The Melancholy 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 11. The Melancholy Whale

A tenth branch of the king’s ordinary revenue…is the right to royal fish, which are whale and sturgeon. And these, when either thrown ashore or caught near the coast, are the property of the king.

Blackstone, Extracts from a Sub-Sub-Librarian

On a bleak strand south of Skegness and its garish amusements, the sun was already beginning to set as I trudged through the damp grey sand. Something lay ahead in the creeping dusk, growing closer until its vague shape resolved into a discernible form. Before that, I smelled it. I can smell it still when I look at the pictures. Lying there, like a cod on a fishmonger’s slab, was a minke whale. Its shiny black skin had been entirely flayed, leaving a fishy-coloured beige, the texture of latex-except where the blubber had begun to turn blue-green.

When I had last seen a minke, it was surfing over Stellwagen Bank, snatching breaths at the surface, briefly showing the sharp-pointed rostrum for which the whale is named, Balænoptera acutorostrata. (It owes its other name to a Norwegian sailor, Miencke, who mistook this, the smallest rorqual, for more valuable prey. Not for the first time, it occurs to me that whales are named for their usefulness to man, rather than for their innate beauty.)

Then, in a rare moment of revelation, a minke had swum by the bow of the boat, clearly silhouetted below, its fins emblazoned like the chevrons on an officer’s sleeve. Now all I saw was a piece of dead matter that smelled like something between fish and meat. Its elegant flukes were reduced to raw cartilage; there was barely anything to indicate that it had ever been alive, save for its pale little penis hanging from the underside of its belly, flaccid and worm-like. I fingered it, then I walked back in the failing light, the moon rising like a bloody pearl out of the North Sea.

This stormy eastern coast has always been a wrecking place for the whales, forever echoing to their plaintive blows. Eighty years before my encounter in Skegness, another minke washed up near Mablethorpe, in September 1926. This time, the animal was still alive when it beached. Summoned from the Natural History Museum, Percy Stammwitz attempted to return the fifteen-foot female to the sea, without success, before claiming it as a specimen. Newspaper reports claimed that the whale lived for a day and a half after its capture, and that on its way to South Kensington, destined for the sand pits, ‘its blowing was audible notwithstanding the noise of the engine, until the lorry was within about 30 miles of London, when the animal burst a blood-vessel and died of hæmorrhage of the lungs.’ In truth, Stammwitz was aware that the whale was still alive when it was put on the lorry, but as it was not conscious, he reasoned that if he tried to kill the animal, it could suffer more if it regained consciousness in the process.

In 1913 the Crown gave first right of refusal to the carcases of royal fish to the Natural History Museum, thereby recognizing their scientific as well as their commercial value. The Board of Trade requested that the Receivers of Wreck-then stationed around the country-should send ‘telegraphic Reports’ of stranded whales to the museum. The earliest records, compiled during the years of the First World War, were collated by the museum’s famous director, Sidney Harmer. They were sad casualty lists to mirror others being published at that time (when, as Harmer noted, coastguards had other matters to deal with): from a finback in the Firth of Forth, ‘at first supposed to be an aeroplane’, to a rare Sowerby’s beaked whale found at Skegness and which ‘appeared to have been killed by rifle-shots, perhaps in mistake for a German submarine’. The animal’s calf lay alongside it on the beach. Other whales died after swimming into mine fields intended to blow up U-boats.

Thirteen thousand beached whales have been recorded by the museum, but as they span the twentieth century-each lost and expired cetacean plotted on a deathly map of the British coastline-only a few have been claimed for scientific research. The remainder represent a collective rebuke and a logistical dilemma, for even in death, whales present humans with gargantuan problems.

From a modern office block overlooking Southampton Docks, the Receiver of Wreck administers a fourteenth-century decree. Since 1324, when the right was enshrined in the reign of Edward II, every whale, dolphin, porpoise and sturgeon found on English shores has become the property of the monarch. What was once a royal prerogative is now a liability. In the twenty-first century the Receiver of Wreck is, in effect, whale undertaker to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The Receiver, or her Deputy-the current holders of these ancient posts both happen to be young women-will be alerted by one of nineteen coastguard stations. A dead or dying whale might be floating at sea, a potential shipping hazard, or it may present a public nuisance as it is washed up. Sometimes a whale will appear on one beach, only to be carried by the tide to another. In this morbid game, it is the Receiver’s job to deal with the equivocal prize: a massive, stinking carcase. In remote locations, the whale is allowed to become carrion for birds; elsewhere, police cordons may be needed-less to shield people from zoonotic or interspecies infection than to protect them from the heavy plant machinery required to move an animal weighing many tons.

These are expensive disposals. Small whales cost from £6,000 to £8,000 to shift; large whales as much as £20,000. A profitable right has become a public expense. When whales were unprotected, they were valuable commodities, bounties to be claimed by the Crown; now they are treated as managed or even toxic waste, a result of pollution, or of the large doses used to euthanize the animal. And although they soon decay-the epidermis peeling, the internal organs breaking down, swelling their bellies with gas-dead whales remain resilient. Their blubber is thick and hard to puncture, and carcases hang from mechanical claws like Indian mystics suspended from hooks. Sometimes a pair of excavators join forces to pull them apart; other techniques include the use of high-pressure water jets. One fin whale that stranded on the Isle of Wight, having drifted from the Bay of Biscay, required nine truckloads to cart it away piecemeal to the local landfill. Another, at Lee-on-Solent, was interred at a site in the New Forest.

