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

Chapter 3. The Sperm Whale

I know him not, and never will.

The Tail, Moby-Dick

In some medieval past, someone pierced the head of the whale, releasing the waxy oil that filled it. As it hit the cool northern air, this hot, precious liquid became cloudy, looking for all the world like semen. Thus men came to believe that the leviathan carried its seed in its head. It may be saddled with an inelegant, even improper name, but it is also an entirely apt title, for the sperm whale is the seminal whale: the whale before all others, the emperor of whales, his imperial cetacean majesty, a whale of inherent, regal power. It fulfils our every expectation of the whale. Think of a whale, and a sperm whale swims into your head. Ask a child to draw a whale, and he will trace out a sperm whale, riding high on the sea.

But the sperm whale also bears the legacy of our sins; an animal whose life came to be written only because it was taken; a whale so wreathed in superlatives and impossibilities that if no one had ever seen it, we would hardly believe that it existed–and even then, we might not be too sure. Only such a creature could lend Melville’s book its power: after all, Moby-Dick could hardly have been written about a butterfly.

Scientifically, it is in a family of its own. Sperm whales–classified Physeter macrocephalus or ‘big-headed blower’ by Linnæus, the father of taxonomy, in 1758, but commonly called cachalots–are the most ancient whales, the only remaining members of the Physeteridæ which evolved twenty-three million years ago and numbered twenty genera in the Pliocene and Miocene. (In fact, Linnæus at first identified four species: Physeter macrocephalusP. catodonP. microps and P. tursio, but all are now known as one, with the pygmy and dwarf sperms–Kogia breviceps and K. sima–recognized as a separate family, Kogiidæ.) Relics of prehistory, they are, in one scientist’s words, ‘victims of geologic time…held in the rubbery bindings of [their] own gigantic skin’. Their nearest relation on land is the hippopotamus, although with their grey wrinkledness, small eyes and ivory teeth, they remind me more of elephants.

The sperm whale remains a class apart. Its shape itself seems somehow unformed, inchoate, as though something were missing–a pair of flippers or a fin. It is an unlikely outline for any animal, still less for the world’s largest predator. To Ishmael, the whale was the ominous embodiment of ‘half-formed fœtal suggestions of supernatural agencies’. Now it is seen as a ‘generally benign and vulnerable creature’ from a fearful foe it has become a placid, gentle giant of the seas. The distance between these two notions is the distance between myth and reality, between legend and science, between human history and natural history. It is a mark of its magical nature–and a symbol of the fate of all cetaceans–that the sperm whale has achieved such a transformation, from wilful dæmon to fragile survivor.

Physeter macrocephalus may have been around for millennia, but we have really only known it for two hundred years; only with the advent of modern whaling, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, did man come to comprehend even an inkling of the animal. It continues to confound us. The sperm whale is a greater carnivore than any dinosaur–a fact that threatens to turn its fearsome jaws into those of an aquatic tyrannosaur although its body is ninety-seven per cent water, just as humans are mostly made of the same liquid; we all contain oceans within us. Like other whales, the sperm whale never drinks. It has been described as a desert animal; like a camel living off its hump, its thick layer of blubber allows the whale to weather the vicissitudes of the ocean, from feast to famine. In an environment in which food stocks alter drastically, there is an advantage in being able to live for three months without having to eat, and to be able to range over huge distances in temperatures ranging from tropical to Arctic.

Truly, these are global animals. Sperm whales live in every latitude and every ocean, from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific, even in the Mediterranean. Visual surveys from planes and ships have calculated that 360,000 of them still swim the world’s seas, although that is barely a quarter of the population that flourished before the age of the iron harpoon. Their love of deep water, foraging off steep continental shelves, meant that until recently only whalers–who described their quarry as travelling in veins, as if guided ‘by some infallible instinct’ (‘say, rather, secret intelligence from the Deity’, adds Ishmael)–saw sperm whales alive. As a result their study is still in embryo. It is as though we have hardly advanced since nineteenth-century illustrators depicted overweight whales lying on palm-fringed tropical beaches.

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A SPERM WHALE.

What facts we do know cluster together like the whales themselves, defying interpretation. What colour are they? Underwater, they appear ghostly grey filtered through the ocean’s blue, but in sunlight they appear brown or even sleekly black, depending on their age and sex. They may even verge on a dandified purple or lavender, with pale freckles scattered on their underbellies, leading to the pearly whiteness of the ‘beautiful and chaste looking mouth! from floor to ceiling lined, or rather papered with a glistening white membrane, glossy as bridal satins’. From the side and below, this whiteness glows like a half-open fridge; an invitation, and a warning. The huge head is patchy and mottled where the tissue-thin skin is constantly peeling like old paint; it is relatively smooth, but behind, the rest of the body is furrowed and creased like a prune. This mutability gives the animal a metamorphic dimension.

From a hydrodynamic point of view, the sperm whale looks as though it were designed by an eccentric engineer. There are no concessions in its shape. Its sharp-angled flukes are not those of the sinuous and feminine humpback. It is a blunt blunderbuss of an animal; abrupt, no-nonsense. Its squareness appears to confront the water, to defy, rather than comply with the sea. Yet seen from above, its block-like head is quite narrow, wedge-shaped: this is an animal built to spend most of its life in the depths, so much so that one scientist considers it more apt to call the sperm whale a surfacer rather than a diver. Its very size allows the whale to spend long periods of time in the depths, its body being one huge oxygen tank.

