The Great Sea Monsters
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
A MONSTROUS head, eyes at the corners of an enormous mouth, no ear lugs, just a hole in the head for nostrils. This is the profile of Mr. Whale. When his mouth opens, a cavernous void that would hold a full-grown African elephant appears! There are no teeth. Just long, slender, white body whiskers hanging down both sides from the roof of the mouth.
Over Mr. Whale’s huge lower lip is his whopping velvety tongue. The ten-foot-long whiskers in his mouth are hard and flexible. When he takes a deep breath, he does not breathe through the mouth. The air goes straight to the lungs through the valves of that hole in his head. Interested in looking farther? Then, rather than follow the approach through which food is swept, let us step back and look at this vast creature from a more comfortable position.
In our minds the word “whale” is usually associated with something huge. But there are smaller whales, better known as dolphins and porpoises. Warm-blooded, air-breathing mammals, navigating with flippers and driven by powerful flukes, this whole fascinating order of five- to one-hundred-foot-long creatures, weighing from one hundred pounds to one hundred fifty tons, is named “Cetacea.” Some have teeth, and are called “Odontoceti,” while others have whiskers instead of teeth, and are known as “Mysticeti.”
The specimen already described is the Greenland or bowhead right whale, one that frequents the North Pacific and the North Atlantic. About one-third of his length is taken up by his head. He is closely related to another toothless wonder, the blue whale, largest of all mammals, living or extinct. A newborn blue whale calf can be over twenty feet long. A model of the adult blue whale, made of polyurethane flesh on a steel skeleton, covered with fiber-glass skin, was for several years a special exhibit in the Hall of Biology of Mammals in New York’s Museum of Natural History.
The internal whiskers of these mammoth creatures, properly called “baleen,” are referred to as whalebone. Not really bone, it is fundamentally like hair. The Japanese call it hige or whiskers. Its use has long been superseded in corset and other manufactures by synthetics. However, it is still used as bristles in certain types of industrial brushes.
The toothless whale’s overcoat of blubber, a thick rubbery layer under a paper-thin skin, is what enables him to maintain a body temperature similar to man’s. The blubber, producing 50 to 80 percent of its own weight in edible oil, renders down to make cooking fats, soap and other products.
The whaling industry takes a tremendous toll of these toothless whales. For example, the three Japanese whaling fleets returned last year, after four months in the Antarctic, having caught their quota of 1,493 blue whale units. A unit equals one blue whale or its equivalent in two finback, two and a half humpback or six sei whales.
Not until early in the eighteenth century did whalers begin to give attention to another variety of whales, the toothed variety, particularly the sperm whale. By 1846 more than 700 Yankee whaleboats were engaged in the chase, eager to share the proceeds from this creature’s immense carcass—its tons of oil, highly valued as an illuminant, and the clear, colorless oil found in its head, from which the finest quality wax candles are produced. Now, however, sperm oil is used in a variety of other ways: for rolling steel, dressing leather, sizing textiles, and in special lubricants, wax compositions, soap, detergents and cosmetics.
Ambergris is another product of the sperm whale. Sometimes found floating on the ocean, at other times cast ashore, this gray, waxy substance is formed in the stomach and intestines of the whale, probably due to some kind of irritation, and is vomited out by the creature. It is of the texture of very hard cheese, looks like marble when cut, and has a delightful aroma. It is considered an excellent fixative in the manufacture of expensive perfumes.
On the whole, members of the whale family are harmless and playful. They are often observed sporting on the surface in schools, leapfrogging or doing somersaults. The friendly inquisitiveness of the dolphin is well known. When wounded and desperately threshing around in the water, on the other hand, a huge whale can endanger even a heavy ship.
The Killer Whale
The killer whale is an exception: He is not satisfied with plankton and other small fry of the ocean. He prefers to get teeth into dolphins, porpoises, seals, penguins and sharks, and will not hesitate to take a chunk out of another large whale, even ripping out its tongue. They hunt in packs. They have been known to smash ice floes in order to get at men or seals.
The Japanese call him shachi, using Chinese ideograph that appropriately combines the characters for “fish” and “tiger.” He has a special place in their superstitions. From a distance looking like the squarish head of a cow with short horns protruding, models of a male and female shachi with their flukes in the air face each other across the ridge of the highest roof of the Japanese castle. The most famous of these charms tops the castle in Nagoya. They were made in 1959 to replace those destroyed with the castle during the second world war. They are made of copper, overlaid with 560 scales of 18-karat gold, at a cost of $78,000.
Some idea of the enormous appetite of the killer whale may be had from the fact that fourteen seals and thirteen porpoises were found in the stomach of one twenty-one-foot specimen. It is the only one of the cetaceans that will feed on its own kind or on other warm-blooded mammals.
Teeth or no teeth, all whales bolt their food. Teeth are used to seize food only. The baleen or toothless whales cruise along with their mouths open and live mainly on the brit that clings to their whiskers. Down in the many chambers of the stomach the food undergoes a long period of digestion. In 1891 the English whaleman, James Bartlett, was swallowed by a sperm whale. Later he was cut out of the humid tomb alive and undigested.
Vision is not the whale’s outstanding characteristic. To “see,” the whale depends largely on his ears, as does the bat. The ears are located behind the eyes, though not visible to the casual observer. A unique system of air sacs does double duty. They act as sound insulators and also adjust to the outside pressure by an inflow and outflow of blood. Sounds entering the outer ear strike the eardrum and are carried across to the inner ear. En route the arrangement of bones in the middle ear causes them to be highly amplified. Truly an invention of the One who created those great sea monsters!
Another built-in safety provision of the whale comes into play when pressure is suddenly released as the whale surfaces. Man in such circumstances, exposed to such change in pressure, has to avoid “the bends,” a condition brought about by the formation of nitrogen bubbles in the blood and tissues. The whale is marvelously protected against “the bends.”
Unable to take oxygen directly from the water as the fishes do, the whale must come to the surface for an air supply every fifteen to twenty minutes. When he exhales, a visible “blow” is created by the sudden expansion and cooling of the air ejected through his blowhole. Indeed, experienced whalers can tell the type of whale by the size, shape and angle of the “blow.”
The Struggle for Existence
Due to the deadly efficiency of modern whaling methods and the fact that only one whale calf is born at a time following a gestation period of eleven to fifteen months, the whale is losing the fight for survival. Even the International Whaling Commission set up in 1946 is failing to save the whale. Each year sees a drastic cut in the whale population.
The hand-thrown harpoon has given way to the harpoon fired from a cannon and is so constructed that it will explode in the head of the target. Factory ships can strip and cut up a whale in thirty to forty-five minutes. In 1964, twenty such factory ships handled over 60,000 whales, reducing them to 370,000 tons of oil and 300,000 tons of by-products. With all the modern equipment for detecting the whale and dispatching it, what chance does the whale have?
Fortunately for the whale, in the very near future He who created these great monsters of the sea will do something about the situation. It will not be a temporary respite as when mineral oils were discovered in the second half of the nineteenth century. No, but rather this will involve the permanent removal of selfish human predators from this beautiful earth. Then the great sea monsters will be able to frolic and “blow” to their heart’s content.