Okay, so, I love whales. I am completely entranced by them. I watch a lot of nature documentaries—preferably ones narrated by David Attenborough (and even if they’re not I mentally sub in the great man’s voice myself)—and any time the whales make an appearance I sit up straight, lean forward, and hush up. I stop blinking. Honestly, whales just do something to me. In my godless, sceptical worldview, they are the closest I get to experiencing moments of magic or mysticism. It’s a feeling akin to being on a long, solitary hike in the wilderness, in the deafening noisy silence of nature. Breathing hard from the exertion you take in gulps of air untouched by humanity’s poison and you put your bare hand on an ancient tree to lean and rest there a moment. In that stillness, un-moored from the harness of civilisation, adrift in the hostile yet welcoming environment from which we all came, you can feel it. Some sort of connection. A realignment. An ineffable sense of wonder.
Whatever the hell it is, I feel it when I see whales. Of any type. Humpback whales, blue whales, Bryde’s whales, fin whales, gray whales, bowhead whales, North Pacific right whales, Omura’s whales—I love them all. In the boundless, hostile blue of the seas there float these gigantic pillars of sentience. They are like something out of science-fiction to me. Ancient and mysterious, they still elude much of our understanding. What little we do know tells us that they are incredibly intelligent, capable of complex social interactions and empathy. In some uncanny way they feel almost like distant kin. As if our paths simply diverged somewhere, untold aeons ago, the lines of kinship still pulsing with life, though buried somewhere deep and hidden. Our fellow mammals. We crawled out onto the land into a place of horizons and we settled down while they stayed in the water, choosing the nomadic life beneath the waves.
Dolphins are technically whales too (and killer whales are actually dolphins, but not themselves whales!), but while they have their charm, they don’t quite have the same effect that proper whale whales do. Whales and dolphins (and porpoises) both belong to the order Cetacea. The Cetaceans are then divided into two groups: baleen whales and toothed whales. The baleen whales are the ones that people think of when they think of whales. They have two blowholes, and no teeth. This is the majority of whales. A sub-grouping of them is the ‘great whales’. The great whales are the blue, fin, right, sei, sperm, bowhead, Bryde’s, humpback, gray, and minke whales. They are called ‘great’ for obvious reasons. The blue whale is the largest creature to have ever existed on this planet (a fact which still absolutely blows my mind and makes me feel amazingly privileged to be alive at the same time as this totemic miracle of a creature). One of the largest blue whales ever sighted was said to be 33 metres long, and to weigh 190 tonnes.
Blue whales, though the largest, are long and slender in shape. This can make their immense size sometimes slightly less intimidating than it might otherwise be. There’s a gentle tapering of magnitude that eases you in to their still ridiculous size. There is another great whale whose dramatic shape lends itself to more powerful imagery: The sperm whale. Moby Dick. Melville based his story on a real-life incident of a boat being sunk by a sperm whale, but the natural look of a sperm whale—its giant head and intimidating shape—helped to cement Moby Dick’s image into the popular imagination.
Sperm whales are quite incredible creatures. For a start, they are the only toothed member of the great whale grouping. So that uncanny feeling you feel when you watch a documentary and this immense creature drifts silently into view out of the inky blue darkness and the buried lizard part of your brain naturally starts to fear for your life only for that to be dissipated by Attenborough soothingly reassuring you that this, ‘is a gentle giant. Like most great whales, it has no teeth, and it feeds only on tiny ocean-bound creatures like plankton, which it sifts into its mouth through the baleen therein’? That strange, somewhat contradictory feeling of being confronted with a towering pillar of muscle, only to know that it is quite literally toothless? That doesn’t exist with sperm whales. There is no contradiction there. Sperm whales’ mouths are relatively narrow for their size, but their teeth weigh up to one kilogram each—though oddly enough these teeth appear to be largely unused for hunting. Perfectly fed specimens have been found with no teeth or severe deformities present, so it has been theorised that the teeth’s primary function may be in male disputes.
Sperm whales may not necessarily use their teeth to catch their prey, but they are dedicated hunters. In fact the hunting habits of sperm whales is one of the most amazing things about them. To eat, sperm whales dive. And I mean dive. Their unique physiology allows them to be one of the deepest diving animals on the planet. Their blood carries incredibly high levels of oxygen; they have a collapsible rib cage that allows their lungs to shrink and to minimise absorption of nitrogen; and they prioritise their blood streams while diving in order to feed the essential organs. They can dive for up to ninety minutes, and they have been recorded at an astonishing 2,250 meters (7,380 feet) below sea level. They endure the neverending blackness and crushing pressure of these depths because they have a very particular diet: Squid. Sperm whales are specialised deep sea squid and octopus hunters, and many specimens have been found with scarring on their bodies from battles with giant and colossal squid. That’s right: In inhospitable depths, crushed by the unimaginable weight of the ocean and with not a sign of light to guide them, these fantastical creatures seek out and do battle with gigantic tentacled monsters.
This footage is a few years old but it’s still one of my favourite things on the internet. It was taken by the deep sea submersible ROV (remote operated vehicle) Hercules while diving in the Gulf of Mexico, and it shows Hercules having an incredibly rare encounter at 600m below sea level with a sperm whale. The whale, enveloped otherwise in complete darkness, drifts into view, seemingly intrigued at finding this strange metallic creature lighting up the depths, and it makes a few laps of Hercules as it tries to suss out just what exactly it has found. The scientists operating Hercules react as I would react (especially the dude who does the whale voice). When its eye drifts into view I freeze and feel like reaching out and touching the screen. I want to communicate with it. ‘Hello, friend. We were like you once but we left. It is nice to see you again, even if just for a moment.’ It feels like you can see a keen understanding in the eyes of a whale, a deep, ancient knowledge. It’s wonderful:
Whales are amazing. We are destroying their habitat and we need to stop. I love whales.
Header Image Source: YouTube