In her open-plan office, Sophia Exelby shows me her gallery of stranded whales. It is a gruesome car-insurer’s album, each cetacean crash more ghastly than the last. A pilot whale lodged in Devon rocks, caught in the kind of boulders over which children clamber looking for rock pools. A finback washed up at Ventnor, its blubber dripping like wax in the sun, its separated head yards down the shore. A sei whale, one of the rarer rorquals-and one of the fastest-lying on Morecambe Sands, victim of its deceptive tides. A humpback in Kent, slumped on its white flippers like an airliner in an emergency landing. An orca in the Mersey.

Whales where they should not be.

Many may be accidents, such as ship-strikes, or the result of entanglements or disease. Mass strandings-more familiar on the beaches of Cape Cod or New Zealand-are less easily explained. Freak tides, bad weather, sand bars and ailing whales inadvertently leading their fellows to disaster have all been cited as possible causes; in his notes on strandings, Sidney Harmer remarked that they often occurred when the sea temperature was abnormally high or low, due to an influx of water from colder or warmer latitudes, and that a localized wind was blowing onto the shore.

Another theory is that whales align themselves to the earth’s invisible power lines by means of magnetosomes in their bodies; ferro-magnetic material has been found in the tissues of cetacean organs to support this idea. Ever aware of their position-birds may use a similar technique in their migrations-they orientate themselves to magnetic contours as though possessed of personal GPS systems. But sometimes there are anomalies in this unseen map, lines running at right-angles rather than parallel to the land, or places where the coast has changed and no one has updated their system.

For a marine mammal, such a mistake can be fatal. The Cape’s sands-laid down since the ice age-are a case in point. Deceived by their own senses, pilot whales and dolphins are led onto shore rather than through deep water. Spurn Point-a kind of Cape Cod in miniature at the mouth of the Humber-may have the same effect. Even more recent research shows that increases in strandings may also coincide with solar activity which disrupts the magnetic field. Studies of sperm whales stranded in the North Sea over the past three centuries indicate that ninety per cent occurred when the sun’s activity cycle was below average-a finding that raises the notion that those seventeenth-century Dutch omens of catastrophe might have a meteorological, as well as an eschatological basis.

Other reasons put forward for mass strandings raise intriguing questions about the whales themselves. One biologist believes that such behaviour is a genetic memory of their evolutionary past: that stressed and ailing whales seek to return to the land because they know that at least they will not drown there. Some see a Malthusian instinct for the preservation of the greater species: mass strandings as a kind of population control at times when the whale numbers in a certain area have reached their sustainable limit. The fact that strandings increased after the end of commercial whaling is given as evidence for this rather drastic self-restriction.

However, decidedly unnatural forces may act as siren voices. It is increasingly certain that whales are affected by powerful military sonar, developed since the 1960s to detect newly silent enemy submarines. Strandings have been noted near naval exercises, during which sounds twice as loud as a jet engine are created. Toothed whales, reliant on their own sonar, are particular victims of this distortion of their natural soundscape; worst affected are beaked whales, which must normally rise slowly after their deep dives. The loud pulses panic them into surfacing, and gas bubbles form in their bloodstream, inducing compression sickness. Necropsies also indicate massive hæmorrhaging around their brains and spinal cords.

Anthropogenic noise may be the reason for the frequency of modern strandings on the British east coast, where seismic soundings for oil surveys not only cause localized distress, but may disturb the whales in their ancient sonic routes, causing them to take a wrong turn into the unsuitably shallow North Sea where they fail to find adequate food. Or it may be (as ever with whales, there are so many maybes and precious few certainties), as Liz Evans-Jones, who oversees the strandings project at the Natural History Museum, told me, that modern incidents are more likely to be reported because people are aware of the animals’ plight, and that once remote coasts are now accessible. Whatever the truth, encounters with man’s world seldom turn out to be beneficial for the whale.

In the past, shore dwellers had regarded a beached whale as a gift from the gods; those less accustomed to such events saw a dead cetacean as an evil omen, like a comet or an eclipse. After a whale arrived in the Thames during a storm in 1658, it was taken to have been an augury of the demise of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, who died the following day. It was certainly a strange sight: a thrashing leviathan off Dagenham. In his diary, John Evelyn, whose estate overlooked the river, noted: ‘A large Whale was taken betwixt my Land abutting on the Thames & Greenwich, which drew an infinite Concourse to see it, by water, horse, coach, and on foote, from Lond., & all parts.’

Amazingly, this was a right whale, an animal more suited to waters rich in plankton rather than the floating detritus of seventeenth-century London. The whale first appeared at low water, ‘for at high water, it would have destroyed all the boates’. The alien was doomed by its unlucky appearance, as if its ungainliness itself was a sin; cornered, it fought back in a manner with which whale rescuers would be familiar: ‘after a long Conflict, it was killed with the harping yrons, & struck in the head, out of which spouted blood & water, by two tunnells like Smoake from a chimney; & after an horrid grone it ran quite on shore & died.’

An amateur scientist himself, Evelyn took the opportunity to measure the monster. ‘The length was 58 foote: 16 in height, black skin’d like Coach-leather, very small eyes, greate taile, small finns & but 2: a piked snout, & a mouth so wide & divers men might have stood upright in it: No teeth at all, but sucked the slime onely as thro a greate made of that bone which we call Whale bone.’ Evelyn found it wonderful ‘that an Animal of so greate a bulk, should be nourished onely by slime’. Sixty years later, on his 1721 tour of Britain, Daniel Defoe recorded a whale bone arch on the London to Colchester road, ‘a little on this side the Whalebone, a place on the road so called because the ribbone of a large whale, taken in the river Thames, was fixed there in 1658, the year Oliver Cromwell died, for a monument of that monstrous creature’. Whalebone Lane still exists in Dagenham; the bones are preserved in a local museum.

