Monarchs of the Deep
by “Awake!” correspondent in Australia
THE ocean surface is smooth and tranquil. Suddenly, there is an explosion of water and spray! A 40-ton black beast makes what appears to be an abortive launch into flight. The creature falters for a moment at the peak of its upward thrust. Then, with a resounding crash, it disappears below the surface of the water.
For us, the impression will be lasting. We have been privileged to witness one of the largest of earth’s creatures, the whale, rear itself above the water to catch a breath of air.
For many hundreds of years man has marveled at the whale, believing at one time that its appearances near coasts or on shores were portents heralding great events. While to a great extent superstitions concerning the whale have disappeared, awe and amazement have not. A closer look at this giant’s form and habits will show why.
What Is a Whale?
A whale is not a fish, but a mammal that is warm-blooded. It breathes air, suckles its young and even has some of the external hairs so characteristic of mammals. However, the only time a whale breaks the water’s surface is to exhale a blast of steamy breath, known as the blow, and to inhale more life-sustaining air.
Unlike other marine mammals, whales cannot lounge around shorelines. For some of the ‘great whales’ to be beached even temporarily means certain death. Without water to support such a huge bulk, their ribs collapse and death occurs by suffocation.
Whales are divided into two basic groups, the baleen whales (with whalebones, rather than teeth) and the toothed whales. Perhaps the best known of the baleen group is the giant blue whale, spanning a length of some 100 feet (30 m) and weighing up to 134 tons. Says the book Whales, by E. J. Slijper, that weight is equivalent to four brontosaurs or 30 elephants, or 200 cows, or 1,600 men! Certainly this monarch of the deep is the largest creature, living or dead, ever known to move upon planet Earth.
The baleen or whalebone itself is a horny growth, edged with frayed bristles that hang from the whale’s upper jaw. It is made of a substance similar to our own hair and nails and is constantly growing and being worn away. A row of these long tapered baleen plates on each side of the mouth creates a large sieve that separates plankton, a major part of the diet for this type of whale, from tremendous quantities of water.
On the other hand, toothed whales are not equipped to catch the tiny plankton. Instead, they prey primarily on fish, squid and other seagoing mammals. Toothed whales range in size from the four-foot (1.2-m) long porpoise through the well-known dolphins and killer whales right up to the 60-foot (18-m) long sperm whale.
At first it appeared that the whale’s ability as a swimmer ran counter to physical law. How can such a huge creature plow through the ocean at speeds rivaling a nuclear-powered submarine? Investigations have shown that, unlike the rigid submarine, a whale’s body is flexible. A layer of blubber thwarts friction and reduces turbulence to a minimum.
Another endowment of the whale is its ability to produce an array of noises ranging from creaks and squeaks to chirps and shrill whistles. Use of these sounds appear to be twofold: they help to keep the family groups, known as pods, together, and also are a form of sonar, enabling the whale to locate food and “see” in the dark.
The gigantic bodies of whales have long been viewed as enormous bags of “goodies.” Originally people sought the flesh as food and the blubber for oil. Nowadays people produce from whale carcasses such things as automatic transmission fluid, candles, fertilizer and, yes, even lipstick.
It is not positively known who began the procedure of hunting whales. The first to make a serious business of it apparently were the Basques of coastal Spain. Later, England and Holland became the major whaling countries. Then America entered the race, with Nantucket Island off the coast of Rhode Island becoming the base for one of the world’s largest whaling fleets.
While “big league” whaling employs harpoons with exploding heads, as well as other terribly efficient methods of catching and dispatching the huge mammals, there have always been more primitive ways. For example, the Aleutian islanders attacked whales from one-man kayaks, using spears with poison tips. When the South American Indians came alongside a whale, they would have one man clamber upon its back and plunge a sharpened stake into the blow hole.
Possible the most unusual method of hunting whales was employed as late as 1929 at a land station in Eden, a quiet coastal town of southern New South Wales, Australia. Strange as it may seem, the whalers there actually had a school of about 100 trained killer whales. Humpback whales, returning from their summer feeding in the Antarctic, would be herded into a bay by a pack of these trained killers. The killers would block the bay’s entrance, preventing escape. Another team of killers would then excitedly splash near the land station in the event the whaling crew failed to notice the proceedings.
Will the Whale Survive?
What will be the whale’s future? Will it become extinct?
Some efforts have been made to ensure the survival of whales. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is a voluntary body made up of representatives of 17 whaling nations. Since 1946 the Commission has placed bans and quotas on catching various species. But its effectiveness and true loyalties have come under fire from conservation groups. The IWC did not take up the call of the United Nations, the United States and conservationists for a 10-year complete moratorium on whaling. Hence, critics claim that the Commission’s allegiance is to the whaling industry, rather than to the survival of whales.
Whether efforts to preserve the whale population will succeed remains to be seen. But, while humans have been given the divine right to hunt animals for food, including the whale, man must also remember that this is no license for the slaughter of living creatures to the point of extinction.—Gen. 9:1-3.