Very Like a 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 8. Very Like a Whale

Can he who has discovered only the values of whale bone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale?

Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods

From October 1849 to July 1855-as Melville researched, wrote and published Moby-Dick-Henry David Thoreau undertook his walking tours of Cape Cod, having only recently emerged from his seclusion at Walden Pond, near Concord, where, in a two-year-long experiment, he sought to test the tenets of Transcendentalism.

The Transcendentalists, inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, sought a return to nature in order to feel God’s true presence. Hawthorne saw them as ‘queer, strangely-dressed, oddly-behaved mortals’-Victorian hippies, all but rehearsing Woodstock; they were satirized by Melville, too, for their romanticism: not least in the person of Ishmael himself. But for Thoreau, born in Concord in 1817, Walden was an escape from personal tragedy: the loss of his brother John, who had cut his finger when shaving and three days later died of lockjaw.

Walden was then still a wilderness, albeit one newly overshadowed by a railway embankment, built by the navvies from whom Thoreau bought his shack. Its sixty-one-acre pond is deeper in parts than Massachusetts Bay, with sandy shores shelving quickly to glacial black depths. Hawthorne found the water ‘thrillingly cold…like the thrill of a happy death…None but angels should bathe there.’ I saw no celestial beings when I swam there, but at the far end of the shore, in a glade beneath the pines and birches, there was a cairn of stones left by pilgrims to the site of Thoreau’s hut.

Here, in a room under-tenanted by squirrels and racoons, the philosopher attempted a self-sufficiency of one. Here he recorded the minutiæ of the natural cycle, and his attempts to live with it. It was as if he had stalled his civilized life and re-geared it to natural forces. Like Hawthorne, who visited him there, seclusion charged his imagination. Thoreau revelled in the retreat of the day, and in the hours slowed by the calm surface of the water.

As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

He was almost childishly fascinated by the process of nature through which he hoped to examine the essence of existence. Walden, his account of those two years, is an alternative text for an industrial age, a kind of corollary to Moby-Dick. Axiomatic, philosophical, naïve and complex, it sometimes speaks with the voice of angels, sometimes with earthbound science. The writing of it is the true reason why Thoreau carried out his experiment, but that does not diminish its power. In his personal utopia, Thoreau sought to reinvent the way we could live. ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.’ He rejected the wisdom of the old-‘Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost’-and felt a sense of hubris in the manner in which he might mark his own immortality.

What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?

Words came to Thoreau like a prophet of the new age, challenging the divisions wrought by his fellow men in their headlong pursuits. While at Walden, Thoreau protested against slavery and war by refusing to pay his taxes, a civil disobedience that earned him a night in gaol. Now aged thirty-two, and with only twelve years left before consumption took him, this man whom Hawthorne described as ‘ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed’, yet whose character became him ‘much better than beauty’, had returned to Concord-barely two miles distant, yet a universe away.

With Walden published but, like Moby-Dick, hardly a success, Thoreau still felt the pull of nature, often travelling with his young cousin and intimate companion, Edward Hoar. Like Ishmael, Thoreau was drawn to the ocean. It was an irresistible lure for a loner-an ‘Isolato living on a separate continent of his own’-to seek out something greater and confront it; to seek refuge, too, from one’s own self. The sea drew Thoreau out of the woods and onto the beach; the forest gave way to the ocean, the one opening out from the other. Yet neither was what it seemed, and like all desires, they were dangerous forces.

The Cape was barely more tamed than when the Pilgrims had made landfall there two hundred years before. Charles Nordhoff, who visited it around that time, bemoaned the ‘not over agreeable diversity of views’ in the expanses of dunes, salt marshes, scrub oaks and stunted pines which earned it ‘the euphonious name of “the Great Desert of Cape Cod.”’ It was certainly a sere landscape. ‘Dreary-looking’ wharves lined the bayside, while the stunted vegetation and absence of grass on the seaward side, ‘and above all and mixed with all, the everlasting glare of the sand, all united to give the shores of the Cape a most desolate appearance’.

It was as dismal as the deserts Melville wandered in his mind, and Thoreau too found it a barren country, ‘such a surface, perhaps, as the bottom of the sea made dry land day before yesterday’. Yet such bleakness also had its beauty: the high ridges of sand blown by Atlantic winds, over which were revealed the intense blue reaches; a mutability unwrought by man. This desolation-which Ishmael also saw in the limitlessness of the sea, ‘exceedingly monotonous and forbidding’-appealed to the hermit of Walden; a place where ‘everything told of the sea, even when we did not see its waste or hear its roar’.

Here the land paid homage to the ocean; became part of it, implicitly. ‘For birds there were gulls, and for carts in the fields, boats turned bottom upwards against the houses, and sometimes the rib of a whale was woven into the fence by the roadside.’ And here blackfish, or pilot whales, were prized for their oil, and had been since before the coming of the Pilgrims: the Mayflower’s second encounter with Native Americans had been at Wellfleet, where they watched Indians stripping the blubber from one of the stranded whales which earned it the name Grampus Bay.