Other would-be visitors to London were little better treated than Evelyn’s whale. In 1788, twelve male sperm whales stranded and died along the Thames estuary, almost within sight of the Great Wen itself; they were soon boiled down for oil. Five years later, in an event recorded by Joseph Banks, a thirty-foot orca entered the river and found itself the subject of ‘an exciting chase’ after it was harpooned, towing its hunters at great speed from Deptford to Greenwich; as a result of this south London sleigh ride, the Royal College of Surgeons acquired the animal’s skull. In October 1842 a whale described as a ‘fin fish’ appeared near Deptford Pier, whereupon five sailors from the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital-ship put out in a boat, armed with a ‘large bearded spear’ and ‘commenced the attack upon the monster, which soon showed symptoms of weakness, and threw up large quantities of water from the blowing apertures on its back’. Surrounded by other boats, it was roped out of the water and onto the pier, where the crowds were such that the constabulary were called to restore order. The creature-most likely a minke-was fourteen feet six inches long, with baleen and a white belly. It was subsequently taken by carriage, and several horses, to a butcher’s shop on Old King Street, where it was placed on a stand for public display.

It was notable that these whalish strays appeared at precisely the point in London from which their hunters had set out, as if returning to haunt them. In the 1880s a bottlenose whale said to be forty feet long beached off the Woolwich Arsenal. ‘It came up the river with the tide, and, when it found itself stranded on the reed bed, blew furiously and turned half-a-dozen somersaults, injuring itself on the stones, and colouring the river with its blood.’ The crew of the steam tug Empress took a rope to it and towed it off the beach, ‘with the intention of consulting with the Thames Conservancy officers as to its disposal’. Most extraordinary of all, at least to modern readers, may be the fact that a dolphin stranded at Battersea Bridge in May 1918 was summarily eaten by the museum’s ‘distinguished correspondents’, and parts served at a banquet at the Mansion House. ‘The opinions received afterwards were nearly all favourable, and some of them enthusiastic. It is a fact which deserves to be more widely known, particularly during a period of shortage of meat, that the Cetacea furnish meat of excellent quality and high nutritive value.’ Sidney Harmer admitted that ‘a certain Cetacean flavour, which is not universally popular, is apt to develop on keeping, but it is possible to remove this to some extent by parboiling…it is a fact that there are persons who consider Cetacean meat preferable to all other kinds.’

Even in the late twentieth century, dolphins and porpoises were not rarities in the Thames. In 1961 a sixteen-foot minke was seen diving and surfacing in the river as far as Kew, ‘followed by a police launch warning boats to keep clear’. Earlier that day the whale had been found on the river bank, having apparently collided with a boat. Inspectors from the RSPCA, along with police officers and other helpers, had dragged it in a tarpaulin to the water, hoping it would make its way back to the sea, but the animal became caught in reeds by Kew Bridge, and soon after died. This interloper was not so innocent in the minds of the newspapers that reported on it, for twenty-four hours earlier an engineer had drowned when his dinghy overturned at Chiswick, close to where the whale was found; and two boys in another boat were nearly capsized by a ‘thrashing whale or porpoise’. The accompanying photograph showed two men standing over the presumed perpetrator, as if to accuse it of these crimes.

The hindsight of history seems to allow such transgressions as naturalists eating their own specimens; but few could have predicted that, in the twenty-first century, a whale would swim under Waterloo Bridge, past Charing Cross-almost under the window where Melville stayed-and past the Palace of Westminster, only to strand itself on the Battersea embankment within the sound of the King’s Road.

It was an event that became a kind of global circus entertainment. An animal used only to the booms and clicks of its cousins in the open sea was suddenly subject to the confinement and cacophony of one of the world’s largest and noisiest cities. Disorientated and distressed, the northern bottlenose whale moved up and down stream with the tides, its flukes flapping furiously, its curiously baby-like head rising plaintively out of the water while people shouted at it and boats surrounded it and helicopters filled with film crews buzzed overhead, transmitting pictures around the world for fascinated audiences to see. When I watched these scenes again, months later, hindsight served only to make them more poignant in the knowledge of what happened next: a pathetic death, deafened and assailed by traffic, trains, boats and people, frightened by those who sought to save it, starving and therefore suffering terrible thirst, trying futilely to follow a dead-end river to the western ocean.

Inevitably, this visitation was seen as a new omen for the world. A month before, six Arnoux’s beaked whales had made an unusual appearance in Cape Town harbour, looking, with their strange, stubby, protruding teeth, their brown skins and mottled, veined markings, like primeval denizens of the deep come to confront the modern world with its sins. Only days before the arrival of the London whale, a fifty-foot-long dead finback was taken from the Baltic at Bremen and driven, with a police escort, to the centre of another capital city, to be laid at the steps of the Japanese Embassy in Berlin as a protest against that nation’s continuing actions in the sanctuary of the Southern Ocean. And on the same day that the whale appeared in the Thames, four Cuvier’s beaked whales beached in Spain, the victims, as subsequent tests would indicate, of naval sonar exercises.

The London whale was doomed from the moment it entered the estuary, and from which it was scooped up and carried in a procession back towards the sea, watched by news crews and crowds on the Thames bridges. As it lay on its inflated pontoon, the whale’s frantic muscular movements began to flag. At seven o’clock that evening, it finally expired, somewhere near Gravesend, two hours from freedom. Borne on its rubber bier, its tearful attendants asked that the cameras be turned off in respect for its passing.

