Herman Melville was refreshingly honest.
Having written an entire book about sperm whales—and one particularly notable, noble beast—he had to admit defeat. Above all of God’s creatures, Physeter macrocephalus (“big headed blower ”) remains almost as enigmatic now as it did to Melville a century and a half ago.
It is an ironic state of affairs, given that this is the Ur-whale, the whale we all drew as children—that big square head, smiley low-slung mouth, and a gushing spout. Yet it is more ironic, considering that it is this species above all others that was pursued by humans, generally men, to near-extinction in search of the light and oil its vast body could furnish. That oil was an implicit part of our Industrial Revolution and contemporary with the start of what scientists now term the Anthropocene—the new period of geologic time in which Homo sapiens has made its indelible mark on the world.
Is there any other animal on Earth that represents the essential disjuncture between human and natural history? Any other so storied and hymned, so pursued and dissected, and yet so little studied? The sperm whale continues to defy our attention. The reasons are manifold. It is an almost exclusively pelagic cetacean, favouring the deep, open ocean. Unlike most other great whales, it spends most of its time far below the surface; it is, if you like, a natural submarine, capable of actually transforming its body to enter its benthic domain.
A sperm whale’s square head may seem counterintuitive, lacking a diver’s sleekness. Yet as it readies itself to dive, it actually contracts its head to form a hydrodynamic wedge shape. Its pectoral fins fit into pockets in its flanks, much like an aircraft’s undercarriage. And having charged its blood with oxygen in readiness for what may be up to two hours spent below, it shuts down every organ in its body, save for its heart and brain.
And so it descends, clicking all the while through what is in effect an overgrown nose, filled with bio-acoustical oil—the spermaceti of oil—which acts as a focus for its echo-locating clicks, scanning the Stygian darkness for its main source of food: squid. A mature male sperm whale possesses massive ivory teeth, the largest in the animal kingdom. Yet it does not use these with which to feed. Rather, it sucks in its prey, whole, into its series of stomachs, there to digest it with gastric juices so strong that when, in the days of whaling, human beings were (probably accidentally) swallowed by whales and later retrieved, their bodies were bleached white by the process.
A sperm whale may dive for a mile or more in depth; only its toothed cetacean cousins, the beaked whales, can rival this subaquatic feat. It is the largest, loudest predator that ever lived. Add to these superlatives the biggest brain of any animal, and one is left feeling as helpless as Melville in the face of these challenges to our understanding. We do know now, however, that these magnificent animals are highly socialised, sentient creatures, with a matrilineally learned culture, and perhaps even a sense of abstract selfdom. Sperm-whale science is barely three decades old. What will we have learned a hundred years hence? Will we look back and ask ourselves, why didn’t we realize?
I must confess, if you hadn’t already realized, I am in love with sperm whales. I saw my first off the shores of the Azores, that nine-island archipelago of half-drowned volcanoes that sits atop the mid-Atlantic ridge like the bones of a vast vertebral column. These are, already, mysterious places, caught between three tectonic plates in the process of pulling them apart. They appear to belong to neither America, Europe, nor Africa, but have a mixture of all those places. And their waters are mind-bogglingly miles-deep—the perfect home for sperm whales.
I was used to seeing the great whales of Cape Cod: acrobatic humpbacks, sleek fin whales, shy minkes. I wasn’t prepared for sperm whales. They just didn’t compute. As they lay at the surface in a socially active group, that first sight of more than a dozen animals put me in mind more of logs rather than anything animate. It was only when they raised those great square heads, or those characteristic flukes, that they organized them-selves into real animals. And under special licence from the Azorean government, I was allowed to enter their domain.
It was an unforgettable experience. As I swam, ineptly, in their direction, the largest of the whales , probably their matriarch, I later realized, began to swim toward me. Suddenly, I realized I had no idea of what I was doing. What was the etiquette, the choreography of such an encounter? I’d never been so scared in my life. As the whale came closer, I was sure it was either going to ram me with that pugnacious head or open its mouth at the last moment (which might have been mine, too).
But then I felt, rather than heard, its echo-locating clicks moving through my body—click-click-click—from my head to my toes. I was being appraised, in sound, by the whale, scanned as if in an MRI machine. As a writer, I’d spent ten years trying to describe whales; here was a whale, trying to describe me.
Then she, as I must call her, turned alongside, close enough to touch (although that was certainly not part of the deal) and looked me straight in the eye. A sperm whale’s eye is about the size of a grapefruit; it is utterly sentient. Her eye read me, curiously. What did she think at that moment? What have whales ever thought about us? What might a whale’s version of Moby-Dick be like? Perhaps one day we’ll know. Until then, we will have joined Melville in his ignorance, and awe.
From the Fall 2014 issue of Historic Nantucket.
Professor Philip Hoare lives in Southampton, UK. He is the author of The Whale and The Sea Inside, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read, a free online rendition of Melvilleâ€™s book, featuring readings from Tilda Swinton, Sir David Attenborough, John Waters, Mary Oliver, and Nathaniel Philbrick. www.mobydickbigread.com Twitter: @philipwhalej