It’s hard to quantify the enormity of a whale. A North Atlantic right whale can weigh as much as 10 African elephants. So what? Unless life has taken you down an unlikely path that requires you regularly interact with elephants, that’s a fairly meaningless comparison. Telling you that blue whale often come in at more than double the heaviest known dinosaur doesn’t mean much either.
Perhaps man-made items allow for better understanding. Remember that huge swimming pool you used to struggle up and down as a kid? The 25m one? Well if you put that blue whale in there, its tail would hang out by another five metres, like a tall man in too short a coffin. And the North Atlantic right whale? Well… Well I can’t actually tell you much about that because humans have so mercilessly hunted them that just 500 or so remain.
One of three subspecies of right whale, they earned their moniker during the inglorious days of mass American whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were the “right” whales because they swam slowly and close to shore, came up for air regularly, had an unfortunate habit of being naturally curious, and floated when dead, allowing them to be easily towed to harbour or casually butchered on board. Now, if you were to wander the world, you would be four times more likely to bump into a giant panda than a North Atlantic right whale. Which is to say: they are exceptionally endangered, and that is our fault.
Fortunately, other species of whale have proved more robust, even though they too were hunted by man. Take the humpback, as many as 200,000 of which were thought to have been taken during the 20th century. It’s hard to grasp that number too – that amount of meat and bone – but knowing how widely they were persecuted makes their being so easy to spot today all the more remarkable.
Along with perhaps 50 other wide-eyed tourists, I spend a morning on board a Dolphin Fleet whale-watching ship just off the coast of Cape Cod, one of those salty New England destinations whose name conjures the roar of the ocean and the cry of a gull. Not far from the boat, four humpback whales are hunting herring using a technique known as bubble-netting. Working as a team, they swim below great shoals of fish, steadily releasing streams of air to confuse and ensnare their prey. Then they rush up from the depths, swallowing the herring in colossal gulps. It’s a thrilling thing to witness, especially as the first bubbles of their trap hit the surface just before their vast, yawning mouths. The crowd oohs and aahs. No one is on the side of the doomed herring.
To witness this behaviour, and more generally to see a whale in person and to feel your own smallness next to it, stirs up a strange kind of melancholy. Why did we want to stab at these behemoths? Why would we choose to destroy something so magnificent? It seems to be, as the author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville, wrote, “part of the universal problem of all things.”
Melville’s white whale has come to symbolise many things to many people – the perfect novel, a great love, almost anything overwhelming and profound and capable of destroying us. To his lunatic Captain Ahab, of course, Moby Dick was the target of insane revenge, the sperm whale having “razed” his leg on a previous voyage: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.”
Though Melville, himself a former whaler, understood the trade better than most, it’s unlikely many New England sailors were motivated by hatred of their quarry. More likely they were simply in it for the money – and there was a lot of money to be made.
Americans were whaling before the States were united; it was the first global trade in which they were leaders. It was so important to the island of Nantucket that in the build-up to the American Revolutionary War, whalers tried to stay out of the conflict, so as not to interfere with their profits. Even now along the coasts of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine, many of the grandest houses once belonged to captains who’d become fabulously rich and fat through whale oil. “Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion,” wrote Melville. “All these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”
In decades of hunting, the New Englanders became, quite literally, bloody experts in their trade. Some of the lines in Moby Dick are so perfect as to seem carved into the paper, but many of the most memorable are graphic descriptions of how gruesome the whole business was. Perhaps better to leave it to the pen of Francis Allyn Olmsted, a medical student who travelled on a whaling vessel in 1839, to describe one of the whalers’ ruthless techniques: “The taking of one of a school almost always ensures the capture of another, for his comrades do not immediately abandon the victim, but swim around him, and appear to sympathise with him in his sufferings.” The men carrying the harpoons showed no such sympathy.
The importance of the industry to New England is explained in the excellent New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. Established in 1903, it opened while whaling was still popular, but at a time when the local population knew it was on the wane. The Civil War had done them no favours, and the introduction of the even deadlier explosive-tipped harpoons by the Norwegian fleet heralded the beginning of the end of America’s comparatively prehistoric trade.
The demand for whale oil was decreasing too. For over a century it had been used to light the streets of America’s cities, and the hundreds of lighthouses that are still found up and down the New England coastline also ran on whale oil, the keeper having to fill the lamps every 12 hours. But then kerosene was discovered and it was cleaner, burned longer and didn’t require the transcontinental murder of giant mammals. In the case of the North Atlantic right whale, the hunters were simply running out of prey, too.
The Whaling Museum doesn’t overtly mourn the death of the industry, nor does it romanticise the era more than feels appropriate. But it does detail the history with an almost forensic eye, displaying 750,000 items, including a replica of whaling boat and a juvenile blue whale skeleton, which still silently seeps oil into a jar from its immense jawbone. Elsewhere there are 3,000 pieces of scrimshaw – artwork scratched into pieces of whale ivory and the teeth of sperm whales by men at sea. That they are such delicate, beautiful pieces of art speaks not only to the skill of their creators, but also the unimaginable boredom on ships between hunts.
These days, people taking to the waters off New England in search of a whale are unlikely to be bored, and even less likely want to do the leviathan any harm. Perhaps the whale are found so readily because they can’t resist the easy meals found beneath those waves, but it’s just as easy to believe that they have been forgetful, or forgiving of man’s transgressions, and that when they feed so close to the boats they do so as an act of kindness and reconciliation. “The mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me,” wrote Melville, “as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on Earth, and throughout the whole universe.” Always the whale has left the mind reaching for bigger things.
A version of this piece was published in Etihad Inflight in October, 2014.