To some these scenes evoked the funeral of Winston Churchill, when the hero’s coffin was taken down the river by naval barge, and which I watched on television as a young boy, instructed by my father as to its historic importance. To others, it all seemed a kind of collective madness. This princess of whales-for it was a she-became the subject of national debate and newspaper headlines. There were leader columns on how its treatment was a testament to our humanity; and others that claimed, equally, that its appearance was a reminder of the barbaric practices of the whaling nations. The Victorian press would have reacted in quite the same way: entire tabloid sections, edged in black, appeared to commemorate the whale. Others saw satire in its misadventure: one cartoon showed the animal on a flag-draped catafalque in the manner of a royal lying-in-state-only instead of a quartet of Life Guards with their sabres unsheathed, four photographers stood at each corner with their telescopic lenses downturned. Unbeknown to the artist, his image was an echo of a previous century, when the Royal Aquarium’s beluga, another public object of mistaken sex and dislocation, had lain in state in Westminster.

By coincidence, the reading at Mass that Sunday was from the book of Jonah, prompting one clergyman to write from Hull to a national newspaper, noting that the passage was the one in which ‘Jonah says Nineveh, the London or New York of his day, will be overthrown in forty days. The people cut consumption by fasting and wearing the simplest possible garments and renounced violence. With the oil running out and global warming beginning to gallop and the continuing hideous aggression of the USA, perhaps the poor creature was giving us a hint.’ In fact, as its necropsy revealed, the whale died of dehydration and stress. Months later, Richard Sabin showed me its dorsal fin, preserved in a specimen jar at the Natural History Museum. Wrinkled and greyish black, with the central core of cartilage visible where it was removed, the fin retained its last position, bent on one side, a sign of the trauma its owner suffered in its final days.

(The treatment of the London whale contrasts with that of another bottlenose whale which swam up the Humber in 1938. ‘The whale…went up and down the river many times between Heap House and Keadby,’ wrote the Secretary to the Receiver of Wreck in Hull. ‘It grounded continuously, and its struggles caused damage to the river banks, whilst its presence in the river was a constant source of danger to shipping. It was on this account that Starkey decided to shoot it.’ The carcase was claimed by the Natural History Museum, although only after querying the butcher’s bill from W.A. Hudson in Scunthorpe: ‘To: Degutting Whale: £5’.)

Throughout the twentieth century dead whales continued to be a source of fascination. In 1931 an embalmed, sixty-five-ton whale arrived at London Docks, the property of the Pacific Whaling Company and destined for display at a Christmas circus. Housed in a specially built case, it required the world’s largest floating crane, the London Mammoth, to transfer it from the ship to road bogies, on which it was taken to the circus, ‘the journey to be made by night’. One observer, as a young boy, remembered it with a great stick propping open its mouth, covered in tar to preserve it and smelling like roadworks.


Natural History Museum, London

Twenty years later, in 1952, a seventy-foot fin whale caught off Trondheim (after being found by helicopters sent out for the purpose) was preserved on a huge one-hundred-foot-long lorry-also said to be the longest in the world-and was trundled overland through Europe, Africa and Japan, appearing in such unlikely places as Barnsley, Yorkshire, before ending up in exile in Belgium. It was a scenario reminiscent of the Hungarian film, The Werckmeister Harmonies, in which a travelling leviathan creates psychic upset in a Cold War-era town and becomes an allegory for totalitarianism-‘Some say it has nothing to do with it, some say it is behind everything’-just as the Czech poet Miroslav Holub imagined,

There is a serious shortage of whales.

And yet, in some towns,

whaling flotillas drive along the streets,

so big that the water is too small for them

while another poet, Kenneth O. Hanson, wrote of a pickled whale carried across Wyoming on a flatcar railway truck, ‘shunted to a siding the gray/beast lay dissolving in chains’. I imagine whales in containers, shipped out in a cetacean pogrom, each in its rusty box on rolling stock. A ferry hits a humpback, a freighter carries a fin whale on its upturned bow, whales slump on sandy beaches.

Ah the world, oh the whale.

Man had developed a new relationship with the whale, although, as ever, it was one predicated on his desires, rather than the rights of the animal. Although the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had been founded in England as long ago as 1824, and an animal protection law passed in 1835, it would take a long time for whales to be included in this order. ‘Yes; the beasts, the birds, and the fishes all prey upon one another,’ wrote a correspondent to The Times, who had observed the fate of the London beluga in October 1877,

and man, whom we believe to be nearest to the Great Creator, preys upon them all. If he wants a sealskin jacket, he kills the seal and takes his skin; if he wants a mutton chop, he kills the sheep and takes his chop; and if he wants a live tiger to stare at, he catches a tiger alive and puts him in a cage; and I am afraid that the sight of the dying throes of the whale will have no more effect upon the feelings of the managers of the Westminster Aquarium than the same sight would have to soften the heart of a North Sea whaler as he drives in his last harpoon, because he wants the oil.

Sentiment still gave way to business. On Christmas Eve 1868, Sven Foyn wrote in his diary: ‘I thank Thee, O Lord. Thou alone hast done all.’ The Norwegian was giving praise for the grenade harpoon he had just patented; a bomb that would explode in a whale’s head. A former seal-hunter, Foyn was ‘a most fortunate, religious, and good old man, respected and beloved by all who met him’, and the maiden voyage of the Spes et Fides-Hope and Confidence-with the eponymous Miencke among its crew, set out equipped with his efficient weapon.

Harpoon guns had been used on whales since the early nineteenth century, but Foyn’s holy invention allowed his fellow countrymen to pursue the great rorquals that had been beyond reach of the Starbucks and the Scoresbys: blue whales and fin whales, the largest animals on earth. Now no whale, no matter how fast, could escape; as soon as sighted, it was as good as dead. And a dead whale was a good whale to a Norwegian sailor. Soon the Scandinavians were killing a thousand finbacks a year. Humpbacks, too, began to suffer heavily from the new technological era of steamships and harpoon-launchers.