Slung beneath its signature snout is the sperm whale’s other most formidable feature: its lower jaw, studded with forty or more teeth which fit into its toothless upper mandible like pins in an electrical socket. These ivory canines range in size from hen’s egg to massive foot-long cones too broad for me to encircle in my fingers. Sliced in half, a tooth can reveal its owner’s age by counting the layers of growth like the annular rings in a tree. In the most elderly whales, the teeth are ‘much worn down, but undecayed; nor filled after our artificial fashion’, Ishmael observes, although, in truth, sperm whales often suffer caries. In rare instances, they also possess unerupted upper teeth, relics of ancestors who boasted a full dentition. Natural selection has left their descendants with only a lower row, as if they had misplaced their dentures during the night. That fact makes the sperm whale seem more benign; only half a monster.

The teeth are yellowy in colour; only when polished do they acquire their bright creamy whiteness, like the little ivory tusks in the carved ebony elephants my grandfather brought back from India after the First World War. Heavy in the hand, they are tactile, smooth, weighty with their benthic provenance. For all their prominence, their function is oddly obscure. One nineteenth-century writer observed that the teeth were marked with oblique scratches, ‘as though made with a coarse rasp’, the result, he thought, of ‘corals, crushed shells, or sand’ and frequent contact with the ocean floor. However, food found in the bellies of sperm whales seldom shows any tooth marks. Juveniles are eating squid and fish long before they develop teeth, and females do not produce any until late in maturity, if at all. Evidently, teeth are not necessary for sustenance. (In some cetaceans they are a positive hindrance: strap-toothed beaked whales, Mesoplodon layardi, have tusks which gradually grow over their jaws, creating a muzzle through which they still manage to feed.)

In his Natural History of the Sperm Whale, published in 1839, Thomas Beale noted that three hunted whales, one of which was blind, and the other two with deformed jaws, were in otherwise good condition, proving that not only did they not need their teeth to feed, they had no need of eyesight, either. This great predator does not chew its prey; rather, it sucks it in like a giant vacuum cleaner, as the presence of ventral pleats on its throat indicates. Some commentators have proposed that sperm whales use their jaws as giant lures, dangling them like an angler’s rod and baited with bioluminescence from previous meals of squid. Beale believed that the whale hung passively in the water, waiting for its food, while squid ‘actually throng around the mouth and throat’, attracted as much by the ‘peculiar and very strong odour of the sperm whale’ as by the ‘white dazzling appearance’ of its jaw. However, modern science has discovered otherwise.

Addressing the conundrum of the sperm whale’s head, Ishmael points out to his otherwise ignorant readers that its true shape is in no way reflected by its skull; no one who saw its bones could ever guess that the living animal possessed such a snout. To him, this is further evidence of deception on a massive scale, and in a phrenological diagnosis–all but feeling the whale’s bumps–he declares that the huge forehead which lends the animal a semblance of wisdom ‘is an entire delusion’. But Ishmael was himself misled, for the sperm whale boasts the biggest brain of any creature ever alive, weighing as much as nineteen pounds (as opposed to the human’s seven). Quite what it does with such an organ is another matter.

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Straddling a gallery to itself in New Bedford’s museum is the skeleton of a sperm whale; merely to walk around it is an intimidating experience. The skull alone is more than twenty feet long and stands higher than my shoulders. It is an essentially asymmetrical structure by virtue of its left-leaning blowhole (odontocetes possess single nostrils, whereas mysticetes have two), literally sinister (and I wonder if whales are cack-handed like me). This same quality lends an air of abstract sculpture to the complex construction of caverns and sockets created to accommodate vital vessels and nerves. One opening connects its spinal cord to its brain, another to the ears and eyes, themselves protected by the bony mass from which swings its wishbone jaw, a toothed ‘portcullis’, hanging ‘like a ship’s jib-boom’. I cannot help but agree with Ishmael: this calcium scaffolding can hardly indicate the true shape of the animal. One might tell the form of a human being from its bones, but who could imagine the reality of this creature?

As in death the enigmatic sperm whale gives few of its secrets away, so in life it sees us from another angle. Its eyes are so positioned as to prevent the animal from seeing straight ahead (although their siting on its wedge-shaped head, at the point where it narrows down to the jaw, is such that a whale can see below itself in stereoscope–presumably a useful tactic in hunting–and will swim upside-down to scrutinize objects above and, perhaps, to feed on them). For most of its life the whale must regard the world in two halves, Ishmael deduces; its head gets in the way, ‘while all between must be profound darkness and nothingness to him’. It seems odd that such a powerful creature should be so benighted. This blindness is also the reason, says Ishmael, for the sperm whale’s ‘timidity and liability to queer frights’. A ‘gallied’ animal would sound deep into the ocean, beyond the reach of man and his harpoons.

In such a silent flight, the sperm whale could not be outdistanced. More than any other marine mammal, it is a master of the sea. Using its muscle-bound tail, it can power its way thousands of feet below, its paddle-shaped flippers tucked into its flanks as neatly as an aeroplane’s undercarriage. And once below, it can stay down for up to two hours. To achieve this feat, a whale must spend much of its time breathing at the surface–its ‘spoutings out’, as the sailors called them–taking some sixty to seventy breaths in ten or eleven minutes.

…the Sperm Whale only breathes about one seventh or Sunday of his time.