Easily identified by their rounded melon heads and sleek black bodies, and so called because they followed a leader, pilot whales were hunted when other whales were not about. Frank Bullen recorded that ‘a good rich specimen will make between one and two barrels…of medium quality’, while hunks of their meat made a prized alternative to the ship’s salt beef. These lithesome, lacquered cetaceans are, like their sperm whale cousins (with whom they often associate), highly social, and their propensity to gather in great numbers made them all the more attractive to catch. The people of the Faroe Islands still round up pilot whales using techniques learned by their Viking ancestors, driving entire schools into shallow water where, surrounded by small craft and men armed with all manner of weapons, the cornered whales leap and thrash, rising perpendicularly out of the water, as if straining every muscle to evade the deadly blades. Appallingly human in their physical presence, they might as well be men in wet suits, but they are soon reduced to butchered blubber.

Such scenes were played out on the Cape’s shores, too. In an episode mirroring the striking first chapter of his book-which opens with the aftermath of a shipwreck and bodies being carried away in rough wooden boxes-Thoreau encounters slaughtered blackfish on the beach and is forced by the stench to take the long way round, only to find thirty more whales at Great Hollow, newly speared and turning the water red like the dead of a failed invasion.

Thoreau marvelled at the shape and texture of the animals, as smooth as India-rubber; with their blunt snouts and stiff flippers, they seemed almost embryonic. The largest was fifteen feet long; others were only five-foot juveniles with unerupted teeth, barely more than suckling babies. As the whales lay there, a fisherman obliged the visitor by slicing into the flesh to display the depth of the blubber, fully three inches thick. Thoreau ran his fingers over the wound, as if to believe. He felt its oily texture. It looked like pork to him; he was told that young boys would come along with slices of bread to make sandwiches of the stuff. The fisherman then dug deeper for the meat which, he told Thoreau, he preferred to any beefsteak.

As they stood there on the shore, Thoreau heard a cry: ‘Another school.’ In the distance, he could see the whales leaping through the waves like horses. The fishermen pushed off in their boats, boys running to join them. ‘I might have gone too had I chosen,’ said Thoreau; but he did not, nor was inclined to say why. Perhaps he felt the same equivocal fascination as I have when watching pink-coated huntsmen career through New Forest bracken. As Thoreau looked on, thirty boats rowed out either side of the whales, striking the sides of their craft and blowing horns to drive them onto the beach. He had to admit it was an exciting race, and as the frenetic scene played out before his eyes, he heard an old blind fisherman say, pathetically, ‘Where are they? I can’t see. Have they got them?’

For a moment it seemed the whales might win, as they headed north-west towards Provincetown and the refuge of the open ocean. Fearing their prey might be lost, the hunters were forced to strike then and there, using short-stemmed lances to take the whales as they leapt in and out of the waves. Thoreau could just make out the men as they jumped from their boats into the shallows, finishing off the animals as they lay on the beach, shuddering and spouting blood. ‘It was just like pictures of whaling which I have seen, and a fisherman told me that it was nearly as dangerous.’

Those hunted whales haunted Thoreau. Back in Concord, he tried to find out more about them, but he discovered only an absence. Storer’s Report on the Fishes did not include the pilot whale, ‘since it is not a fish’ and Emmons’s Report of the Mammalia omitted all whales, because the author had never seen any. I thought it remarkable that neither the popular nor scientific name…the Social Whale, Globicephalus Melas of De Kay; called also Black Whale-fish, Howling Whale, Bottlehead, etc., was to be found in…a catalogue of the productions of our land and water,’ Thoreau mused.

It was a lack all the stranger for the part the whales played in the economy and history of the Cape: from the Indians’ modest operations, to the modern ‘early risers’ who could still find one thousand dollars worth of whales stranded on the sand. Pilot whales and dolphins still strand here, in greater numbers than on almost any other shore. Lured by the presence of squid, the bay becomes a literal dead end for them, as they lie hoicked out of water, attacked by gulls which take advantage of the helpless animals to peck out their eyes as they slowly expire.

As he reached Provincetown, Thoreau marvelled at the part fishing village, part frontier town, with only one road and one pavement. ‘The time must come when this coast will be a resort for those New-Englanders who really wish to visit the sea-side,’ he predicted. ‘At present it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them.’ And as he approached his journey’s end, Thoreau saw what looked like a bleached log on the beach. It proved to be part of the skeleton of a whale-a sign he conflated with a wreck that lay close by, its ‘bones’ still visible: ‘Perchance they lie alongside the timbers of a whale.’ The Cape’s winter storms still throw up eighteenth-century keels, their crossbars grey wooden ribs on the shore; but Thoreau could not know that these same sands also concealed a cetacean graveyard.

