Leading a Whale’s Life
By “Awake!” correspondent in Hawaii
EXPENSIVE perfume, cosmetics, livestock feed, margarine—what do they have in common? They each may have been produced, at least in part, from the whale. in fact, so much has the whale contributed to the manufacture of such things that it is an endangered species.
Hawaiians welcome whales for another reason. They look to the appearance of whale families as a sign that fish will be plentiful. Each December or January the great humpback whales return here for four months, putting on a spectacular marine show off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Maui. The forty- to fifty-foot whales play and spout, and leap just like children on a playground.
The whales come to Maui to bear their young in a safe, warmer climate, and to give the babies their first training. Why Mamma whale chooses the rockiest of Maui’s shorelines to give birth to her ten- to fifteen-foot baby is not known, but while she is laboring, Papa whale is putting on quite a gymnastic show! Some say that Papa is diverting the sharks from the ‘maternity ward.’
Characteristics of Various Whales
This very distinct whale has a slightly humped back, peculiar knobs on its head and a bumpy margin to the flukes (tail) and flippers. Its flippers, which are up to twelve feet long, are longer than in any other species of whale. The humpback stays close to shore and, by whale standards, is not an especially deep diver. But because of its great oil yield and its being easy to kill and process, authorities say that it is the first species to be killed off to near extinction.
Other whales are perhaps more distinctive, or better known. For example, there is the blue whale, which is the largest animal known to exist. It averages eighty to a hundred feet and weighs as much as 134 tons. There is also the right whale, once the most important to the industry for its baleen or whalebone. But the most famous and doggedly pursued is the sperm whale, the one of the well-known book and movie Moby Dick.
The sperm whale is quickly recognized by its huge square head, which is almost one third the length of its body, and a single nostril. The massive head contains immense quantities of high-quality liquid spermaceti wax, valued today at 28 to 32 cents per pound. Its intestines very frequently contain ambergris. This peculiar waxy compound is a prized ingredient used in the manufacture of expensive perfume. It resembles soft pitch, but is neither adhesive when cold nor greasy to the touch. Ambergris may have a musty odor and may be black, brown or even whitish. It brings $7.50 to $12.00 per ounce today.
Life of the Sperm Whale
One of the calving grounds of the sperm whale is about 200 miles west of Mexico on the Tropic of Cancer. Here a baby whale calf is born. He shares his manner of birth with only two other mammals in the world, the sea cow and the hippopotamus, in that he is born under water. He backs into the world, being born tail first. At birth he is about fourteen feet long and weighs a ton!
Do not be deceived into thinking that the baby is smiling when he opens his pink toothless mouth. Being unable to wrinkle up his forehead as humans do, his face stays firm and expressionless but for the rolling of eyes and the clapping of the jaws. Even if the calf could smile, he would not, as the water is cold. He has lain sixteen months in a warm chamber inside his mother at 96°F., and so gasps for air as his mother nudges him to the surface with her broad face. You see, the baby does not instinctively know how to swim. Mamma must teach him. But because he is fat, he floats nicely. The greatest advantage of being large at birth is in keeping warm. The greater the body volume, the slower the heat loss to the chilly sea. For the next two years he will suckle his mother’s breast (two nipples hidden in a deep slit, one on each side of the belly) on a diet of thick milk, over 33 percent pure fat. Regular dairy milk contains only 4 percent fat.
The baby sperm whale’s one-inch-thick coat of blubber will grow over the years till it will be a great firm blanket more than a foot thick. He will average a gain of seven pounds a day while following Mom like a shadow. Later, because of the reserve fat of his body, he will be able to go for weeks without food. When he graduates to his favorite solid diet of squid, however, he is going to have some digestive problems. It is said that squid are responsible for the formation of intestinal obstructions, which become large and combine with bile secretions and other organic compounds found in the lower gut to form the prized ambergris.
One of the unusual things about whales is their great care for one another. When a whale is in distress, it sends out a wild call and its companions move in. They will put their shoulder under a wounded or ailing companion and help him to the surface. Commercial whalers have exploited this loving characteristic for profit. They would cruelly wound a whale calf, knowing that the mother would come to its rescue, and then both mother and calf would be killed.
By the time the sperm whale has finished its early training, it is an expert diver. One sperm whale dove 3,240 feet, where it got tangled in a submarine cable, and drowned! Scientists marvel at how this mammal can dive to such depths quickly and surface exactly on time to get its necessary breath without getting the bends, as man would.