The Fountain, Moby-Dick

Whereas humans inefficiently hold their breath to dive, whales supercharge their oxygen-carrying hæmoglobin blood cells before sounding, often in exactly the same spot at which they surfaced, perhaps to be sure of their survey of the food below. On these stately travels into the deep, they are accompanied by remora, sickly grey attendants suckered to their wrinkled flanks like imps; ‘fish, to be sure, but not quite proper fish’, they are parasites lacking individual motion, dependent on their hosts without whom they would flop to the ocean floor. Even more dæmonic are the lampreys, ‘wriggling, yard-long, slimy brown creatures that repel even the zoologist’. These attach themselves to the whales with rasping mouths, leaving love-bite scars on their huge but helpless victims.

Commonly, a sperm whale will dive between three hundred and eight hundred metres, following a U-shaped trajectory. Once it has reached its chosen depth, it will swim horizontally for up to three kilometres, presumably foraging. Occasionally, the whale will dive even deeper. Dead sperm whales have been found entangled in underwater cables 1,134 metres down–although that figure does not measure the drowning agony of the whale, its jaw caught in the insulated wire.

In 1884, a cable-repairing steamship operating off South America pulled up a cable in which a dying whale was trapped, its entrails spilling out; the wire itself was found to be bitten in six places. In another insight gained at mortal expense, a sperm whale caught south of Durban in South Africa in 1969 was found with the remains of two Scymodon sharks in its belly. Since such fish are bottom dwellers feeding at three thousand metres, this was proof of the whales’ extraordinary diving abilities. Much of what we know about sperm whales was discovered by those whose primary interest was to kill them. Whales died that men might describe them.

Nor are they easily replenished. The sperm whale has the lowest reproductive rate of any mammal–females produce single calves only once every four to six years. It is also the most sexually dimorphic cetacean: males may be twice the size of females. The sexes live apart for most of their lives, the males growing larger and all the more attractive to their potential, if fleeting, partners. This also has the benefit of maintaining the supremacy of their species: the vast distances they travel ensure that the global population of sperm whales is surprisingly genetically similar.

Moving south to breed, males fight for the females’ favours. The distorted jaws–some even tied in knots; Moby Dick’s own mandible is described as sickle-shaped as it scythes off Ahab’s leg–that Beale saw are evidence of these ferocious but short-lived battles, as are teeth marks on the animals’ heads, backs and bellies. Although they have no territory to defend like rutting stags, whales will take bites out of each other’s blubber, ramming one another with pugnacious foreheads which in males become almost obscenely extended.

Successful suitors mate belly to belly, with females underneath–more hominum, in Ishmael’s discreet words. Gestation lasts fifteen months; calves are nursed for at least two years, sometimes communally, and thirteen-year-olds have been known still to suckle. ‘The milk is very sweet and rich,’ says Ishmael; ‘it has been tasted by man; it might do well with strawberries.’ Lacking lips, calves take the milk into the side of their mouths as it is squirted from their mothers’ teats, a technique first identified by the surgeon Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar.

Sperm whales have the most complex social structure of any animal other than man. Like other toothed whales, they travel together, separated by sexual maturity into reproductive and bachelor groups. Females and immature whales swim together in groups of twenty to thirty, dispersed over a wide area; they prefer warmer waters, possibly because fewer killer whales–their only natural predators–are found at such latitudes. Communal care confirms these extended bonds: when a mother dives for food, she will leave her calf–which cannot yet follow her–in the care of other females or juvenile males in a cetacean crèche. Large males have been seen gently carrying calves in their mouths, although the fact that they simultaneously exhibit extended penises probably means that this has more to do with mating than nursing.

In their teens and twenties, young males join bachelor groups, as though entering a rite of passage. They attain maturity at nineteen (females become sexually mature as early as seven years old), but do not mate until their twenties. They travel further in search of prey; adult males roam more than forty degrees latitude north or south, forming loose concentrations spread over two hundred miles or more. Eventually these groups reduce in size until, in middle age, the males become solitary, roving as far as sub-polar seas to find new feeding grounds before returning to warmer waters to mate.

In the interests of order, the whalers subdivided their subjects, applying human terms of trade and organization to marine mammals:

Pods, or gams: up to twenty whales

Schools, or shoals: twenty to fifty whales

Herds, or bodies: fifty whales, or more

Single bulls were schoolmasters, groups of females were harems, and young males, bachelor schools of ‘forty-barrel bulls’. Ishmael gives us a memorable description of a nursery into which the Pequod sails. He looks down through limpid waters, to where

another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales…and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast…even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.

None of this, however, prevents the crew from laying into the innocent scene. It is one of the cruellest aspects of its historical fate that this most hunted of whales is built for a long life, a longevity indicated by the slow beating of its huge heart at ten times a minute; a shrew, whose heart beats one thousand times in a minute, lives for just a year. It is as if the animal’s life history had been slowed down by virtue of the millions of years its species has existed. At forty-five, a sperm whale is middle-aged, and has achieved its optimum size; like a human, it enters old age in its seventies. Females live into their eighties and perhaps to one hundred years or more, although none is known to have given birth after their forties. Rather, these matriarchs assist other females ‘in ways we do not yet understand’, as Hal Whitehead, one of the great modern experts on sperm whales, says. He calls these older females ‘sages’, raising images of elderly, grey-haired grandmothers, teaching their sons and daughters how to raise their children and passing on memories of good feeding grounds.