Dr Charles ‘Stormy’ Mayo is a man in his sixties, with a wiry frame, unflinching blue eyes, and a passion for growing dahlias. On his father’s side, his family have lived on the Cape for nearly four hundred years; the Mayos first came to Chatham in 1650. His grandmother, on the other hand, came from the Azorean island of Faial. In his forebears’ day, these waters were alive with animals, says Stormy, looking out of his office window and over to the bay. I can almost see the scene in his eyes, a paradise teeming with whales and fish.

Stormy’s grandfather was one of the blackfish hunters-until the day he took a mother and heard her calf calling for her under his boat. He hadn’t the heart for whaling after that. But he also told his grandson of a whaling station at the Eastern Harbor, on the outskirts of town, where the Cape is at its narrowest and most tentative. Had the sea broken through here, Provincetown would have become an island; but soon after Thoreau passed this way, a dyke was built across the slender stretch, and the harbour turned into a brackish lake.

And it was here, out walking, that Mayo and his son Josiah found a concavity in the dunes, a ‘blow-out’ that had temporarily ebbed to reveal a long-lost ossuary. Jaw bones and vertebræ lay jumbled together, sticking up out of the sand. Perhaps, like the elephants’ graveyard, this was where whales went to die; whales once so numerous that the Pilgrims thought they might walk across the bay on their backs.

Lumbering and low, those whales’ descendants still swim in Cape Cod Bay, labouring under their inauspicious name: the right whale to catch; a ponderous, literal pun, borne with fortitude. With forty per cent of their body as fat, right whales are highly buoyant, spending most of their time at the surface; even more conveniently, they floated when killed. Along with their propensity to hug the shoreline-hence their other epithet, the urban whale-right whales suffered most of all from the centuries of unnatural predation. They were the first whale to be hunted, by Basques in the Bay of Biscay-a dubious honour commemorated by their proprietorial French name, baleine de Biscaye-but fewer than four hundred now remain in the North Atlantic.

With its baroque, glossy body encrusted with callosities, its paddle-shaped flippers and its bizarre, yawning mouth filled with baleen, Eubalæna glacialis is both grotesque and wondrous, the stuff of ancient engravings. It is the very definition of a whale, as supplied by Ishmael’s sub-sub-librarian, who informs us that the word itself came of Scandinavian roots: hvale, meaning arched or vaulted in reference to its jaws, but also a reflection of the animal’s rolling roundness, its architectural structure.


Like the sperm whale, the right whale was a victim of its strange physiology. Not only did it boast plentiful blubber, but its particularly long baleen, when heated, could be moulded into shape for umbrellas, corset stays and venetian blinds, or used as bristles for brushes. If whale oil was the petrol of its day, then whalebone was its plastic. Harvested in clumps higher than a man, their pliable blades were once arrayed in quayside plantations like giant sheaves of Jamaican sugar cane.


New Bedford Whaling Museum

What made these the right whales to kill now makes them modern targets. Almost unbelievably, one of the world’s rarest species chooses to frequent its most populous shores and busiest shipping routes. Here they fall victim to the tactics they deploy with their predators, remaining silent and still at the surface. An orca might be fooled into thinking the right whale was an inanimate object; an insensate freighter cares less. Although the right whale became the first cetacean to be protected from hunting in 1935, its numbers in the North Atlantic have remained static, despite legislation moving the shipping lane further north, and strict instructions that vessels should stay five hundred yards away from any whale. The result-so few breeding whales-is that the animal’s gene pool is now so restricted that it is unlikely to survive the century.

The irony is that the right whale is such a fertile, if not fecund creature. Weighing nearly a ton, the male’s testes are the largest of any animal. These, along with its eight-foot penis, allow it to take part in sperm competition in which males assert their supremacy by multiple matings rather than fighting for favours (although they may use their callosities as a kind of weapon). Females will even permit more than one partner to enter them at the same time, after sessions of delicate foreplay in which the courting animals use their flippers to stroke each other with inordinate gentleness; like all whales, their skin is incredibly sensitive, and the pressure of a human finger can send their entire body quivering. Despite this vigorous approach to sex, there are only eight matrilineal lines left in the northern species-the visible legacy of centuries of whaling.

Stormy saw his first right whale when he was a sixteen-year-old boy out fishing on Stellwagen Bank with his father; they were almost legendary animals by then, already close to extinction. ‘People knew there were some left,’ he recalls, ‘but nobody knew where most of them were.’ His youthful interest evolved into an adult passion, and having helped found the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown in 1976, Mayo began collecting data on right whales. He also became the first person to be licensed by the government to rescue entangled whales; more than sixty per cent of right whales have been caught in fishing line. Ship strikes, too, are killing more than hitherto suspected, many of them females of calf-bearing age. At this stage of the species’ history, to save just one fertile female could make a difference between extinction or survival. It is hard not to see Stormy and his colleagues as new heroes of anti-whaling, flown interstate at short notice on operations costing thousands of dollars.

