Herman Melville got his idea for his monster, Moby Dick, from an actual whale off an island called Mocha near the coast of Chile. This blitzkrieg of blubber had a violent streak, and who could blame him? Sailors for years had been trying and failing to kill him.
Mocha Dick, as he was called, was an audaciously huge albino sperm whale, just like Melville’s ghostly white Moby. He had a rap sheet a mile long: He’d killed 30 men, attacked and damaged three whaling ships, 14 whaleboats and may also have sunk a number of large merchant liners.
This deranged whale’s head was rugged with barnacles, which gave him an even more hideous appearance. By the end of his life, at least 20 harpoons were stuck in his hide, like piercings, evidence of all the sailors who’d done nothing more than tee him off, which led to their own demise.
Every captain, just like Melville’s Ahab, longed to kill the white leviathan, and the first spark of conversation in port was invariably, “Any news of Mocha Dick?” Finally, a Swedish whaling ship captured the big Dick and, after slaughtering him, expelled 100 barrels of clear oil. Those Swedes. No respect.
Anyway, it’s looking like whales may be nearly as intelligent as we are. Scientists have identified in whales a truckload of spindle neurons. These brain cells process emotions, social organization, empathy, speech, intuition and the ability to ask one’s mate, “What’s for supper, snookums?”
It’s not surprising to learn that whales have the biggest brains on earth. But we also know that size doesn’t matter, not with brains that is: There exist numerous human dunderheads with large skulls. But brain-to-body ratio implies intelligence, and whales happen to be second to humans in this regard.
Recently I read an online science essay about whales having fewer brain neurons but more glia (whatever that is) than humans, and a snide comment followed: "Then why haven’t whales painted a Sistine Chapel or sent astronauts to the moon?" Well, for one thing, how much could we have achieved if we had flippers instead of hands? And could the guy who posted that remark paint a Sistine Chapel himself or design a rocket ship? I don’t think so.
Besides, if you could glide all day and night through gorgeous oceans, with plenty to eat and nothing that can eat you (at least while you’re alive), why would you want to paint anything or visit a barren moonscape? These guys have got it made!
Here are some of the smart things whales can do. Killer whales teach their youngsters hunting strategies. All whales communicate with one another; humpbacks sing songs and sperm whales have Morse Code–like tapping sounds to call out each other’s names. Whales suffer; they’re what Buddhists call “sentient beings.” Orcas teach each other how to swipe fish from long-lines. Calves stay close to the mothers, and the moms shorten their dives to decrease the time away from their babies.
Whales are not fish. They’re mammals and they give birth to one calf a year who requires a year of care. And that’s not all. Calf and Mom continue to hang with one another for anywhere from four to 21 years. (Talk about getting Junior a job and out of the house!)
Even Melville wrote about this tidbit: When a calf is born, all its aunties hover around to provide support. If a mother and child or an injured whale are under attack, the other females in the pod will form a marguerite formation around them—shaped just like a flower.
The oldest males lead solitary lives which, let's face it, puts them ahead of human males in intelligence, since they’ve found a way to be bachelors again after all their family obligations have been met.
So these lovely creatures, after 1712 when the earliest whale was captured at sea by a Capt. Christopher Hussey, suddenly found themselves under attack by crews of men who hadn’t showered in months, shouted in guttural tones that surely hurt the whales’ delicate sensibilities, hurled sharp iron instruments and killed the pod’s loved ones after which, humiliatingly enough, they raised up their carcasses on long ropes.
It’s no wonder certain bull whales went berserk. There was the 85-foot beast in 1820 that rammed the Nantucket whaling ship, The Essex, glided under its bottom, scraping the hull, surfaced on the other side, then headed back with a fury that ripped the waters high, then smashed the boat again, sinking it.
So could Moby Dick have been smarter than Capt. Ahab? Well, duh. He was certainly wilier. In an earlier voyage, the whale chomped off the mariner’s leg, then in the last chapter he carried the obsessed sailor into the void of the deep blue sea. Oh, did I just ruin a good read for you? Were you intending to take Moby Dick to the beach? You’re a more cultivated person than I am; I’m in the middle of a thriller about the Russians nuking the polar ice caps (as if they’re not gonna melt next week anyway). In any event, you must have more glia than I do.