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The Whaling Era from the Whale's Point of View

Whales have feelings too.

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.  

Holly Nadler July 18, 2011 at 07:39 PM
One other interesting factoid: Calf whales will suckle for up to 13 years, not always with their moms. And as far as marine biologists have been able to find out, the surrogate moms have never turned on these youngsters and said in whale-speak, "Get away from me, you freak!"
Charlie Nadler July 18, 2011 at 10:49 PM
The whale that sunk the Essex was 85 feet?! Was he on the same steroids as Barry Bonds?
Cynthia Mascott July 18, 2011 at 11:10 PM
This article was a real tail. Wow let's hear it for the whales. In my next life I wanna come back as a whale. Sounds really cool
Ron July 19, 2011 at 12:20 PM
I fear the day when children will only see whales in pictures. As a young man I cheered for Moby Dick to win!
David Whitmon July 19, 2011 at 12:23 PM
WOW! That was Brilliant. Considering it took 60 million years, give or take a million, to evolve mankind to where we are now, if we did something dumb and wiped ourselves out, whales and dolphins would have a head start to having a go at it. We watched the "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" last night. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jc6aufHz-i0 They say that humans are the 3rd most intelligent species on the planet. My question would be, how do "The August People" place in that equation ?.......(-;
Michael West July 19, 2011 at 12:28 PM
Whale of a tale, Holly. Just thinking about Mocha Dick makes me blubber.
steve auerbach July 19, 2011 at 01:34 PM
I swear this is true. I was going off-Island last Saturday morning, sat down next to a young woman reading a book. Not wishing to leave her alone, I asked her what she was reading. It was Moby Dick and she was a professor of American Literature at Johns Hopkins. Naturally I confessed that I'd never read the entire book and she urged me to do so. I resolved to read it.... until I read Holly's column, because everything one might ever wish to know about whales is in there, and, I bet, in much more entertaining form than Melville could muster. Steve
Carol Fleisher Scobby July 19, 2011 at 01:44 PM
As usual, fantastic writing, Holly. Funny yet truly insightful. As someone who's made films about animal emotions, I think you nailed a whale of a story!
Holly Nadler July 19, 2011 at 05:09 PM
Steve, my dear friend, try the Cliff notes. Moby Dick is really tough going. I never would have read it had it not been assigned in college. On the other hand, when I finished, I was grateful for some of the images that I knew would be lasting.
Betty Burton July 19, 2011 at 05:22 PM
Loved your article. Now I have to read more about those wonderful creatures. To Steve: Read it. When I was in college, I had a fabulous lit. teacher. I actually started to enjoy and understand what some of the ancient writers were trying to get across. One of our assignments was Moby Dick. I finally sort of understood it. Then Tom Goethals gave a 3-week session on it at the library. I still don't get all of it, but I enjoyed it. Try it, you'll like it. or as the saying goes, "Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it."
Holly Nadler July 19, 2011 at 05:25 PM
Betty, I like your thinking about a book that makes you look good. Steve could take the dust jacket off a hardcover copy of Moby Dick and place it over a Tom Clancy thriller. He'll be all set for the beach.
VanDerlaske July 19, 2011 at 07:33 PM
Holly , I know whales commuicate. Do you remember the late Roberto Germani? Well one day on lobsterville beach I was sharing a smoke with Roberto. The next thing we saw was two Humpback whales breaching and and playing duelling Banjos! It will stay with me forever! Ken VanDerlaske
Michael West July 19, 2011 at 07:53 PM
Maybe some of you haven't yet seen the great YouTube video about saving a humpback whale. Let me tell you this is a great one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBYPlcSD490
Cynthia Renahan July 19, 2011 at 08:14 PM
One doesn't know whether to cry for the whales or laugh with Holly's writing. Thank you for the comedy and enlightenment. I have read Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," but managed to avoid "Moby Dick." My daughter read "Moby Dick" in high school and the teacher's emphasis was on Ahab's compulsion. The history and science you give are more interesting.
Holly Nadler July 19, 2011 at 09:51 PM
Ken, the question arises, what were you and Roberto smoking?
Holly Nadler July 20, 2011 at 12:39 PM
Michael, this is an awesome video! Everyone who loves whales: If you want a pick-me-up to your day, click on the above youtube site!
Jack Shea July 20, 2011 at 07:08 PM
Well, Holly, you've done it again! Jack
Holly Nadler July 20, 2011 at 10:19 PM
Thanks, Jack, love your work!
Holly Nadler July 23, 2011 at 01:22 PM
Hey, Nathaniel Philbrick: Isn't it about time to write a book about the real Moby Dick, the man-killing, boat-tipping Mocha Dick?
Kris Hrycun August 28, 2011 at 01:58 AM
Very well researched. Thanks for the new knowledge!
Kris Hrycun August 28, 2011 at 02:09 AM
GREAT video! I'm sharing it on Facebook!

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