Indeed, the same techniques that were once used to hunt whales are now used to save them. Alerted to an incident, the Ibis reaches the scene as soon as possible; an entangled whale may eventually die from starvation or infection, but more immediately, it can drown. The rescuers use a rigid inflatable boat to approach the animal and attach sea anchors to slow its progress, just as whalers used wooden kegs, and Native Americans attached inflated sealskins to harpooned whales. Wearing an ice hockey mask and a helmet (on which is fixed a video camera to record the event), Stormy attempts to cut the victim free. His equipment may be twenty-first century, but in silhouette he resembles a Victorian harpooneer, only instead of a barbed spear, he wields a long-handled hook to slice through the cat’s cradle of line.

As Stormy bears witness, an angry whale is a dangerous whale. These are not the equivalent of cetacean cows grazing over verdant oceanic pastures (although they are closely related to ruminants, and have multiple stomachs to digest their food). Rather, they are surprisingly flexible creatures-much more so than other baleen whales, despite being twice as heavy as humpbacks, and positively barrel-shaped compared to the streamlined but largely unbending finbacks-able almost to touch their flukes with their snouts, an act of acrobatics necessary for turning in tight circles when pursuing their minute, ever-shifting prey.

On his computer, Stormy runs video clips of entanglement scenes. The sheer muscular power of the animal is vividly apparent. Twisting and turning like a gigantic salmon, the whale’s tail thrashes in a manner that brings those nineteenth-century scenes alive. With one flick of the tail, this wilful creature could truly send a boat flying into the air, ‘his very panics…more to be dreaded than his most fearfulness and malicious assaults!’ as Ishmael observes.

Stormy’s relationship with the right whales is intimate by virtue of such close encounters. He speaks of the prehistoric vision they present, the sun glinting through their baleen. And while he finds the use of the word ‘intelligent’ less than useful in conjunction with animals, he does not hesitate in calling them ‘wicked’, creatures that know their power. The whalers knew this well. Unable, like the sperm whale, to see straight ahead or behind, the right whale could ‘sweep with his tail or flukes from one eye to the other, thus rendering any approach to his body, from abreast, impossible or highly dangerous’.

After a rescue, Stormy often cannot remember what he has done. He reasons this is because his short-term memory deals only with essential details; only when he watches the playback does he relive the moment. Once, a fishing hook on the line snagged on Stormy’s lifejacket as the animal dived, threatening to take him down too, like Ahab tethered to Moby Dick. Mayo had split-seconds to cut himself free; in the water there would be no escape as the momentum dragged back his arm, making it impossible to use his knife.

…And were the whale then to run the line out to the end in a single, smoking minute as he sometimes does, he would not stop there, for the doomed boat would infallibly be dragged down after him into the profundity of the sea…

The Line, Moby-Dick

On his computer, Stormy’s colleague, Scott Landry, shows me other images of entanglement: animals with nylon line cutting so deep that the flesh has begun to grow over it, even as it weeps and bleeds; whale lice or cyamids colonize these weakened areas, signs of an ailing animal. It is upsetting to see sleek bodies turning ghostly grey, sapped by the cords that bind them. By-products of global endeavour rather than subjects of it as they once were, they must have sinned mightily to be so ill rewarded by fate. A last picture shows a dead whale on a beach, livid and pink, visibly diminishing as a recognizable creature, although its eye still stares and weeps.

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animals shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the Earth.

Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1926

In the late winter and early spring the Center’s research vessel Shearwater sails out to measure the levels of zooplankton in the bay. The theory is that these levels are accurate indicators of whether this habitat can support the whales. If the count rises above 3,750 organisms/m3, then the density of oil-rich copepods and other colourless animals-each looking, under the microscope, like little watery extraterrestrials as they row themselves in eccentric circles-will sustain the population. If not, any whale calling on this historic feeding ground will find it wanting and move away. From such minute and methodical study, leviathans follow.

Zipped and velcro’d into a padded, astronaut-like survival suit to forestall my death from hypothermia should I tumble over the side of the boat, I sign away any claims to public liability and, duly approved by the federal government, I climb the metal ladder to the Shearwater’s upper deck, facing the bright sun and chill wind. Despite instructions on how to focus just below the horizon and see with my peripheral vision, the unchanging surface and the sea’s motion lulls me into a kind of sleep. ‘There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves,’ as Ishmael says, watching for whales from the mast-head, ‘everything resolves you into languor’.

Nothing breaks the monotony, not even a bird. It is as if the whole world had been chilled. After six hours’ searching, my eyes begin to ache. Everything is flat, almost soporific in the icy winter air. The long windsock-like sample nets trailing emptily from the stern prove a negative: there is not enough food here for whales.

It is not a good sign. Cold water holds more oxygen, and so supports more food than southern seas, but rising temperatures have driven plankton north by a latitude of ten degrees, while warming oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, acidifying the whales’ environment. The spotter plane circling overhead sees not so much as a blow, and the sun and wind burn my face for looking. Perhaps we were just not worthy that day.