It was a necessary advance, hence Foyn’s earnest prayers: the other cetacean species had simply run out. The sperm whale and right whales were so depleted as to make their pursuit uncommercial; and anyhow, the price of whale oil had plummeted since the introduction of petroleum and gas, and in 1879 the first electric light was switched on. The world looked elsewhere for illumination. The eastern Arctic fisheries were almost finished; when the young Arthur Conan Doyle took passage as a ship’s surgeon on the SS Hope out of Peterhead in 1880, the vessel returned after a six-month voyage having caught just two whales, and had to rely on seals for profit. Dundee remained an important port, historically prospering by marrying Scottish jute with the whale oil needed to treat it: seven hundred whalemen were still resident in the town in 1883, when a humpback swam up the Tay and, after six weeks’ feeding on shoals of herring, was harpooned by a steam launch from the Polar Star, and was subsequently embalmed and exhibited in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh.

In America, the industry experienced a fitful revival with the discovery of the bowheads of the western Arctic; these virginal herds were culled for their huge baleen, used for corsets and hoops to amend the female form. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, whalebone was being supplanted by steel and plastic, and as women emancipated themselves from constricted waists and deformed ribcages, it seemed the whales were about to be set free, too. In 1924 the last whaler sailed out of New Bedford. The trade had long been in decline; Charles Chace, one of few remaining whaling captains, refused to take ‘New England’ boys (that is, white men) as apprentices, knowing that they would be enrolling in a dying industry. The whaling city had turned to cloth rather than cetaceans. Textile mills lined its river banks, employing labour imported from Lancashire as well as the Azores, and steamships ferried tourists to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard-prettier places than the dank quays where rotting hulks stood derelict off wharves that still smelt of whale oil.

With the decline of American whaling-just one shore-based whaling station remained operational, in California-European whaling expanded to fill the space. In 1904 the armed steamships of the Norwegians and the British opened up the unplundered Antarctic to fulfil a new use for the whale: in the manufacture of nitro-glycerine. In a new century of war, placid animals supplied the world with the raw material to blow itself up. Fifty thousand whales perished during the two global conflicts-as much victims as those whose death and destruction theirs enabled. The same impulse which allowed slaughter on the Western Front seemed to permit the slaughter on the world’s oceans. As Europe suffered losses in their millions, the entire population of humpbacks in the South Atlantic were driven to extinction by 1918. Their oil prevented soldiers from suffering trench foot. In his report on stranded cetaceans of that year, Sidney Harmer noted that ‘several of the specimens were accordingly used for the manufacture of glycerine for munitions’. Whales, like men, were fodder for war.

The march of events set in motion by Sven Foyn was unstoppable. Within twenty years of the opening up of the sub-Antarctic whaling grounds, ‘the rorquals have declined alarmingly in numbers’, one author noted in 1925. That year, the first factory ship, the Lancing, was launched in Norway. With these ‘seagoing abattoirs’, the extermination proceeded, paralleling the most bloody century in human history with the death of one and a half million rorqual whales. It was clear that the slaughter could not continue. ‘Whales have been killed on such an extensive scale in the Antarctic regions that, had it not been for the fact that the whaling ground in the Falkland Islands is in British territory and therefore under certain control, the whales would have been killed off as they have been in the Arctic regions,’ The Times reported in 1926. ‘It is feared that unless measures are taken in time the whale will become extinct all over the world.’

As part of that attempt to document and limit catches, and to understand these animals before they entirely disappeared, the Natural History Museum sent its scientists to the southern hemisphere. In 1913 Sir William Allardyce, governor of the Falkland Islands, on whose shores the British whaling stations were sited, realized that the new techniques being used to hunt whales in the Southern Ocean were moving at such a rate that the populations would soon be decimated. The Colonial Office in London agreed to his idea of introducing licences, and to assess sustainability, G.E. Barrett-Hamilton of the Natural History Museum was sent out to investigate. Unfortunately, the scientist died of a heart attack shortly after his arrival in South Georgia, as the indefatigable Percy Stammwitz, who had accompanied him there, had to report.

Stammwitz’s other letters were full of life, however; his words portray a scene of almost unbelievable, prelapsarian schools of whales. Writing in the year before war laid waste to Europe, his descriptions commemorated the vast and peaceful plenty that existed before man came south-and which was soon to disappear. ‘The Whalers say that the Whales are very plentifull [sic] in the Southern Seas,’ he wrote, ‘& can be seen spouting in the thousands, round South Georgia, some of them larger animals reaching one hundred feet in length.’ This last phrase was underlined in blue pencil when the letter was received by the curator, Dr T.W. Calman, who added a scribbled note: ‘Can we suggest getting one for the NHM’.

Stammwitz worked tirelessly for the museum, and for the whales, in those years. He was as intrepid as any Edwardian explorer, a specimen hunter in his own right, although the trophies he brought back were destined not for the walls of a stately home, but for the cabinets of the nation’s museum. As a young man, he would leave his home in Turnham Green-from where his wife would write anxious letters to Sidney Harmer, asking after her husband’s whereabouts and whether she should continue to pay his insurance premiums-travelling to the Shetland Islands to work with the Alexander Whaling Company, reporting that fin, sei and minke whales were there in plenty; they were ‘hoping for Humpbacks, too’. There he gathered sometimes dubious information on whale behaviour in the dawn of modern cetology-Gunder Jenssen, manager of the company, replied to one query, ‘I never heard of Killers attacking Sperm, as the Sperm are regarded as rather a frightening brute and will go for anything, even sharks’-but also sent back body parts from fins to fœtuses, to the delight of his bosses. Back at the museum, Stammwitz took moulds of whale carcases, creating the models that would hang alongside his greatest achievement, the blue whale.

