Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Great Sperm Whale - in the sea and in the media

The sperm whales are, and were, a fearsome bunch.  The modern species  (Physeter macrocephalus), is the largest predator on Earth, now or ever.  It reached at least 68 feet (this exceptional individual was corralled by Russian whalers in 1950), while some scientists have backed up whalers who claim it reaches, or used to reach, 80+ feet.  It sunk two whaling ships, most notably the famous Essex now depicted in the movei In the Heart of the Sea, and probably sank more which had no survivors.  The ancestral Livyatan melvillei, whose fossils were found in Peru in 2008,  ruled the seas 12-13 million years ago. It was almost as large as its descendant had a full set of teeth, as opposed to the current whale's lower-jaw-only set (which it doesn't even seem to need to slurp down squid.  An ever earlier sperm whale, perhaps the first of the line, was announced in 2015 as belonging to a new genus, Albicetus ("white whale," although we have no idea what color it was in life).  It was announced after fossils found in California in 1925 and originally assigned to a prehistoric walrus  were re-examined. 
Everything about this whale is bizarre. Seen from the front, the animal looks like one of those over/under rifle/shotguns, with the smaller rifle barrel underneath. It has the most powerful and unique weapon ever discovered in nature, a sonic cannon that can stun prey like the giant squid. It can weigh 57 metric tons, maybe more.  It has the largest nose that has ever existed, but can't smell.  A big bull's skull may be over 5.4m long, the same size as the Ford Freestyle SUV in my garage. They are, surprisingly, preyed upon by the smaller pack-hunting killer whale. Rather than bite, the sperm whales go into defensive rosettes where they wave their massive tails or try to push the orcas away with their giant bodies, neither of which seems to work very well. 



The Essex whale was claimed by sailors to be 85 feet long, although exaggeration is to be expected when the whale is sinking your ship. One paper (McClain 2015) accepts 84 feet, and the Nantucket Whaling Museum has a 5.5-m lower jaw ascribed to  an 80-foot specimen: both figures are disputed. Cameron McCormack has a good dissection here.   Richard Ellis suggests they don't get much over 62 feet (19m). The claim of Amos Smalley, who said he killed a solid white whale 90 feet (27.4m) long is universally rejected as an attempt to get (or give) publicity related to the 1956 film version of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. However, white whales have been killed on one occasion and photographed on another. 
The novel has been made into umpteen movies and television specials, including some really weird ones where Moby Dick is a giant prehistoric whale or a white dragon.  Here's a great list.  (The most interesting of the post-Peck efforts was the 1998 two-part TV film starring Patrick Stewart, who was mesmerizing as Ahab but undone by cheap, silly-looking whale effects. An interesting 2011 two-parter had good sea action, but the superb actor William Hurt misfired as Ahab - while I praised his performance in an earlier post, thinking back on it he seemed more cranky than unhinged, and adding his wife (Gillian Anderson, always good) served only to distance him a little more from Melville's iconic Captain.
So that in a nutshell is one of the world's greatest predator, and some of the attempts to capture it.  The animal is so exceptional that it doesn't seem blasphemous to cite Simon the Zealot's line about Jesus in Ezra Pound's poem The Goodly Fere, "They'll no get him all in a book I think  / though they write it cunningly." Melville wrote it cunningly, spectacularly so, and several authors, most recently Richard Ellis, have attempted to write its real life (Ellis, I think, gives us the best nonfiction portrait), but the great whale is still out there, a mystery in many ways despite modern satellite tracking, mass slaughter, and the fascination of scientists, laypeople, and whalers. 

I'll be back after I see the new movie!


(All images from US government sites)

The definitive modern reference is:  Ellis, Richard (2011). The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature. Zoology University Press of Kansas. 

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