Three months later, I sailed on the Shearwater again. It was early May, and the right whales had not appeared in any numbers; the plankton counts remained frustratingly low. But then Stormy reported a change in the circumstances.

From Provincetown’s harbour, the boat made for the western side of the bay, eight or ten miles towards Plymouth. We sat on the upper deck, watching porpoises slip through the water, fleet and shy; it was easy to see why sailors called them sea pigs as they snorted and shuffled through the waves. Then we saw something else: a low dark shape gliding along the surface. It seemed almost inconsequential; but as we drew closer, I realized it was a right whale. Slowly but surely, the animal was moving like a lawnmower, purposefully harvesting the now plankton-rich waters, called here by some collective memory, or perhaps by smelling or even hearing its food. As the Shearwaterclosed the distance between, I put down my field glasses and looked on in amazement.

One, two, three, four, five whales now appeared around us, baleen plates glinting in the sun like enormous musical instruments. Suddenly their incongruous beauty was revealed, the strange bonnet at the top of their heads, covered in pale growths like lichen on a tree. As they floated, buoyed up by their bulk, they looked more like plants than animals, or maybe shiny rocks, kept glossy by the water running over them. Only behind and below was their power evident, their broad flukes barely breaking the surface, effortlessly manœuvring their bodies.

They were giant, living jigsaw puzzles: no matter how hard I looked, I could not grasp the entirety of the creatures, the sense of their structure, the components from which they were made. It was as if they were shifting in and out of focus. As we came up behind one animal, I saw how broad was its back; how it shelved out from its spine like a great table, and I could imagine why Brendan the navigator and his monks landed on a whale and, presuming it to be an island, lit a fire and said Mass in thanks for their salvation.


…even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea…

Abruptly, one animal approached the boat, so close that Stormy-who was standing on the bowsprit, held out over the waves-could have reached out and patted its rough head like a dog. Instead, he focused his camera to record the pattern of callosities, which appear at the same points where hair grows on the human face-brow, chin, upper lips-and which give each animal its identity, a rough physiognomy queasily underlined by the fact that they are infested with pale whale lice, the minute scorpions that crawl around their host’s head, eating its dead skin. As Eric Joranson, one of the mates on the whale watch boats told me, the lice will also colonize a human given half the chance, and are difficult to dislodge once they do. When a whale lies dying on the beach, they leave it like rats off a sinking ship. None the less, these parasites may also assist the whale: since they eat the same copepods, it is possible that they lead it to its food, acting as minute sensors.

As the whale passed us, it was as if it were paying court to its champion, nodding its head serenely towards Stormy as it passed. It then swung around the boat, and next to me. Looking down into the water, I could see its great white jaw swinging open like some massive hinged door, wide enough to garage a car-the largest mouth of any living creature. Now I could see the entirety of the animal, hanging below, an iceberg suspended in its element. It was also deceptively fast, creating a wave in front of its snout with the weight of its fifty tons. Silently gaping as it passed by, both aware and unaware of us, it was like watching a dinosaur, an animal whose physical presence was belied by its air of fatality. It also smelled, a deep insupportable smell, somewhere between a cow’s fart and a fishy wharf, a pungent reminder of its function as a processing plant for plankton.

Then it was gone to join the others, apparitions that, for all their size, were quite dreamlike. It was hard to look on these huge creatures and think of a time when they might not be there. Barely a mile away, shipping was moving in and out of Cape Cod Canal and under the distinctive hump of the Sagamore Bridge. It was a lesson in the nature of survival. Paying scant attention to anything other than their food and themselves, they would not know, could not see, the tanker or the container ship steaming towards them. Later that day, the Shearwater alerted shipping to their presence in the bay. What was a day trip for me may have saved a whale’s life.

As we turned to leave, a black shape broke the horizon. A whale was breaching, lazily launching itself into the air before landing with a distant crash. Then it began to slap down on the surface with its tail, the sound ricocheting off our boat as a cannonade. As it held its flukes emblematically against the sky, infused with its own life and power, we turned our backs on the whales and left them to their lunch.

Ham. Do you see yonder cloud, that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Pol. By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.

Ham. Methinks, it is like a weasel.

Pol. It is backed like a weasel.

Ham. Or, like a whale?

Pol. Very like a whale.

Hamlet, Act Three, Scene II

Hamlet was right, for all his teasing. Whales are like clouds. They change shape, forming and re-forming as they pass through the great expanse of the sea and over its drowned mountains and valleys, just as the clouds drifted over the snowy peak that Melville watched from his window in a Massachusetts meadow. In whale bone carvings, the Inuit represent the whale’s breath as a feather. Cartoon whales spout their own personal weather, their own head of steam. To its prey, the white belly of a humpback, too, appears as a cloud, albeit one that might consume it.