Percy Stammwitz’s annual appraisals, still held in his staff file at the museum’s library, are testament to his abilities, not only as Technical Assistant, but as a cetologist in his own right. They list the replica whales-killer, beluga, caaing (or pilot) whale; Commerson’s and Heaviside’s dolphins, white-beaked dolphin, common porpoise, sei whale, and even a young sperm whale-all recreated in plaster by Stammwitz’s expert hands from stranded animals he collected, sometimes in harsh conditions. (After one particularly difficult attempt to recover a sixty-foot sperm whale in Yorkshire-which necessitated a formal request for new boots-it was agreed ‘that Mr P. Stammwitz may be allowed six days’ special leave in view of his long hours and arduous work at Bridlington’.) Stammwitz’s loving fashioning of specimen whales was an intimate tribute to their inherent beauty, one that his young son Stuart would inherit as he assumed the same post at the museum under curators who knew him from his boyhood, noting his ‘great mechanical skill’ and endearing personality and behaviour when sent on his own collecting missions with the Royal Navy.

As the Scoresbys had seen the rise and falling of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century whaling, so the Stammwitzs’ careers mirrored the modern rise and fall of whaling, and the zoologists’ deepening concern for the future of the whales themselves. As early as 1885, the museum’s first director, William Flower, had made a speech decrying the avarice of whaling in Atlantic and Australian waters. It was the work done in the Southern Ocean by those pioneers that laid the foundations for conservation efforts which would save entire species, at the very moment that they came closest to extinction.

As ever, bureaucracy and finance slowed matters, and it was not until 1925 that the Royal Research Ship Discovery-a steam-assisted, three-masted wooden sailing ship first built in Dundee along the lines of a whaler for Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1901, and now refitted at Portsmouth-left for South Georgia, where a laboratory was built next to the Grytviken whaling station. Here the scientists could study whales brought ashore, albeit in hellish circumstances. ‘Flesh and guts lay about like small hillocks and blood flowed in rivers,’ one researcher wrote, ‘…while clouds of steam from winches and boilers arose as from a giant cauldron.’ Four years later, a new ship, Discovery II, was built, a 232-foot vessel dedicated-as the memorably named Sir Fortescue Flannery declared at her launching-to collecting data that might bring about an international agreement to restrict hunting in the Antarctic. It would be joined by a newly equipped vessel ‘of the whale-catcher type’, christened after another famous explorer: the RRS William Scoresby.

Restraint in whaling, however, came out of self-interest rather than scientific study. British and Norwegian whalers petitioned the League of Nations-formed to prevent another human Armageddon-to request restrictions on the factory fleets. The need for control became all the more urgent, as Sir Douglas Mawson observed from his Australian perspective, in light of the ‘tremendous onslaught’ of the 1930-1 whaling season, although another correspondent with an evocative name, Arthur F. Bearpark, wrote from his St James’s gentleman’s club to point out that both Britain and Norway already had voluntary agreements in place.

In 1935 an international agreement was drafted under the auspices of the League of Nations and ratified by Britain and Norway as the major whaling nations, fitfully united against newcomers in the field. It was soon clear that its precepts were insufficient, and Norway approached Britain to suggest that the scope of the agreement be widened. In May 1936 an International Whaling Conference convened in Oslo, with only two members, Britain and Norway; Germany, under its new leader, refrained from attending officially but sent an observer, saying it wanted ‘full liberty of action as being the world’s greatest consumer of whale oil’, both in margarine, and by the soap firm, Henkel’s, which had its own 12,000-ton factory ship. It was not a peaceful meeting. After negotiations described as protracted and interrupted by threats of boycotts by Norway, it was agreed ‘to prevent excessive diminution of the whale population by restriction by close season and by limitation of the number of whale catchers used…with a whale factory ship’. The season would run from December to March. ‘It is hoped that…thus a somewhat stormy chapter in the history of modern whaling will be happily brought to a close.’

In an echo of its pragmatic attitude to the abolition of slavery, Britain placed itself at the forefront of these ever more urgent attempts to control whaling while admitting its self-interest-even as other acts of diplomacy tried to stabilize a world moving towards war. In May 1937 an expanded international conference gathered in London, with representatives from South Africa, America, Argentina, Australia, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and Norway. Mr W.S. Morrison, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, told the delegates that ‘the blue whale would be exterminated if things went on as they were, and the Antarctic whaling industry would soon cease’. A new convention was announced, banning pelagic whaling for nine months of the year. ‘In some areas it is prohibited entirely; some species of whales, whale calves, and females attended by calves are protected absolutely, as are also whales below a certain size; and whaling from land stations’-such as those in the southern hemisphere-‘is to be subject to a close season for six months.’

The conference also hoped that other countries, ‘particularly Japan, whose operations are rapidly expanding, will adhere to the present Convention’. Although its coastal settlements had whaled for centuries, and the British ship Syren had discovered the prolific whaling grounds off Japan and the Bonin Islands in 1819, it was a visit by Tsar Nicholas II in 1891, who saw great numbers of whales in the Sea of Japan, that prompted modern whaling in Japanese waters. By 1934, using techniques learned from the Norwegians, Japan was making its first whaling voyages into the Southern Ocean. By declining to join the international agreements its industry prospered, and within five years it had six factory ships operating in Antarctic waters.

There was already a degree of equivocation about this east-west split. While they adhered to self-imposed controls-in May 1939 a Norwegian captain was prosecuted for killing a fifty-nine-foot female blue whale, below the limit of seventy feet-Britain and Norway remained responsible for ninety-five per cent of the annual toll of thirty thousand whales, each sending out ten mother ships busy making orphans. The remainder were divided between Germany, Russia, Holland and Japan; America had just one mother ship in an industry it had once dominated, but which Ishmael would have found unrecognizable. There was little that was heroic about this chase, as catcher boats fired on whales from the safe vantage point of prows towering high above the water. In the days of Yankee whaling, at least the whales could fight back; now they no longer stood a chance. A whale once seen was as good as dead.

