Whales, Cetaceans, Dolphins, Porpoises, Killer Whales, News, Videos, Links ( Science - Environment - Ecology - Biology - Zoology - Cetacea)

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Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, 1851
($14.70 new hc from amazon.com)

THE SPERM WHALE'S HEAD -- CONTRASTED VIEW
    Here, now, are two great whales, laying their heads together; let us join them, and lay together our own.

    Of the grand order of folio Leviathans, the Sperm Whale and the Right Whale are by far the most noteworthy. They are the only whales regularly hunted by man. To the Nantucketer, they present the two extremes of all the known varieties of the whale. As the external difference between them is mainly observable in their heads; and as a head of each is this moment hanging from the Pequod's side; and as we may freely go from one to the other, by merely stepping across the deck: -- where, I should like to know, will you obtain a better chance to study practical cetology than here?

    In the first place, you are struck by the general contrast between these heads. Both are massive enough in all conscience; but there is a certain mathematical symmetry in the Sperm Whale's which the Right Whale's sadly lacks. There is more character in the Sperm Whale's head. As you behold it, you involuntarily yield the immense superiority to him, in point of pervading dignity. In the present instance, too, this dignity is heightened by the pepper and salt color of his head at the summit, giving token of advanced age and large experience. In short, he is what the fishermen technically call a 'grey-headed whale'.

    Let us now note what is least dissimilar in these heads -- namely, the two most important organs, the eye and the ear...

...But the ear of the whale is full as curious as the eye. If you are an entire stranger to their race, you might hunt over these two heads for hours, and never discover that organ. The ear has no external leaf whatever; and into the hole itself you can hardly insert a quill, so wondrously minute is it. It is lodged a little behind the eye. With respect to their ears, this important difference is to be observed between the sperm whale and the right. While the ear of the former has an external opening, that of the latter is entirely and evenly covered over with a membrane, so as to be quite imperceptible from without.

    Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare's?

TIME Magazine, June 3, 1946 p. 70:

SCIENCE: Whales Limited
    Back from its first postwar cruise to the antarctic was Britain's whaling fleet of three great "factory ships." Instead of the 75,000 tons of whale oil which Britain's Food Ministry had hoped for, they carried 40,000 tons. And they brought other bad news: whales were hardly more numerous than before the war.

    British scientists who sailed with the whaling fleet were not surprised. Their explanation: whales are sluggish at multiplication. Females mate once in two years,* produce only one calf at a time. Next year they rest, suckling their calves six to seven months until, in the case of the great blue whales, they are over 30 feet long. A young whale must be at least three years old before bearing a calf.

    The scarcity of whales was not the only disappointment. The whalers had been equipped with Asdic (sonic submarine detectors) and radar. But these modern gadgets did not work well.

    With Asdic the harpoon-gunners had hoped to follow a sounding whale on his deep dive under the sea, and to be waiting for him when he came up to blow. But the whales, nimbler than U-boats, dove out of Asdic's sonar beam, and the gunners had to rely, as of old, on their knowledge of whale psychology. Radar was useless for spotting surfaced whales, which gave very poor "pips" on its scope. Even at locating antarctic ice it was none too useful in the hands of the whaler's semi-trained operator.

    The failure of Asdic and radar was probably all to the good, for the trouble with whaling before the war was its success, which threatened to exterminate whales in every ocean. British experts believe that whaling's future depends on strict regulation, better knowledge of the whale's migration and breeding habits.

    To gain such knowledge they have been tagging whales, as ornithologists band birds, shooting markers into them in the hope that they will be recorded when the whale is eventually harpooned. This method has already proved that many whales are migrants. They mate and bear their young in tropical waters, usually in fall or winter. During this period they live partly on their fat, for their food is comparatively scarce in the tropics. In spring they move poleward, spend the summer in arctic or antarctic waters. Here the surface swarms with "krill," or free-swimming crustaceans, which they strain out of the water with the whalebone sieves in their mouths. A favorite kind of krill is a large, seagoing shrimp.

    Whalers like these too. They shovel them out of whale's stomachs, ready-pickled in gastric juices.

*One old salt described their mating: "The prettiest piece of navigation I ever seen."
 

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