Sunday, May 23, 2010

cetaceans, rorquals, belugas...

I'm having a lot of fun reading Leviathan, by Richard Hoare, all about whales and our relations with them over the years, with particular attention to Moby Dick. Fun perhaps isn't the word - it's a sad tale of cruelty and exploitation by and large, and a store-full of almost gossipy titbits. For example, the awful Aristotle Onassis [I do find business tycoons boring - dull, narrow exploitative types mostly] was very into the whaling industry for a while:
His vessels were purposely registered in Honduras and Panama, countries beyond the IWC's membership, and plundered protected waters, taking whatever whales they met, 'be they endangered species or newborns'. Only when Norway publicized his actions - and after the Peruvian navy and air force had opened fire on his ships for hunting whales within their territorial waters - was Onassis forced to stop his slaughter, finding it more financially viable to sell his fleet to the Japanese. 
A few other random titbits:

Rorquals are the largest group of baleen whales [as opposed to toothed whales or Odontoceti], with nine species in all, including the Blue, the Humpback, the Fin, the Sei, and the Common Minke. The term 'rorqual' comes from a Norwegian word that describes the longitudinal grooves from the mouth to the navel, which enable the mouth to open more widely.

The sperm whale is toothed, the largest toothed creature on earth [it also has the largest brain]. An adult male sperm whale weighs up to 20.5 metres and weighs up to 60 tonnes. The blue, the fin, and the southern right whales are all bigger on average. Sperm whales are the most sexually dimorphic of all the whales, with the males being 30% longer and considerably more massive [with baleen whales, incidentally the females are all larger than the males]. One of the foremost experts on the sperm whale, Hal Whitehead, has suggested they may practice religion. For their sakes I hope not, but they certainly have some of the most elaborate social structures of any mammal, and to talk of them in terms of 'culture' may not be amiss. They certainly exhibit altruism, like dolphins and other cetaceans. Of all the whales, the sperm whale probably most repays study - though all are magnificent and fascinating creatures.
Speaking of which, the beluga or white whale [no relation to Moby Dick, he was a sperm whale] is a real beauty of nature [look at any pics], a member of the Monodontidae family - the only other member of which is the narwhal. They go about in large pods, though they are slow swimmers. They're also called sea canaries because of the squeaking noises they make. They're small as whales go and have long been popular in commercial aquariums - unlike narwhals, which have always died quickly in captivity.

Whales grow so big because they can; they don't have the gravitational constraints of land-dwellers. We have fishy ancestors, and I suppose if you go back far enough, so do whales, but their more immediate predecessors were land-dwelling mammals. The hippo is the closest living land-dwelling relative of whales.

Whales can be identified by the shape of the spray that comes out of their blow-holes [amongst other ways of identifying them of course]. Ambergris comes from the sperm whale and is still used commercially. Not all sperm whales produce it - it seems to be produced as an aid to digestion of certain kinds of food, most notably squid. The preciousness of ambergris as a perfume has much to do with its lingering aroma. This is an element of all fishy smells of course, but it's particularly true of whale smells.

The lifespans of whales is still a subject of speculation. Not surprisingly, sailors' tales give a much longer lifespan than would seem credible but new evidence suggests that some species of whale, if only they were left alone by humans, would live for a lot longer than your average human, though no species has been known to breed beyond the age of forty.

I could go on and on with bits and pieces, it's never-ending, but the book's real strength is the sense it gives of these creatures as complex and still vastly mysterious to us, and the future possibilities of understanding and communication, after so many centuries of damage and suffering. Melville's great novel's livingness is a testament to their perennial fascination.

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