And as clouds create atlases in the air, so whales are countries in their own right, planetary communities of barnacles and sea-lice wandering on their own continental drift. International ambassadors of nature’s undiscerning power, they are stateless nations, invested with something beyond their mere presence. ‘By art is created that great Leviathan,’ wrote Hobbes, ‘called a Commonwealth or State.’ As plundered colonies, they remain under attack, invincible yet vulnerable, defenceless for all their size. It is the whale’s fate to share man’s air, and so risk its life in the process of sustaining it, caught in a bind as much as any philosopher perplexed by the human condition.

The whale lives between worlds; that is its miracle, and its folly. What did it do to deserve such a fate? Spurned by Noah (it could hardly fit in the ark), it pays the price for its self-exile, having forsaken the land for the sea.

I am, by a flood, borne back to that wondrous period, ere time itself can be said to have begun; for time began with man.

The Fossil Whale, Moby-Dick

The earliest whale-like creatures can be traced back fifty million years to the Eocene and the Tethys Sea, an ancient ocean whose vestiges now form the Mediterranean and Caspian seas. Their ancestors included Pakicetus, a four-legged and fox-like creature which in turn gave way to Ambulocetus natans, a kind of giant otter, and other so-called ‘walking whales’ such as Kutchicetus and Rodhocetus. Recent discoveries point to another missing link between whales and land-dwellers: Indohyus, a deer-like ungulate which possessed a similar bony structure in its auditory system to that of cetaceans; being a herbivore, it became semi-aquatic to escape its predators. Drawn to the water’s edge, the mesonycids’ descendants would become horses, bison, camels, sheep-and cetaceans.

The first whales, the archæocetes, were quite as global in range as their descendants-although the serpentine remains of Basilosaurus cetoides convinced Victorian palæontologists that it was a marine reptile when its fossilized skeleton was found in the Deep South in 1832; Ishmael claims that ‘awe-stricken credulous slaves in the vicinity took it for the bones of one of the fallen angels’. Only Sir Richard Owen, inventor of the dinosaur, recognized this ‘annihilated anti-chronical creature’ as a ‘pre-adamite whale’ which he renamed Zeuglodon, ‘one of the most extraordinary of the Mammalia which the revolutions of the globe have blotted out of the number of existing beings’.

Around thirty-five million years ago, the whales divided into mysticetes and odontocetes, leaving the archæocetes to become extinct; although some scientists believe that sperm whales are genetically closer to baleen whales than they are to other toothed whales. Similarly, recent fossil discoveries of the baleen whales’ antecedents have revealed animals with huge, baleful eyes and jagged teeth, quite unlike their benevolent, modern counterparts.


Michael Long

Given the lacunæ in the fossil record and our ignorance of great swathes of time, the evolution of the whale remains obscure. Traces of their land-borne origins can be seen in the residual hind limbs of embryo whales, as if their prehistory could be read there-but then, we are all whales in the womb, swimming in amniotic seas. Occasionally a sperm whale is born with an extra pair of atavistic fins, while one humpback was recorded with freak limbs a yard long, a strange being, neither one thing nor the other, like a Barnum mermaid made from a fish and a monkey.

The whales made good use of their freedom from the land. It is the buoyancy of the sea that has allowed them to develop into such mighty animals: if they still had legs, they would not be able to stand on them, so great is their weight. Such an evolutionary genesis both refutes and reflects the hand of the Almighty: as one Victorian handbill, advertising the exhibition of a whale’s bones, claimed:

Who can contemplate this mighty skeleton…without adoring the Mind that formed it? Where can we better cultivate a sentiment of devotion than in the presence of work so expressive of the various attributes of the varied God?

Yet for an era whose beliefs were under threat, the whale had a kind of equivalence with the origins of the earth and the newly discovered animals of prehistory; if these cetacean giants survived the flood, then so might other monsters. ‘Leviathan is not the biggest fish,’ as Melville told Hawthorne, ‘-I have heard of Krakens.’

In the first half of the nineteenth century sea serpents were sighted, with remarkable frequency, off the coast of Massachusetts. Witnesses claimed to see huge animals with snake-like bodies and heads held high out of the water. Unlike many such fantastical monsters, however, these beasts were seen by hundreds of people for hours at a time, and no less a body than Boston’s Linnæan Society published its findings on the subject in a pamphlet, a copy of which is lodged in the British Library, stamped with the name of its owner, the naturalist Joseph Banks.

‘In the month of August 1817, it was currently reported on various authorities, that an animal of very singular appearance had been recently and repeatedly seen in the harbour of Gloucester, Cape Ann, about thirty miles distant from Boston,’ noted the society, whose members were all Harvard graduates and one of whom, Jacob Bigelow, was a renowned scientist and inventor of the term ‘technology’. ‘It was said to resemble a serpent in its general form and motions, to be of immense size, and to move with wonderful rapidity; to appear on the surface of the water only in calm and bright weather; and to seem jointed or like a number of buoys or casks following each other in a line.’ In response, the society appointed a committee ‘to collect evidence with regard to the existence and appearance of any such animal’. It was a court of law called to consider the existence of sea monsters; and although its findings might have certified a hippogriff, it is hard to conclude that the witnesses did not see what they say they saw.

