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Mr. Melville’s Whale

Phillip J. Clapham

THE GREAT SPERM WHALE: A Natural History of the Ocean’s Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature. Richard Ellis. xvi + 368 pp. University Press of Kansas, 2011. $34.95.

2011-11BrevClaphamFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe sperm whale can stake a fair claim to being one of the world’s weirdest mammals. Bizarre in appearance, almost limitless in their global range, and possessed of an extraordinary ability to dive far down into the lightless depths of the oceans, sperm whales are truly beings from an alien world. These are the creatures that author and wildlife illustrator Richard Ellis takes as his subject in his latest book, The Great Sperm Whale.

My own first encounter with a sperm whale was poignant—a dying pregnant female had come ashore on a beach at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. As I approached, I first saw the whale’s great tail thrashing in the surf, then the massive square head and the undersized lower jaw studded with curved teeth. My first impression was that this was an animal like nothing else on Earth. I have seen many sperm whales since then, but that impression still holds. Indeed, I have sometimes jokingly hypothesized that the species was put here by space aliens as some sort of grand cosmic joke. It is a jest that Ellis echoes in this book when he ponders whether they might have arrived “several million years ago in a whale-sized spaceship that crashed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, releasing a leviathanic cargo bent on oceanic domination.”

As far as we can tell from the incomplete fossil record, sperm whales have been engaged in that dominance for perhaps 25 million years. Cetaceans arose about 50 million years ago, and the sperm whale has been around for longer than any other extant member of the order; this is, no doubt, in large part due to the remarkable adaptations that characterize the species. As Ellis puts it, “Every aspect of its development . . . enables it to pursue its unique lifestyle with consummate competence.” He discourses at length on the more fascinating aspects of sperm-whale biology and behavior, drawing both on the historical observations of whalers—who knew a good deal about their quarry—and on more recent research on living whales.

But first he provides a historical context. In a chapter titled “Mr. Melville’s Whale,” Ellis examines not only Herman Melville and Moby-Dick, but also much that has been written about the author and his great novel, which D. H. Lawrence described, with complete accuracy, as “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world . . . a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness.” Although much of Ellis’s commentary here is informative, there are times when it strays rather too far from the sperm whale itself. For example, I could have done without an analysis of the lyrics of a heavy metal rock band allegedly inspired by the Moby-Dick story. Readers may wonder why much of this chapter wasn’t rerouted to a professional journal specializing in literary criticism.

Melville’s ghost is everywhere in this book, and the many quotations Ellis draws from Moby-Dick not only nicely complement his own excellent text, but also show just how good an observer Melville himself was. Sadly, in his section on the sperm whale’s remarkable diving capabilities, Ellis neglects to include one of my favorite quotations: “Of all divers,” writes Melville, “thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations.”

As Ellis notes, the whale—which is, like us, an air-breathing mammal—can hold its breath for at least 90 minutes, descend nearly two miles below the surface, and successfully hunt in unimaginable conditions of pressure and darkness. Recent tagging studies by Peter Tyack and colleagues have revealed the remarkable fact that sperm whales hunt upside down at the bottom of their deep dives. This finding suggests that they may be able to see squid silhouetted above them against dim surface light. Yet they remain creatures primarily of sound and hearing, not vision. Recognizing this, Ellis gives an extensive account of the sperm whale’s remarkable head, or what he describes as “the largest nose in history,” whose size and complex structure suggest that it serves primarily to generate and focus sound for an extremely sophisticated echolocation system.

Some people, including Ellis, believe that sperm whales have the ability to stun or kill prey with powerful bursts of sound focused through that giant nose. This idea, referred to by cetologists as the “Big Bang Theory,” has been undermined by a 2006 simulation study (appropriately titled “No Stunning Results”) by Kelly Benoit-Bird and colleagues. However, as Ellis points out, it is difficult to conceive of an alternative mechanism by which large, fast-moving squid could be subdued at the great depths and pressures at which sperm whales hunt them. It is a further mystery that these squid (including the huge Architeuthis, which may have spawned the Kraken myth) are evidently captured by the whales without much resistance, as evidenced by the relatively unmarked specimens found in sperm-whale stomachs. Furthermore, the discovery of healthy sperm whales with damaged or even absent lower jaws argues strongly that they rely less on their teeth than on suction for ingestion of debilitated prey; but how that prey is captured in the first place remains an enigma.

Ellis devotes considerable space to a discussion of the brains of sperm whales and other cetaceans, and the various and inevitably unsatisfying efforts that have been made to assess the extent of their intelligence. As with everything else in this book, he favors interpretations that cast the sperm whale as an exceptional creature—although after discussing what he views as the “magnitude” of cetacean intelligence, he dutifully adds that “we are still a long way from understanding how it is applied to the everyday business of living underwater.” Ellis goes on to advance the interesting though untestable speculation that cetaceans with large, apparently well-developed brains use them to store reservoirs of knowledge, since, unlike humans, they can’t record anything externally. He makes much of the “culture” of sperm-whale society, which shows remarkable similarities to that of elephants and may involve sophisticated social behavior and complex communication. Clearly, Ellis thinks it does; I suspect most cetologists would be rather more circumspect in their judgment.

The book includes a fascinating account of the history of human interactions with sperm whales, a topic that is inevitably dominated by the tragedy of whaling. This is a subject that Ellis knows intimately, and on which he has written extensively, and very well, in the past. He does not disappoint here either, and in many ways the chapters concerned with whaling represent the most absorbing writing in the book. Ellis takes us from medieval encounters with stranded sperm whales, through the great whale fisheries of 19th-century New England, and on to the devastation wreaked upon sperm-whale populations by modern industrial whaling. He describes the huge illegal catches made by factory ships from the former Soviet Union, which ruthlessly swept the oceans—leaving, in the words of the Soviet biologist Alfred Berzin, “a desert in their wake.”

Ellis’s desire to portray the sperm whale as exceptional in all respects occasionally leads to some problems. “They exist in a world where they are almost totally integrated into the medium in which they live,” he claims. Yet this is true of virtually any successful species, including (for that matter) bacteria. Ellis also unnecessarily exaggerates the current plight of the world’s whale populations, claiming that they are “all decimated to the point where they may never recover. Right whales, humpbacks and bowheads have been reduced to sparse shadow populations throughout the world.” Hardly: southern right whales, humpbacks almost everywhere, and at least one bowhead population are recovering strongly, although the threats they face these days from pollution, entanglements and climate change leave them an uncertain future.

But these are relatively minor quibbles. However smart and socially sophisticated the sperm whale may or may not be, and whatever its true capabilities as a predator in the vast dark abyss that Melville termed its “most familiar home,” it is a remarkable product of evolution, and Ellis’s engaging book is the most definitive account to date of this fascinating and iconic species.

Phillip J. Clapham directs the Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. His research interests include the biology, behavioral ecology and conservation of large whales.

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