Given their slow breeding and the centuries of hunting they have endured, it is a testament to their evolutionary success that the Physeter should remain so ubiquitous throughout the world’s oceans; among mammals, only killer whales and humans achieve such a cosmopolitan reach. Although they adhere to deep water, sperm whales have been seen off Long Island, almost within the city limits of New York, while others swim not far from the coast of Cornwall or Norway. These are generally lone bulls, but other whales may travel in schools of hundreds or even more, numbers ‘beyond all reasonable conception’ to Frederick Bennett. Whalers would suddenly come across huge herds of these enormous animals, like buffalo on the plain. Dr Whitehead too compares them to elephants, roaming the ocean’s savannah, with similar social structures and mutual dependencies–even the same highly modified and very useful noses.

And as they roam the oceans, whales observe neither night nor day. Like all whales, they are voluntary breathers, and must keep half their brains awake while they sleep, during which–if dogs are anything to go by–they certainly dream. Sometimes they hang perpendicularly like bats, blowholes to the surface, dozing in a drowsy cluster after feeding. Sperm whales exhibit social skills that go far beyond the herding instinct. They enjoy the contact of their bodies, spending hours slowly rolling around one another just below the surface. ‘They seem to love to touch each other,’ says Jonathan Gordon of this underwater ballet. ‘It is not unusual to see animals gently clasping jaws.’

Such cohesion extends to self-defence. Forever on the move, whales will swim in ranks, ‘like soldiers on parade’, seeking safety in numbers, diving in clusters to feed, synchronizing their soundings as security against predators. Even such fiercely armed animals are vulnerable to attack from orca–more especially so in the three-dimensional hunting ground of the ocean where there is no place to hide, and where a victim can be approached from any angle. Here their only refuge is each other.

Threatened sperm whales will stop feeding, swim to the surface, and gather to each other in a cluster. Assembled nose to nose around their calves, they form a tactical circle known as a ‘marguerite’, bodies radiating outwards like the petals of a flower. Thus they present their powerful flukes to any interlopers, protecting their young in a cetacean laager. In an alternate version, they touch flukes, heads out and jaws at the ready. Besieged whales will maintain these positions silently, unmoving. If a whale is separated from the circle, one or two of its companions will leave its safety to escort the animal back to the formation, risking their own lives as the killers take great chunks out of the sperm whales’ flesh, foraging like packs of wolves. These are, writes one naturalist, ‘“heroic” acts by almost any definition’.

Ironically, while such techniques are successful in repelling orca, they also made the animals more susceptible to slaughter by man. ‘The females are very remarkable for attachment to their young,’ Beale observes, ‘which they may be frequently seen urging and assisting to escape from danger with the most unceasing care and fondness.’ If one were attacked, ‘her faithfull companions will remain around her to the last moment, or until they are wounded themselves’. This was known as ‘heaving-to’ by whalers, who capitalized on their prey’s fatal tendency to foregather when endangered, and destroyed entire schools ‘by dextrous management’. ‘They did not swim away or dive,’ wrote an observer of a twentieth-century hunt. ‘The gunner, therefore, took the whales very easily, starting with the largest one.’ As Beale adds, poignantly, ‘The attachment appears to be reciprocal on the part of the young whales, which have been seen about the ship for hours after their parents have been killed.’

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To humanize the whale oversteps boundaries; but when entire families follow a stricken relative to strand on a beach, or when a wounded female, mortally gashed by a ship’s propeller, is borne up by the shoulders of her fellow whales, it is difficult to resist the pang of emotion. They are truly gentle giants: as elephants are supposed to bolt at the sight of a mouse, so sperm whales can be faced down by a pod of militant dolphin. The appearance of a seal, or even the click of a camera, may send them scurrying. It is almost as though, as Dr Whitehead remarks, the whale sees its own habitat as a dangerous, even frightening place.

Yet these are carnivorous animals, voracious in their appetites. They eat mostly cephalopods, but also take tuna and barracuda; entire thirty-foot sharks have been found in their bellies. And they consume in enormous proportions, taking from three to seven hundred squid a day: worldwide, sperm whales eat one hundred million metric tons of fish a year–as much as the annual catch of the entire human marine fishery.

Diving deeper than any other mammal, we simply do not know how sperm whales behave in the ocean’s depths. We know what they eat, because we find it in their stomachs; but we don’t know how it gets there. Sound is certainly important to their sustenance. Although they lack a voice box–as Thomas Beale noted, ‘The sperm whale is one of the most noiseless of marine animals…it is well known among the most experienced whalers, that they never produce any nasal or vocal sounds whatever, except a trifling hissing at the time of the expiation of the spout’–the whale possesses the largest sound system of any animal, using one-third of its body to create the loud clicks that it constantly emits when hunting. The whale’s oversized nose is in fact a huge and highly efficient squid-finder.

As bats send out sonar to find flying insects, so sperm whales send out similar, if rather louder, pulses to locate their prey. Their characteristic clicks are produced by the expansion and contraction of ‘blisters’ on their nasal sacs. It is a remarkably complicated sequence, as Dr Whitehead explains. Two nasal passages run from the external blowhole, the left and the right. The left runs directly to the lungs, but the right passes through a distal air sac via a kind of valve known as the museau du singe, or ‘monkey’s muzzle’.

