar of Bradford–where his parishioners included the Reverend Patrick Brontë of Haworth village, and his young daughters–and turned his scientific attention to the mysterious forces of mesmerism. Instead of dealing in oil and whalebone, Whitby now traded in jewellery carved from the shiny black jet found in its cliffs and made mournfully fashionable by a perennially grieving queen. And by the time my own grandfather was walking along Bagdale on his way to Mass with his brothers and sisters, Whitby’s arched buildings of bone were dwarfed by the railway viaduct, overturned arks for a new age of extinction.

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Fin whale beached at Winterton, Norfolk, in a storm, 5 January 1857.
It was later exhibited in the Mile End Road, Whitechapel.