By the outbreak of the Second World War, huge ships with crews of two hundred and forty were catching five hundred thousand tons of whale a year. As Mary Heaton Vorse wrote in Provincetown: ‘the destruction has been so great that the size of the huge monsters is becoming smaller each year, and unless international action is taken the whale will become one of the fabulous monsters of the past.’ The whale had become an unwitting symbol of a century of suffering. It was no coincidence that Auden, himself now an exile in America, wrote in his poem, ‘Herman Melville’, in March 1939, ‘Evil is unspectacular and always human’.

The whale had become the enemy by default. Every kind of device was used to kill the animals: exploding harpoons, strychnine, cyanide and curare poisoning (inspired, perhaps, by the Aleutian Islanders who used barbs contaminated with rotten meat to infect a whale with blood poisoning). Even electrocution was attempted: the same method by which the civilized world got rid of its most venal criminals was brought to bear on dumb animals. The hunters came armed with cannon and bomb-lances, ostensibly hastening death, but in practice causing what we can only imagine to be agonizing pain; an apparent indifference to the dignity of animals illustrated by the fact that men on Antarctic whaling stations threw penguins on their fires, using the oily birds as kindling.

As cetacean war was waged from above, using aeroplanes to spot their targets, bombers mistook whales for submarines below, with the inevitable consequences. British and Norwegian ships left the dangerous Atlantic for the Pacific coast of South America; from 1941 to 1943, a Norwegian flotilla working off Peru captured 8,500 sperm whales. These young men working on the whalers were as much a part of the war effort as my mother, busy making machine gun parts in a Southampton factory, or the now elderly Percy Stammwitz, proud to serve in the Home Guard, defending London during the Blitz. War even evoked the whale in an animated propaganda cartoon, in which an insular Britain was menaced by a Nazi whale morphing out of the map of Europe, with Scandinavia as its sinister swastika’d head and the Baltic as its evil-toothed jaw.


As German U-boats extended their operations south of the Equator and the Pacific too became a theatre of war, whaling virtually ceased. Some shore stations still operated in South Africa and Australia, but most whale-catchers were converted to warlike uses, ‘and such of the large factory ships-some of them displacing more than 17,000 tons-as escaped destruction are required for more urgent purposes’, The Times noted under the headline, ‘WAR AND THE WHALE’. ‘It will be interesting to observe the results of the close season imposed by war,’ added the newspaper, which hoped that the rapid decline in numbers noted in the last open season of 1939-40 ‘will prove to have been but temporary. At the same time,’ it admitted, ‘the virtual extinction of the Greenland whale, the Pacific grey whale, and the Biscayan and southern “right whales” is a warning against optimism.’

The aftermath of war did not bring peace for the whales any more than it did for their fellow species. Whale oil-and meat-was more valuable than ever as a supplement to rationed diets, and the whaling nations agreed that, in the first year after the war, the season would be extended. In 1945, only months after the cessation of hostilities, the first British whaling steamer to be built since the war sailed from the Tyne for South Georgia in her colours of red, white and blue, with a crew of four hundred on board. ‘The Southern Venturer is in a hurry…The vessel, which has only just been completed, will not reach the whaling waters by the official opening of the season.’ Two Norwegian vessels would arrive before her; but so too would two British whalers, converted from captured German ships.

The urgency was to feed a hungry nation. A new technique had been developed of shipping dehydrated whale meat-‘which is said to have high degrees of proteins…and of digestibility’-and soon recipes were appearing in the popular press. ‘How to Cook Whale Meat-Goulash Recommended’ (‘Add tomato ketchup to colour…Serve with macaroni or dumplings’), while ‘Waleburger Steaks’-deliberately misspelt, perhaps to obscure their origin-appeared on the menus of London restaurants. (‘After he had eaten his “Waleburger” Mr Lightfoot said he was agreeably surprised by the taste…There was no flavour of fish.’)

‘Whale meat was neither fish nor fowl,’ Dr Edith Summerskill of the Ministry of Food admitted, ‘but it was now hiding its “Jack Tar” accent and insisting upon roast beef connexions. As a result all the whale meat obtained was being accepted and sold.’ At one shilling and tenpence the pound, it was excellent value, and could be grilled, braised or minced, and served with fried onions, mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, although one commentator noted, ‘it might be advisable to eat sparingly of it until the digestive system has become more familiar with it.’ Meanwhile, in Norway, the Red Cross gave sperm whale teeth to the war disabled for scrimshanding, much as British veterans assembled paper poppies.

Still in wartime mode, Britain applied the lessons of war to whaling. In June 1946 it sent out ships equipped with ‘sonic submarine detectors’ to find whales, using ultrasonic nets to keep them within range of the boat. Although these techniques were soon found inferior to the animals they mimicked, the renewed industry gathered pace. On 10 May 1948 the whale-ship Balaena-and her crew of seventy British and five hundred Norwegians-returned triumphantly to Southampton, having captured three thousand whales, ten per cent of the total catch that season, among them a monster measuring 94 feet and weighing 180 tons.

This massive ship-complete with her own laboratories, blacksmith’s shop and hospital-stood alongside the docks I knew as a child, rivalling the ocean liners for size and presence. Her Antarctic cargo-a contrast to the heatwave in which she had arrived-may have been less glamorous than the Hollywood stars those passenger ships carried (Lana Turner was the next celebrity to appear on the quayside), but it was a major contribution to the national economy: 4,500 tons of meat, 163,000 barrels of edible oil (destined to make margarine), 10,000 barrels of sperm oil, 170 tons of meat extract, and a further 3,000 tons of meat for cattle fodder. Set alongside reports of Churchill’s exhortations to a United Europe in the local paper, the Balaena and her contents represented hope for a post-war world.