Sound is initially generated by air being forced through this valve–not unlike the clicks you can make by hitting the roof of your mouth with your tongue–then passes through the animal’s upper spermaceti organ or ‘case’ before bouncing off another, frontal air sac set at the back of the skull–a bony sound mirror, in effect. This is then redirected and broadcast through a series of acoustic lenses in the ‘junk’, the lower oil-containing organ in the whale’s head. Thus the strange mechanism of the sperm whale’s nose acts as a living amplifier. Some sound also bounces back and forth along the case, producing a second pulse. As this inter-pulse interval is equal to the length of the case, the actual sound created by the whale–the pulses between its clicks–may be a measurement of its physical size; one may tell the length of the animal from the inter-pulse interval, just as the bigger the whale and its head, the more powerful its clicks. Breeding males may size each other up from their clicks, and can tell each other’s sex by the same sound; they are as much a tribal definer as the click speech of the Xhosa of South Africa.

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The clicks, which can be heard for many miles, are important for navigation and communication. They extend the whale’s sensory map far beyond its own body, and their speed and variation change from group to group, as an English dialect changes from Yorkshire to Hampshire. This allows individual whales to identify and communicate with members of their family, evenas they use the earth’s magnetic fields to map out their subaquatic terrain, the peaks and valleys of the oceanic abyss in which they are effortlessly at home. And as they dive–often in an informal group–they use their clicks to locate and scan, with extraordinary precision, the distance, presence and nature of their prey. It is thought that a whale can ‘see’ into its prey, diagnosing it–even to the extent that it can tell if it is pregnant. The returning clicks are ‘heard’ through the dense, hard jaw bone–the same bone from which Ahab’s false leg is carved–and which acts as a listening device in its own right, conducting sound through bioacoustical oils directly to its eardrums. The whale’s external ear is largely useless; the animal hears through its body itself.

The deeper it dives, the more effective the whale’s senses are, away from the chatter and interference of the world above. A sperm whale can create a two-hundred-decibel boom able to travel one hundred miles along the ‘sofar’ channel, a layer of deep water that readily conducts noise. It seems strange that such a physically enormous creature should rely on something so intangible; but bull sperm whales, by virtue of their larger heads, generate sounds so powerful that they may stun or even kill their prey. These directional acoustic bursts, focused through their foreheads and likened to gunshots, are the equivalent, as one writer notes, of the whale killing its quarry by shouting very loudly at it.

In their own researches, Soviet scientists, whose nation’s enthusiastic hunting of the sperm whale in the twentieth century allowed ample opportunity for such study, suggested that in order to hunt in the depths where only one per cent of sunlight penetrates below two hundred metres, the whale uses a ‘unique video-receptor system…which lets the animal obtain the image of objects in the acoustic flow of reflected energy even in complete darkness’. In other words, the sperm whale can see its prey in sound. And just when you think nothing else about this animal could confound you, another theory proposes that the whale’s sonic bursts, and the movement of its head, may cause plankton in the deep water to emit their bioluminescence. In the utter darkness, the leviathan may light its own way to its lunch.

Even as you leave the Tube station, you remain an underground passenger, conducted through a tiled tunnel before emerging into the shadow of an extravagant cathedral of science. Clinging to the terracotta façade–itself layered to resemble geological strata–is an industrial bestiary: heraldic griffins and scaly medieval fish and, most frightening of all, grinning, toothy pterodactyls, with their obscene storks’ beaks and glaring gargoyle eyes and their leathery wings wrapped about them.

In the gothic nave, children mill about a blackened diplodocus nonchalantly waving its whiplash tail. A hundred years ago, they would have been greeted by another monster, for here stood the skeleton of a sperm whale, guarded by what appeared to be a Victorian policeman as if it were a prisoner at Pentonville.

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Natural History Museum, London

The route comes back like a lost memory. I walk past ichthyosaurs sailing through long-vanished Triassic seas and moth-eaten fauna of the savannah and the jungle, displays out of a dead zoo. Abruptly, the corridor turns into a space more like an aircraft hangar than a museum. There, hanging like one of the model aeroplanes I used to suspend from my bedroom ceiling, is the blue whale, the largest object in the Natural History Museum.

Contrary to the usual tricks of childhood recollection, it is actually bigger than I remember. Nearly one hundred feet long from the tip of its nose to its twenty-foot flukes, the whale could easily accommodate a large household within its interior. There is something fairy-tale about it, an invention of the Brothers Grimm: its huge mouth has a faint grin, and its disproportionately small eye stares out from its wrinkled socket, part amused, part pleading. Even Linnæus’s name for it is a little Swedish joke: Balænoptera musculus–Balæna meaning whale, pteron, wing or fin, and musculus, both muscular, and mouse.

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I was fooled by this model then, as visitors are now, for this wood and plaster reconstruction is only an approximation of a blue whale, a much more streamlined animal than this bloated model gives credit. Constructed in the 1930s, before anyone had seen an entire living whale in its element, the creators of this whalish effigy relied on carcases hauled out of the water, where they lay deflated like old inner tubes, incapable of bespeaking their true beauty. Like the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace–where we went on another family pilgrimage, to see concrete iguanodons and plesiosaurs stranded in a suburban park–London’s magnificent whale is an object of error and mystification. As a boy, I assumed that inside the model was the animal’s skeleton, like a cathedral tomb containing the bones of a saint. In fact, the whale is hollow, and was made using plaster and chicken wire over a wooden frame constructed on site–as if the great hall had been built around it.

The idea of a new Whale Hall for the museum had been posited as far back as 1914, but war put a stop to it. The project was revived in 1923, when the museum’s pioneering director, Sidney Harmer, called the Trustees’ attention to ‘the inadequacy of the exhibited series of the larger whales. The subject of whaling is very much in the air at the present time,’ he noted, and he reminded the Trustees that they had ‘frequently expressed their sympathy with efforts to protect whales from extinction’.