Amos Story of Gloucester, mariner, said the animal had a head shaped like that of a sea turtle, ‘his colour appeared to be a dark brown, and when the sun shone upon him, the reflection was very bright. I thought his body was about the size of a man’s body.’


A Monstrous Sea Serpent,

The largest ever seen in America,
Has just made its appearance in Gloucester Harbour,
Cape Ann, and has been seen by hundreds of
Respectable Citizens.

Solomon Allen of Gloucester, shipmaster, saw it three days running, ‘nearly all day from the shore…I was on the beach, nearly on a level with him…He turned short and quick, and the first part of the curve that he made in turning resembled the link of a chain.’

Epes Ellery of Gloucester, shipmaster, witnessed ‘the upper part of his head, and I should say about forty feet of the animal…I was looking at him with a spy-glass, when I saw him open his mouth, and his mouth appeared like that of the serpent; the top of his head appeared flat…He appeared to be amusing himself though there were several boats not far from him.’

In their deliberations, the committee consulted historical accounts such as that of Bishop Pontoppidan’s Natural History of Norway of 1755. The cleric recorded that experienced seamen found it strange to be asked if such creatures existed; he might as well have asked if there were such fish as cod or eel. Bearing such evidence in mind, the Linnæans declared ‘the foregoing testimony sufficient to place the existence of the animal beyond a doubt’.

It was a remarkable conclusion, and as if to mark it, a second serpent was seen in Long Island Sound that October, ‘perhaps not more than a half mile from the shore, a long, rough, dark-looking body, progressing rapidly up sound (towards New York)’. One witness watched through his telescope as its back, forty or fifty feet of which was visible, rose above the surface, ‘irregular, uneven, and deeply indented’. It was a somehow horrifying scene, of a monster approaching Manhattan, and was revisited later when another was seen eighty miles up the Hudson River. A further sighting off Nahant, Boston, was witnessed by at least two hundred people.

Over the following years, these creatures reappeared in the same waters, as though summoned by the same upwelling of food that brought the whales to the Gulf of Maine. In May 1833, for instance, five officers of the British garrison out fishing for the day in Mahone Bay off Halifax were surprised by a school of pilot whales ‘in an unusual state of excitement and which in their gambols approached so close to our little craft that some of the party amused themselves by firing at them with rifles’.

Only then did the officers realize that the whales were fleeing ‘some denizen of the deep’ two hundred yards behind. Its movements were ‘precisely like those of a common snake, in the act of swimming, the head so elevated and thrown forward by the curve of the neck, as to enable us to see the water under and beyond it’. The creature was estimated at one hundred feet in length.

That August, the British consul watched a similar animal from a hotel terrace in Boston: ‘above a hundred persons saw it at the same time’. One was even seen at Herring Cove in Provincetown, apparently enticed by the presence of fish and warmer waters. No less a person than Senator Daniel Webster saw a monster off Plymouth, a sighting recorded in Thoreau’s Cape Cod, along with the politician’s urgent request to fellow anglers never to mention a word of the encounter, lest he spend his life being asked about it. Little wonder that the serpent was a topic of conversation at the luncheon party after Melville and Hawthorne met on Monument Mountain; or that down in Carolina, another monster caused a sensation when it swam up the Broad River into one of its tributaries which was barely a hundred yards wide, chased all the while by a party of men shooting at it with rifles.

Throughout the century, from all corners of the globe, there were sightings of sea serpents. Surely not even the sceptical could dismiss them as a conspiracy of fools? Spectators swore to the same details: a huge, long-necked animal, able to swim faster than the fastest whale. Precise locations were given, in latitude and longitude, marking these appearances at exact moments in time, to be entered in ship’s logs, and relayed in newspaper paragraphs. Such was the evidence surrounding the sea serpent that when Henry Dewhurst published his Natural History of the Cetacea in 1834, he included it as fact, ‘one of those unknown animals which occasionally puzzle the zoologist when they make their appearance’.

Scanning the yellowing columns of newsprint, it is remarkable to see how often such mythical animals rear their head, and what a debate raged around the possibility of their existence. The most famous encounter came on 6 August 1848, when the crew of HMS Dædalus, en route from the Cape of Good Hope to St Helena, watched ‘an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea’. Sixty feet of the animal was visible à fleur d’eau, as Captain McQuhæ, stirred to poetic French by the apparition, described it. The creature (which to me looks rather like a giant slow worm) passed so close that had it been ‘a man of my acquaintance’, the captain added, ‘I should have easily recognized his features with the naked eye’. Readers of the Illustrated London News thrilled to a double-page spread on the subject, along with the testimony of an officer of the Royal Navy.


