Monday, 16 May 2016

Interesting whale facts

From Leviathan or, The Whale by Philip Hoare:
1/ “The beluga is the most vocal of all whales, known by sailors as the canary of the sea...”
2/ “No one really knows why whales leap. Almost every species does it—from the smallest dolphin to the greatest blue whale—in their own style: backward breaches, belly-flops, half-hearted lunges or full-blown somersaults.”
“It seems likely that their aerobatics are an energetic means of communication—advertisements of physical power and presence, telling other whales ‘Here I am’ and ‘Aren’t I splendid?’. But when you see a whale leap out of the water like a giant penguin, your 1st thought is that it looks fun. The fact that calves and young whales are more prone to breach reinforces this idea.”
Reminds of this line from Moby Dick about the whale:
“…as a general thing, he enjoys such high health; taking abundance of exercise; always out of doors; though, it is true, seldom in the open air…”
3/ Cetaceans—from the Greek ketos for sea monster—fall neatly into 2 suborders. The toothed odontocetes—71 species of porpoises, river and ocean dolphins, beaked whales, orcas and sperm whales—feed on fish and squid. The mysticetes or moustached whales—of which there are at least 14 species—filter their diet of plankton and smaller fish through their baleen.”
4/ “Although mysticetes foetuses have teeth buds, these are resorbed into their jaws before being born, to be replaced by sprouts of fibrous protein called keratin, the same material that furnishes humans with their fingernails.”
5/ Whales “have bad breath, and shit reddish water.”
6/ Humpbacks eat a ton of fish a day, “mostly sand eels which, with their salt-excreting glands, are full of fresh water and therefore sate the animals’ thirst. Whales might live in the world’s greatest bodies of water, but they can never drink.”
Later in the book, Hoare says Malcom Clarke tells him about “how the contents of sperm whales’ stomachs would yield dozens of unidentified species: in one he found no fewer than 18000 beaks”. 
7/ “Their nearest relation on land is the hippopotamus…”
8/ Food found in sperm whales’ bellies seldom shows tooth marks; juveniles eat squid and fish long before developing teeth and females don’t develop teeth till late in maturity, if at all; their teeth aren’t necessary for sustenance. Their function is obscure.
“This great predator does not chew its prey; rather, it sucks it in like a giant vacuum cleaner, as the presence of ventral pleats on its throat indicates.”
Reminds of Captain Boomer in Moby Dick:
“…I'm thinking Moby Dick doesn't bite so much as he swallows.”
9/ Male sperm whales may be twice the size of females.
10/ Female sperm whales produce single calves only once every 4-6 years.
11/ Their heart beats 10 times/ minute.
12/ “At the surface, the sperm whale is slower, less agile and has less time and energy than other whales—and is therefore less able to flee such an unnatural predator as man.” Philip Hoare calls it “an inexplicable and potentially fatal evolutionary flaw” and mentions that John Fowles wonders why the sperm whale “has never acquired—as it easily could in physical terms—an efficient flight behavior when faced with man. At times, it will almost queue up to be gunned… The poor brutes just never learnt.”
13/ “Not only did [the right whale] boast plentiful blubber, but its particularly long baleen, when heated, could be moulded into shape for umbrellas, corset stays and venetian blinds, or used as bristles for brushes.”
14/ Male right whales “assert their supremacy by multiple matings rather than fighting for favours” and females “will even permit more than 1 partner to enter them at the same time, after sessions of delicate foreplay in which the courting animals use their flippers to stroke each other with inordinate gentleness; like all whales, their skin is incredibly sensitive, and the pressure of a human finger can send their entire body quivering”.
15/ Hoare describes the right whale’s smell as “a deep insupportable smell, somewhere between a cow’s fart and a fishy wharf, a pungent reminder of its function as a processing plant for plankton”. 
16/ Belugas “are born grey, and only achieve pure white in late adulthood, becoming sinless with old age”. Narwhals also change colour over time.
17/ The name of narwhals comes from Old Norse “nar” and “hvalr”, meaning “corpse whale”, “because its smudges resemble the livid blemishes on a dead body”.
18/ The Latin name for the killer whale, or more correctly, whale-killer, Ornicus orca, has its root in orcus, which means “belonging to the kingdom of the dead”. Hoare adds, “a reflection of its reputation as the only non-human enemy of the great whales”.