Warming to his theme–on three sheets of pale blue foolscap paper–Harmer declared that ‘under such circumstances it would be natural to expect that such species as the Greenland Whale, the Blue Whale and the Humpback Whale would be illustrated in the Whale Room…to give the visitor a satisfactory idea of what these three important species are like’. It was even suggested that government grants for the relief of unemployment and men disabled by the war might be used. However, the primary reason for the new hall was to promote the work being done by the Discovery expeditions in South Georgia, where scientists were conducting their investigations alongside the British whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean.

It took almost a decade for Harmer’s spectacular vision to be realized. In June 1929 the new hall was announced–complete with a glass roof framed with steel girders, in the Modernist style–but was not completed until 1931. To fill this grand new space, a life-size whale was proposed, and so in 1933 the museum decided to commission a Norwegian engineer to procure a blue whale, hang it by its tail in an engraving dock, and take a mould of it. The expense of this ambitious scheme was to be allayed by selling the blubber and by marketing models made from the mould to American museums; however, its decidedly ‘experimental nature’ meant that it too was abandoned.

Five years later, in April 1937, the museum’s Technical Assistant and taxidermist, Percy Stammwitz, suggested that he should make the model in the hall itself. Stammwitz and his son, Stuart, spent nearly two years creating the blue whale, to measurements taken by the scientists in South Georgia. Giant paper patterns, like a dressmaker’s kit, were used to cut out transverse sections in wood, which were then connected at three-foot intervals with slats. Over this armature wire netting was laid to take the final plaster coat; Stuart himself would paint the whale’s eye. It was a long and laborious task, and during its construction the workers used its interior as their canteen–much as Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins had given a New Year’s Eve dinner in his half-built iguanodon in 1853, a party of scientists that one periodical portrayed as modern Jonahs swallowed by the monster.

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Natural History Museum, London

As it rose from its timber foundations, the model resembled a huge ship whose keel had been laid down in the museum’s hall, an ark ready for the launch to save the museum’s species before the flood; or perhaps an inter-war airship, about to be inflated with helium for a transatlantic crossing. Indeed, when it was suspended from the ceiling, painters working on the whale complained that it swayed so much that it made them seasick.

The finished article looked so realistic that The Times thought it would ‘no doubt be mistaken for a “stuffed” whale by the casual visitor’. On its completion in December 1938, just before the outbreak of war, a telephone directory and coins of the realm were placed inside the model as a kind of time capsule. Thus, on the eve of hostilities, the placid whale became a memorial to a brief peace, a cetacean cenotaph. It was a giant good luck charm, too, for the warders who put pennies on its flukes to encourage visitors to do the same, much as they might throw coins in a fountain for luck. When the museum closed for the evening, the warders scooped up the takings and spent them in the pub.

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Natural History Museum, London

Now there is a notice on one side,


Please do not throw coins on the whale’s tail.

It causes damage. Thank you.


and, next to it, a twenty-pence and a ten-pence piece lie on the plaster flukes.

Other models were made to supplement the display, Stammwitz’s initial attempts to stuff dolphins having proved as unsuccessful as earlier attempts to mould a blue whale. They have been replaced in turn by a flotilla of fibreglass cetaceans, from a tiny Ganges River dolphin to a primeval-looking Sowerby’s beaked whale, all following their leader as if one night she might break open the wall of the gallery and guide her charges down to the Thames and out to sea. Until then, there they hang, biding their time, watching the school parties with their beady glass eyes.

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Below the Whale Hall, in the belly of the building, Richard Sabin, the curator of sea mammals, takes me through automatic doors that lock like a spaceship behind us, sealing the climate-controlled area from the world outside. I follow him, past ranks of giant grey lockers reaching from floor to ceiling. As he opens door after door, their contents are revealed: sections of cetaceans preserved in alcohol and labelled with their Latin binomials, Phocœna phocœnaTursiops truncatusBalænoptera physalus. One container, the size of a small fish tank, holds a humpback fœtus; with its mouth agape and its pallid skin, it looks more like a rubber toy.

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The end of the corridor opens into a wide room lined with shelves on which stand jars of pale brown liquid, a sharp contrast to the flickering white hum of the lights overhead. Crammed into each glass column is an animal, ghoulishly bottled like a pickled gherkin. A spiny anteater’s spikes twist as it tries to climb out of its transparent prison with its rodent paws. A severed shark’s head sits at the bottom of a wide jar, staring reproachfully. Plunged in another is the scaly carcase of a coelacanth, still swimming in seas tinted tobacco by the immensity of time.

It is the stuff of my nightmares, and as I reach the end of a row of specimens–some collected by Darwin himself, and all ordered and classified with handwritten luggage labels as if ready for transit elsewhere–I back away from a big, bug-eyed bony fish which someone has left lying nonchalantly on the side, only to find my way blocked by a series of closed metal vats like pans in a canteen kitchen, all the more intimidating for the photocopied labels that indicate their invisible contents: entire dolphins and infant whales. None of these terrors, however, can compare to the gigantic plate-glass tank that runs half the length of the room, supported on bier-like struts. Inside, suspended in a mixture of formalin and sea water, is Architeuthis dux–the giant squid, mythical enemy of the sperm whale.