Such resources soon became the cause for resentment, especially as the Americans were aiding the Japanese in their own whaling operations. These were, after all, austere times, and the Allies encouraged the vanquished nation to feed its population fried whale or parboiled blubber as a cheap source of protein. The occupying powers, under General Douglas MacArthur, also helped equip decommissioned naval ships for the purpose; vessels that had fought against the Allies now turned their tonnage towards the whales. They did so against strong opposition from Australia, which complained that the Americans had not consulted it in the matter. It was nervous at the notion of former enemies sailing in its waters, and protested ‘on the ground of earlier Japanese violations of international whaling regulations and the inefficiency and wastefulness of Japanese whaling’.

That year, 1948, a Japanese whaling expedition sailed six thousand miles to the Antarctic, carrying a crew of thirteen hundred men, enough to populate a small town (or invade it, as some Antipodeans feared). This modern Armada comprised six catchers, a ten-thousand-ton factory ship, the Hashidate Maru, two processing ships to refrigerate its spoils, an oil tanker, and two vessels for cold storage. A Nantucketer would have blinked his eyes in wonder. The ships travelled far apart to avoid collision with each other or with icebergs-using radar to navigate through thick banks of fog-until they came upon their appointed foe: a gigantic blue whale.

A catcher boat was sent ahead, but whenever it had the whale in its sights, the animal sounded. It was two hours before the gunner hit his target. The first deep cut was made then and there, at the geographical point of its demise, for fear of the animal’s extraordinary metabolism. Insulated by thick blubber, whales generate tremendous heat-as their condensing blows indicate, akin to great steam engines. If they were to over-exert themselves in pursuit of prey, they could die of heat exhaustion; hence their need to regulate their temperature by cooling their blood in their flukes and fins. A whale killed in the Southern Ocean was immediately slit open from throat to tail, allowing cold water to flush through it, lest its internal heat cause its very bones to combust, leaving its hunters with a ‘burnt whale’, burning on its own oil like a giant candle, just as its brethren once burned to light the world.

Towed back tail first and up through a ferry-like skidway in the ship’s stern where eighty men worked for four hours to butcher it, the blue whale was one of the largest ever caught. It weighed 300,000 pounds, although they only knew this because they were able to slice it into pieces and place it on the ship’s scales. The tongue alone weighed three tons; the heart was as big as a car, and the arteries wide enough for a man to swim in. All was now so much offal.

And all this was accomplished in an atmosphere of outright hilarity. ‘Workmen laughed and leaped aboard loins that were skidding toward the loading chute,’ observed Lieutenant-Colonel Waldon C. Winston, an American officer accompanying the fleet. ‘Others there started a shanty. Over and over, they filled the box on the small platform scales, then emptied the contents down the loading chute.’ They might as well have been on a Detroit production line.

Below decks were steel boilers where the blubber was reduced to oil which was then stored in huge tanks. Nothing was wasted. A process had been devised to suck vitamin-rich oil from the whale’s liver. This one animal yielded 133 barrels of oil and sixty tons of meat valued at $28,000. This process went on, day by day, month by month, year by year, in waters so far from land that wounded men often died, there being no hospital to which they could be taken.

Here, out of sight, off shores belonging to no one, no one was responsible. Yet as the ships canned their whale meat, official observers looked on, and biologists sought to learn about living whales by examining dead ones. It was a uniquely mad situation, belied by its own legitimacy. Although regulations stated that mother and calf pairs were not to be targeted-any gunner who shot them had his pay deducted accordingly-pregnant animals were taken. These were the hardest to kill; one blue whale mother took nine harpoons and five hours to die.

In ancient Japan, Buddhists had honoured these unborn cetaceans, erecting stone tombs for them facing the sea, so that at least in death they could see the home they had been deprived of in life. American scientists working on the ships had other plans. One who found a five-inch sperm whale fœtus had it packed in ice, and back in port at his hotel used a mixture of vodka and shaving lotion to preserve it overnight. The next morning he dissected the specimen. It had the rudimentary features of the animals that became whales: with its pig-like snout, nostrils positioned at the front (before they migrated up the head), its protruding ears and genitals, and its hand-like flippers and residual whiskers, it was as if this whale-in-being might yet become some other creature entirely.

Only in death could man see whales in such detail; only on these mother ships were the massive animals seen to be colonies in their own right, living cities crawling with whale lice and studded with barnacles which finally loosened their grip as the blankets of blubber were cut away, the hard shells popping out of the epidermis and clattering to the deck. The whale’s interior played host to other parasites: the nematode worms that colonized its guts (intestines which, to scientists’ amazement, unravelled for a quarter of a mile). The Hashidate Maru merely minced up these worms along with the rest of the meat. Of more concern were the levels of radioactivity to be found in whale flesh, fallout from the devices that had exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But by then, every man, woman and child on the planet was absorbing strontium-90 into their bones from those explosions, a legacy to be passed on for generations to come.

In iceberg-blocked waters, serried ranks of rorquals lay belly up like gutted herring, side by side while sea birds fluttered about them like feathered stars. They were captive whales, ready for rendition. A factory fleet could cull seventy animals in one day, using weapons that resembled space-age missiles, flanged and fluked to implode in giant crania. Three hundred and sixty thousand blue whales died in this manner in the twentieth century, reducing their population to one thousand. By the 1960s the blue whale was, to all intents and purposes, commercially extinct.