By the time the sperm whale is nine years old, it is sexually mature. Its full body size of forty-five to sixty feet will be reached at age thirty to forty-five, and extreme old age will be at seventy-five years.
Science of Cetology
While marine authorities state that it has been impossible to probe deeply into the natural history of any whale, the science of cetology (or, whale lore) has been built on evidence painstakingly gathered by the whale biologist. By identifying the type of algae scum scraped from the back of a harpooned animal, biologists can surmise that the animal recently lived in colder waters. Or they may slice the ovaries of a whale and count the scars of pregnancy to estimate its reproductive history.
The science of cetology also deals with the cousins of the whale: the dolphins and the porpoises. All of these are mammals, being warm blooded, giving milk and breathing air. The larger species are known as whales; the smaller species with sharp snouts are called dolphins; those with blunt heads, porpoises. And then there is an unusual species called the narwhal, which has only one tooth, a spiral tusk up to eight feet long.
Whaling Industry and Its History
The Norse settlers of Greenland were whale hunters, but the Basques along the Bay of Biscay, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, are called the first professional whalers. Early voyagers to Newfoundland had a well-established fishing fleet by 1522. From this time on, the main object of pursuing the whale was not for its flesh but for its oil and baleen. The oil was used principally for lamp oil, and the baleen was used for making whips, umbrellas and various feminine garments. By the 1890’s baleen brought as much as $5.00 a pound.
The search for the evasive Northwest Passage led mariners into cold waters where whales abounded, giving a great stimulus to the whaling trade. Long years of hunting in the easily accessible waters had reduced the numbers of whales, and so news of the untapped marine wealth of the Arctic was welcome news.
As the number of whales diminished, the whalers had to extend their activities to the open sea. At first, the blubber was packed in barrels and taken home for the oil to be extracted. By 1680 the Dutch had 260 ships and 14,000 men engaged in the whaling trade. The practice began thereafter of boiling the oil from the blubber on board ship. This enabled the ships to extend their range considerably.
The American Indians and the early European settlers had long caught whales along the shorelines of America, but it was only in 1712 that the great sperm-whaling trade began for the United States. It resulted in American ships being sent into every ocean.
A Hard Life
Life from a whale’s viewpoint is not easy. The backs of whales are heavily scarred with pale circles made by the powerful sucking disks fringing the tentacles of the squid and the octopus. All the older whales have been repeatedly scratched and bitten around the face by beaks of giant squids. The swordfish is another enemy, which sometimes leaves its thirty-inch bill embedded in the whale’s hide.
But, by far, the worst enemy these playful monsters of the deep have known is man. However, only when provoked will the whale fight man. Then its monstrous flukes or tail would sometimes strike the old whaling boats and smash them to pieces. Many a “catch” was unsuccessful even after being harpooned because the tortured beast crashed his tail across the boat or even crushed the boat in his jaws.
However, man’s greed has almost exterminated whales. In 1850, the king of Hawaii realized this potential danger and issued an edict that stopped wholesale destruction of whales off Maui. This was the first of such restrictions ever imposed on whalers anywhere in the world.
With the advent of the harpoon gun in 1865 and the deadly efficient floating factory ships, the slaughter of whales has intensified. Now Japan and Russia also use sonar devices and the helicopter to further pursue these rapidly dwindling beasts. Marine biologists estimate that there are fewer than 300 right and bowhead whales left in the seas. The blue whale has declined to an estimated 6,000 and there are only some 10,000 gray whales left. The fin, the sei and the sperm whales are virtually the only whales left in any number.
A Future for the Whale?
What can be done to prevent the complete extermination of the whale?
At the United Nations Environmental Conference in Stockholm last June, the United States called for a ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling, and the resolution was passed. However, the International Whaling Commission has declined to enforce the ban. Some groups are pressing for direct economic sanctions against whaling nations.
Several nations, such as Great Britain, Canada and the United States, have quit the whaling business entirely. In one country a company that at one time numbered 40,000 sailors and 750 ships recently retired its last four ships and forty sailors as that nation’s commerce department refused to renew its whaling license. Further, some nations have forbidden the import of whale products. Conservationists state that alternatives exist for all present uses of the whale.
As with other forms of animal life, the future of the whale depends largely upon man. And surely it is encouraging when men take action to preserve these marvelous creations of God.