It looks strangely spectral as it lies there, the faintly green glow a pale mockery of its ruddiness in life. Rudely yanked to the surface by Falklands fishermen in the Southern Ocean, it was frozen like a giant fish finger and shipped to Hull before being brought here, to the cellars of South Kensington. At twenty-eight feet long, this specimen is by no means the largest: in 1880, a squid measuring sixty-one feet was caught in Island Bay, New Zealand. Some may grow even larger. Nelson Cole Haley, sailing on the whale-ship Charles W. Morgan from 1849 to 1853, claimed to have seen three huge squid swimming together off the north-west coast of New Zealand, one of which he estimated to be three hundred feet long.

‘One might say this is a big fish story,’ acknowledged Haley of this monstrous procession; but he had seen many whales and other creatures, and ‘although I might have been frightened at what I saw, I had not lost my head so much but I could use my poor judgement about their appearance as well as ever’. He had no doubt that what he saw were ‘wonderful monsters of the deep’. Science may yet confirm Haley’s apparitions: recent acoustic studies have identified a ‘bloop’ sound from the depths which could only be made by a very large animal, and which may be a massive squid hundreds of feet in length, far bigger than a blue whale.

To sailors, these creatures were the original kraken, the sea monsters of myth, ‘strange spectres’ believed able to drag entire ships down to the deep. It was as though nature had created a fitting opponent for the whale. On her own hunt for Moby Dick, the Pequod encounters a ‘great white mass’ rising lazily to the surface, a creature so large that it becomes a living landscape: ‘A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-colour, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach.’

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As the word ‘whale’ evokes poetic wholeness, so ‘squid’ seems expressive of fragmentary, faceless evil; and as this ‘unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life’ sinks with a ‘low sucking sound’, Ishmael seems to shudder, too. ‘So rarely is it beheld, that though one and all…declare it to be the largest animated thing in the ocean, yet very few of them have any but the most vague ideas concerning its true nature and form; notwithstanding, they believe it to furnish to the sperm whale its only food.’ But here in a London basement, the monster lies embalmed in its glass coffin, a legend reduced to the status of a dead fish.

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It is an enormous intestinal tangle of flesh, frayed by its harsh treatment in the trawl. From its long mantle eight arms reach out in a now mushy cordage; they are studded with vicious circular suckers and barbs that could brand a whale’s hide. Nestling at their roots are the squid’s mandibles, hard and strong and shiny as a parrot’s beak and made of chitinous material; as phallic as it is, there is more than a little of the vagina dentata about this monster. In its removal from the dark oceanic columns to this controlled vitrine, its huge eyes, more than a foot in diameter to allow in optimal light, have shrunk into their sockets, depriving the specimen of whatever character it once possessed, blinding it to its fate. Cephalopods have highly developed nervous systems; one reason for the animal’s beak is the need to chew up its food into smaller chunks; as the œsophagus passes perilously close to the brain, an ill-considered meal might damage it. These are truly alien animals: squid also possess two hearts.

Feeling their way ahead, a pair of twenty-foot tentacles extend beyond the body, at least as long as the animal again. Far from being a passive victim, Soviet scientists suggested that the giant squid may actively wrap its tentacles around a sperm whale’s head, clamping shut its jaws and even attempting to seal its blowhole, the dread of every cetacean. Few humans can claim to have witnessed such a battle. In his book, The Cruise of the Cachalot, Frank Bullen tells how the New Bedford whale-ship on which he was serving was sailing in the Indian Ocean. Late into the night watch and under a bright moon, he saw a great commotion in the sea, far off. At first he thought it might be an erupting island. Then, through field glasses, he saw a great sperm whale battling a giant squid. The cephalopod’s arms had created a kind of net around the whale’s black columnar head, while the whale was mechanically chewing its way through its assailant. Bullen woke the captain to come and see this once-in-a-lifetime sight; his master merely cursed him and went back to sleep.

Such scenes may be the stuff of horror movies; but in that as yet unphotographed or filmed contest of snapping beaks and tearing teeth–a voracious and infernal coupling–the gelatinous accumulation of ganglions and sinews can be scooped up in the whale’s own monstrous jaw and, as the animal’s arms writhe to evade its fate, it is swallowed alive. (The squid’s classical defence, the ink cloud, is useless in the face of a predator that can ‘see’ in the dark; although the pygmy sperm whale–a compact version of its cousin–excretes a thick reddish-brown liquid from its guts when startled, as if to emulate the method employed by the prey on which it dines.)

In a nearby jar lie lumps of squid flesh and beaks retrieved from the belly of a sperm whale by the Discovery expedition, as the label floating inside, inscribed in sepia, notes. In this underground laboratory, battling foes have been bottled for posterity. Hunted whales have even been found with squid still alive in their stomachs; confirmation of the existence of Architeuthis came when dying whales vomited up pieces of their arms and tentacles. Nor are they a rare meal for Physeter: ten per cent of the diet of sperm whales off the Azores consists of giant squid, and in the Antarctic, colossal squid–Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, with eyes as big as basketballs–are eaten by sperm whales, their only predators. The extraordinary nature of its quarry only underlines the abiding mystery of the hunter, feeding day and night, forever stoking the insatiable furnace of its metabolism.

Upstairs, corridors which only an hour before were filled with chattering school children have fallen quiet. I can hear the distant hum of a vacuum cleaner as I make my way past galleries of long-dead animals, past the blue whale and the dark skeletons hanging above it. Now, in the silence, they seem harmless and foreboding at the same time, resonant with what they once were. I leave by the main doors–only to find my way barred by the museum’s locked gates.