19/ “The narwhal’s tusk is actually an overgrown, living tooth which erupts to pierce its owner’s lip on the left-hand side and spirals up to 9 feet long, sometimes even longer”. “Unlike other teeth, its surface has open tubules connected to inner nerves; it is, in effect, a giant sense organ, lined with 10 million nerve endings to enable the animal to detect subtle changes in temperature and pressure. […] Other research indicates that the tusk is not only a sensory probe, but may also be a transmitter or receiver of sound, and even of electricity.” 
20/ Discovery of stone or ivory harpoons in whales suggests that they can live longer than we think they can. Dr. Jeffrey L. Bada of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, using “a technique for dating animals from changes in the aspartic acid levels in their eyes”, “examined tissue from whales caught by the Inupiat hunters” and found that most were 20-60 years old when they died, but of 5 large male bowheads, 1 was 90 years old, 4 were between 135 and 180 years old, and 1 was 211 years old.
21/ “While I read illicit American comics under my bedclothes, fantasizing about a world of sleek-suited superheroes, new processes—sulphurization, saponification, distillation—extended and rationalized the use of whales in lubricants, paint, varnish, ink, detergent, leather and food: hydrogenation made whale oil palatable, sanitizing its taste. Efficiency ruled, in place of the early whalers’ waste. Whale liver yielded vitamin A, and whale glands were used to make insulin for diabetics and corticotrophin to treat arthritis. 19th century trains had run on whale oil; now streamlined cars with sleek chrome fins used brake fluids made from the same stuff. Victorian New Englanders had relished doughnuts fried in whale oil; now children with crew-cuts and stripy T-shirts licked ice cream made from it. Their bright shiny faces were washed with whale soap, and having tied their shoelaces of whale skin, they marched off to school, past gardens nurtured on whale fertilizer, to draw with whale crayons while Mum sewed their clothes on a machine lubricated with whale oil, and fed the family cat on whale meat. In her office, big sister transcribed memos on typewriter ribbon charged with whale ink, pausing to apply her whale lipstick. Later that afternoon, she would play a game of tennis with a whale-strung racquet. Back home, Daddy lined up the family to take their photograph on film glazed with whale gelatine.”
Later in the book: “… whale meat was ground into flour for use as animal food. European cattle fed on whales. Nothing was wasted. […] The whale’s liver produced vitamin extracts. The teeth were used to create scrimshaw, destined to gather dust on tourist’ shelves at home.” 
22/ “Research on humpback brains has also discovered the presence of spindle neurons, otherwise confined only to primates and dolphins. These cells—important in learning, memory and recognizing the world around and, perhaps, one’s self—first appeared in man’s ancestors 15 million years ago. In cetaceans, they may have evolved 30 million years ago.”
23/ Whales may have culture. Research “suggests entire communities of whales, ocean-wide clans moving in distinctive patterns and ‘speaking’ in distinctive repertoire of clicks, like humans sharing the same language. Separate groups of the same species will act in different ways, foraging for food in different manners—methods learned maternally, passed on from generation to generation.”
Dr Hal Whitehead organises the sperm whale’s clicks into: “usual clicks, about 2 a second, made by foraging whales; creaks, a regular, more rapid succession of clicks which he describes as sounding like the rusty hinge on an opening door, and which indicate a whale homing in on its prey, or scanning other whales at the surface; the communicative sequence of codas—such as click-click-click-pause-click—a kind of cetacean Morse code which suggests ‘conversations’, although ‘we do not know what information is being transmitted’. Most mysterious of all are the slow clicks or clangs made by mature males and which Whitehead compares to ‘a jailhouse door being slammed every 7 seconds’.” 
24/ “Although Ishmael declares that it was whale oil that was rubbed on the British sovereign’s head in the coronation service, this was in fact an ambergris-infused concoction…” The new monarch “is marked on the head, heart, shoulders, hands and elbows with this oil”. 
25/ Hoare says that ambergris is actually whale shit. 
“Light-giving wax, lubricating oil, scented faeces: sometimes it seems as though the whales are cetacean Magi, bringing offerings that presage their own sacrifice.”


  1. truly amazing creatures! how much there is on this tiny blue planet of which humans are clueless. it all could been so different... but man is what he is and evolution will "in the fullness of time" iron it all out... tx for going to all the work it took to dredge all this info up...

    1. I didn't care at all about whales before, and now...
      It's a fascinating book, you should check it out.