But of all these accounts, it is those that describe interaction with whales that most terrify and intrigue; not least because, in such company, they seem to disprove the assertions of experts who claimed that what experienced sailors saw were in fact whales, sharks, porpoises, or even elephant seals. In June 1818 eighteen passengers and the captain of the packet Delia, sailing off Cape Ann, watched a sea serpent battling a humpback whale, the creature rearing its head and tail twenty-five feet out of the water. In July 1887 a monster was seen fighting what was presumed to be a cetacean off the Maine coast; the following morning, a dying whale was found stranded nearby, ‘its flesh torn and gashed’. The most extraordinary report, however, came from the South Atlantic in 1875.

On 8 January, off Cape São Roque, on the north-eastern corner of Brazil-a landmark for emigrating whales-the barque Pauline was sailing in moderate winds and fine weather when her crew saw some black spots on the water, with a whitish pillar high above them. As the ship drew near, it became apparent that the pillar was more than thirty feet tall, and was rising and falling with a splash. George Drevar, ship’s master, picked up his eyeglasses and could not believe what he saw: a sea serpent with its coils wrapped twice around a sperm whale.

At this point in the narrative I find it almost impossible to proceed, for fear of waking the sleeping monster, wondering if I’d ever dare go out of my depth again.

Using its head and tail as levers, the serpent was twisting itself around the whale ‘with great velocity’. Every few minutes the pair sank beneath the waves, only to reappear, still engaged in mortal combat. The struggles of the whale-along with two others nearby which were ‘frantic with excitement’-turned the sea around them into a boiling cauldron, rent with loud and confused noise. From its coils, Drevar estimated the serpent to be in excess of 160 feet long. He noted that its mouth was ever open, an observation that somehow makes the scene more awful. As the crew of the Pauline watched, the battle of the leviathans continued for fifteen minutes, and ended only when the whale’s flukes, waving backwards and forwards and lashing the water in its death throes, vanished below, where, Drevar had no doubt, ‘it was gorged at the serpent’s leisure; and that monster of monsters may have been many months in a state of coma, digesting the huge mouthful.’

With that final act, the two sperm whales that looked on, ‘their bodies more than usually elevated out of the water’, moved slowly towards the ship, as if seeking shelter from the monster. They were ‘not spouting or making the least noise, but seeming quite paralysed with fear’. The engraving made from Drevar’s sketch merely underlines the pathos: the cruel sea serpent playing with the placid whale like a cat with a garden bird, twisting and turning it in its grasp as the cetacean fights for its life.


It may be that Drevar actually witnessed the titanic struggle between a giant squid and a whale. I must confess I have seen whales that look like sea monsters, rolling in the waves. My childish desire to believe in a lost world (Arthur Conan Doyle, on honeymoon in Greece, claimed to have seen a young ichthyosaur in the sea) seeks to create something palpable out of the apparently incredible; to conjure an abyssal nightmare out of the pages of scientific certainty. Yet fishermen, clergymen and men of experience and social standing risked ridicule by swearing to what they saw. Could they really have been deceived by schooling porpoises or basking sharks?

Doubt would surround the sea serpent until the day it was caught and presented for public display. In 1852, a year after the publication of Moby-Dick, a New Bedford whaler promised to do just that. Sailing in the South Pacific, the Monongahela claimed not only to have seen a sea serpent, but to have pursued and harpooned it like a whale. The 103-foot-long animal was brought on deck, dried and preserved, along with its long, flat, ridged head and ninety-four teeth, ‘very sharp, all pointing backward and as large as one’s thumb’. This remarkable finding, which seemed set to prove the existence of the beast, was reported in the British journal Zoology, after the whale-ship had gammed with a brig which brought back the captain’s letters describing the monster. But the Monongahela never reached her home port. A year later she was lost at sea with all hands, and her incredible cargo. What a specimen it would have made for New Bedford’s museum and Ishmael’s eyes: the great sea serpent on display.

In one of his most mystical asides, ‘A Bower in the Arsacides’, Ishmael tells of an exotic island, supposedly in the Mediterranean, where a whale’s skeleton had become a place of worship. Its ribs were hung with trophies, its vertebræ carved with a calendar, and in its skull burned an eternal flame, ‘so that the mystic head again sent forth in vapory spout; while…the wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen…’In this living temple of growth and decay, the vine-clad bones turned into a verdant bower-‘Life folded Death; Death trellised Life’-and our narrator takes the opportunity to have the dimensions of this Arsacidean whale tattooed on his own body, ‘as in my wild wanderings at that period there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics’.

To Ishmael, the whale is as mysterious as any sea serpent: a formidable creature to be feared and even worshipped. And as this gothic episode-with its evocations of the gloomy glade where Melville and Hawthorne met-draws Ishmael’s attention across the Atlantic, so his report summons me home, to discover what became of the whale in my native land. For it was in England that the true nature of the leviathan would be made known; from English whaling ports that distinguished men would set out to identify, categorize, and perhaps even pin down for posterity the still somewhat conditional reality of the whale.