I have visions of spending the night inside the museum, with the dinosaurs and stuffed tigers with their yellowing teeth and glass eyes. I think of the corner of the grounds where, until just before the war, it rendered its own specimens in pits of silver sand. Here carcasses were prepared for articulation and display, lowered into the sand where rain would percolate through, speeding up a process of decay that might take two years or more. Photographs show sperm whales being hauled out of a kind of animal dry dock, although they look to me like bodies being pulled from blitzed buildings. Only when local residents complained about the smell was the practice put to an end. It is hard to believe–as I eventually find my way into the bright lights of Knightsbridge–that behind the gothic façade dead whales once lay, tended by a boiler-suited scientist, who looked more like a gardener engaged in double-digging a trench–only with a cigarette purposefully in his mouth, presumably to counter the stench of the rotting animal at his feet.

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Natural History Museum, London

Other whales are inhabitants of the superficial waters, connected to the sun and the waves. The sperm whale is a denizen of the deep, spending half its life feeding on blind-eyed creatures of the abyss. Yet as dark as it is, Physeter once provided the essential element of light. For two centuries or more, that same hooded head provided luminescence for drawing rooms and street lamps from Kensington to Kentucky. The very unit of light, the lumen, was measured from a pure white spermaceti candle, one candlepower being equivalent to the burning of one hundred and twenty grains of wax per hour. As it did not freeze, sperm oil could be used in lamps during the winter, as well as a lubricant for watches and other fine instruments. The whale was itself a manufactory, of strange substances and of human fortunes.

The sperm whale’s head contains two reservoirs of fluid which sit in the semicircular basin of its skull. The uppermost is the spermaceti organ, or case, a long, barrel- or cone-shaped structure surrounded by a muscular sheath and containing a spongy network of tissues saturated with oil. This lies on top of the second chamber, the junk, divided from it by the right nasal passage, also filled with oil. It is this precious semi-liquid that defines the whale–still more its historical value–and yet which its terse-lipped owner declines to explain.

In the absence of any such elaboration, science steps in. Or at least, it tries to. One theory is that the whale’s head is an enormous buoyancy aid. The oil’s density and viscosity changes with temperature; thus, as the whale draws in cold water along its right nasal passage, it cools the oil which becomes heavier in the process (unlike water, which gets lighter as it freezes). Warming the organ with its body heat, the effect is that of wax in a lava lamp, allowing the whale to rise and fall at will. But this elegant hypothesis is disputed, and others consider that the oil’s primary function is to act as a focus for the whale’s powerful sound system. In effect, its ability to carry sound turns the animal’s head into a highly directional loudspeaker, allowing it to broadcast its presence.

Ishmael assigns a more sensual role to this magical liquid. In one of Moby-Dick’s most extraordinary chapters, ‘A Squeeze of the Hand’, he and his shipmates sit round a tub of spermaceti, squeezing lumps out of the cooling oil.

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it…and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say…Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!

Tellingly, this is followed by the even odder account of ‘The Cassock’, in which Ishmael describes a ‘very strange, enigmatical object…that unaccountable cone…nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg’. Only the assiduous reader would realize that he is talking about the whale’s penis. In a bizarre ritual, the ‘mincer’ removes the giant foreskin, ‘as an African hunter would the pelt of a boa’, and turning it inside out, stretches it and hangs it up to dry. He then cuts two armholes in the ‘dark pelt’ and puts it on. ‘The mincer now stands before you invested in the full canonicals of his calling,’ says Ishmael, ‘arrayed in decent black…what a candidate for an archbishoprick, what a lad for a Pope were this mincer!’ (Harold Beaver, a later editor of Moby-Dick, goes so far as to say that ‘this peculiar “mincer”…proves to be a mincing queer’ and ‘this “cassock”, turned inside out, spells “ass/cock” in the rigging’.)

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Whether or not such a rite ever happened on board a whale-ship–and it may well be a figment of the author’s mischievous imagination–it is ‘the most amazing chapter in an amazing book’, wrote Howard P. Vincent, although he could not bear, in 1949, to discuss it further, beyond noting that ‘ninety per cent of Melville’s readers miss entirely the meaning of “The Cassock”’. Other writers were less coy about the sexual symbolism of the whale. D.H. Lawrence had already dubbed the sperm whale ‘the last phallic being’, and in 1938 W.H. Auden wrote of Ahab and ‘the rare ambiguous monster that had maimed his sex’–a reference to an incident in which the captain was found one night sprawled and insensible on the ground, ‘his ivory limb having been so violently displaced, that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin’. It was as if, in this entirely masculine world, men must sexualize the whale to make it submit–just as they might be subsumed by it in turn. By the 1970s Harold Beaver was declaring the same animal ‘both bridal chamber and battering ram…a true amphibium, dual-sexed as Gabriel’s “Shaker God incarnated”’. The protean whale had become a phallus itself, but also a spermatozoid, gigantic and seminal at the same time.

Given such mysterious and symbolic attributes, such legendary enemies and such iconic status, it is little wonder that the sperm whale was a fated beast, condemned to be the quarry of man. The blue whale and the finback were too fast, the humpback unproductive. It was the sperm whale–immediately recognizable by its angled spout, by its predilection for lying at the surface and, most paradoxical of all, by its essentially shy nature–that offered itself up as a sacrifice for all other whales: a silent, honourable champion.

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New Bedford Whaling Museum