The Enduring Allure of the Whale

“Appallingly human in their physical appearance, they might as well be men in wet suits.”- Philip Hoare, Leviathan

I’ll never forget the sheer breathlessness I experienced when, during a whale watching trip off of the cold and windy northeastern coast of Bar Harbor, Maine, the 60-foot finback whale that we had been pursuing for nearly 4 hours finally broke the surface for a breath right by our vessel. Its immensity had a profoundly humbling effect on us, mainly in the way it made our seemingly sturdy boat appear pathetically small by comparison. And then, before we could fully absorb the gravity of what we had just witnessed, it vanished beneath the waves like an apparition out of our wildest dreams. Having been utterly spellbound by whales and dolphins since I was very young (by the age of 5 I would spend much of my time drawing orcas and dolphins), this first-time encounter with a whale in the wild was one of the most poignant experiences of my life. Here was a creature of an almost other-worldly demeanor, a ‘primeval denizen of the deep'(Hoare, 2008), impossibly large yet with a hauntingly familiar visage. In its gaze was the evidence of millions of years of coevolutionary history. Ours was a rather rare encounter between two similar branches of the grand tree of life that had been separated by aeons of evolutionary time and moulded by vastly different physical environments: the marine and the terrestrial.

“Its [a sperm whale’s] body is ninety-seven percent water, just as humans are mostly made of the same liquid; we all contain oceans within us.”- Philip Hoare, Leviathan

Why is it that whales (and dolphins) so capture the hearts, minds, and souls of so many millions? Surely one of the most compelling factors is their incredible likeness to us. They, like us, are relatively long-lived mammals (one hunted bowhead examined by Dr Jeffrey L. Bada of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California was found to be 211 years old!), many species live in close-knit and complex social groups with unique language systems (Orcas, for instance, often live in matriarchal groupings wherein multiple matrilineal generations will stay together for life), and their species boasts among the largest brains relative to body size in the animal kingdom (sperm whales possess the largest brains on earth!), leading many scientists to conclude that not only are they deeply intelligent and perceptive beings but that they could potentially even surpass humans in certain cognitive abilities. Yet another fascinating feature of whales that likely accounts for their powerful grip on our imagination is their extraordinary grander. Whales are the largest animals alive, and among the largest to ever have lived during life’s 3.5-billion-year tenure on our planet. Indeed, the sleek and elusive blue whale, at up to 100 feet in length and weighing over 200 tons, with a heart the size of a car and a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, is the largest animal alive and to have ever lived. Despite their enormity, we are mesmerized by the grace with which they wander through the depths of our oceans, leading lives whose details remain largely unknown to us.

“Humans may be the paramount tool-makers of the Earth, but the whale may be our paramount thinker. We can only imagine how a dolphin perceives the stars, but they may well do so better than we. Indeed, if the power of such an awesome brain could be utilized, travel to the stars might have already been achieved.”- Sea Shepherd founder, Captain Paul Watson, The Cetacean Brain and Hominid Perceptions of Cetacean Intelligence

It is the ultimate tragedy that our relationship with these magnificent creatures has been so tumultuous almost since we first became acquainted. Despite our fascination and deep-seated attraction to them, we’ve relentlessly hunted them to the ends of the earth for their meat, blubber, oil, and bones, a tyranny which reached its zenith during the height of the American and British commercial whaling industries of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The mass slaughter that took place during these turbulent times wreaked havoc on virtually every species of whale, reducing them, particularly such species as the right whale and the blue whale, to dangerously small fractions of their former abundance. Throughout the 20th century alone, over 360,000 blue whales were exterminated, an estimated 99% reduction of their former numbers, rendering the species commercially extinct by the 1960s. It’s difficult to ponder such large-scale losses, especially of creatures whose immensity and awe-inspiring capacities virtually defy comprehension; gargantuan, irreducible entities transformed into mere sellable commodities. It is an act that offends the self on multiple levels, like the desecration of a deity. Today, after considerable international protection, they have made slight recoveries and are believed to number between 10,000 and 25,000 individuals.

“As plundered colonies, they remain under attack, invincible yet vulnerable, defenseless for all their size.”- Philip Hoare, Leviathan

It remains a most desired dream of mine to one day have the honor of swimming with these fantastic, almost supernatural beings, our distant marine counterparts. I often watch youtube videos and documentaries of divers and naturalists swimming alongside humpbacks as they glide serenely through the water, keenly aware of the presence of their strange companions while curiously observing their movements. What do they see when they look at us? The prospect of coming face-to-face with one fills me with profound joy, as well as a heavy melancholy, for I would feel the overwhelming urge to somehow convey to them how very sorry I am for what my species has done (this too applies to the damage wrought on all of our coevolutionary kin). If I knew that they could somehow understand, I would apologize for all of the pain that we’ve caused them, pain that was inflicted by the periodic triumph of short-sighted greed over fellow feeling, which has poisoned the souls and hardened the hearts of many. Lastly, I would work to assure them that those of us who so mercilessly persecuted them for so many decades and who continue to do so today are but a small tarnished minority, and that the majority of us revere them and would relish few things more than to be in their presence. But alas, fortunately our technological prowess coupled with the pursuit of profit has not proven wholly disastrous as, though greatly diminished they continue to navigate our seas, and they will continue to do so in even greater numbers through our sustained efforts at ameliorating our timeless yet troubled love affair with The Whale.

Content by Heather Alberro.

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