Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Happy Birthday, Melville

Herman Melville was born 1 August 1840. He was, of course, the sperm whale's great popularizer. He also recorded much of what was known about whales and whaling in those days (and lifted  passages from at least one previous author on the subject.)  He based his narrative on what really happened in 1820 on the whaleship Essex.  Some scientists have been wary about the Essex narrative: would a sperm whale really ram its head, containing its great sonar sensor/cannon, into a ship? Recent study, though, indicated it could have done so safely.
Melville wondered if the whale as a species could long endure "so remorseless a havoc" as the 19th century whaling fleets were inflicting.  It turns out, though, the Yankee whalers were amateurs.  The killings of that century were nothing compared to what giant, motorized whaling fleets, including the Japanese and Scandinavians but most especially the Soviets, would do in the 20th century. From 1947-1972, in Antarctic seas alone, Russian fleets killed over 63,000 sperm  whales. The species, amazingly, survived even this kind of "havoc" and is the most numerous of the great whales, the major baleen species all having been decimated before a 1986 moratorium.
The sperm whale remains one of Nature's giants, with records from 68 to 84 feet accepted by various authorities. It is also a species about which we still have many questions. We don't even have a universally accepted figure on how many of these deep-diving squid-hunters exist.  We don't know why they strand on the shore. We know they communicate, but we don't know how detailed their "talk" is, or what they are saying.  Maybe for now we'll just settle for awe and wonder.

The Great Sperm Whale, in life and death
(Top: NOAA. Bottom: out of copyright)

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