Sun, Jan 21, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Our ongoing fascination with whales

From Moby Dick to the Thames bottlenose, whales have captured the human imagination like almost no other animal

By Stephen Moss  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

As soon as you enter the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, you start getting directions to the blue whale. Of all the stars in this strange, dead celebration of life's variety, the blue whale is the starriest. Naturally, it is housed in the "blue zone." If ever an animal required a zone to itself, it is the blue whale.

I didn't really need to come to see this institution again. I was last here 15 or so years ago and could remember every detail of the whale -- the way, surrounded by other large mammals, it dwarfs them, almost filling the gallery; its serenity, eternally suspended in space, endlessly photographed and smiled at by visitors; its small yet knowing eyes and absurdly small flippers. It lies somewhere between grandeur and ridicule -- a divine joke.

The note on Balaenoptera Musculus says, a little shamefacedly, that this 28.3m-long model, made of wood and plaster in 1938 and painted a tasteful, speckled blue, is not quite accurate. Blue whales had not been observed underwater when the model was made, and it is too bulbous. But the Natural History Museum has no plans to modify its whale. Generations have been overwhelmed and amused by it -- often both at the same time. Print the legend. Until relatively recently, of course, the legend was just about all we had.

"There is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like," said the narrator in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

"And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour is by going whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him," the narrator said.

So when a young, relatively small, hopelessly lost northern bottlenose whale was spotted in the river Thames a year ago, it was no surprise that it caused a sensation, and the world's media gathered to film its final hours. This is not something you see every day -- not in Battersea, south London, anyway.

For millennia, we have been fascinated by whales and dolphins. The latter, which are classified as a type of whale, feature on Greek and Roman mosaics -- stories of them rescuing people go back 2,000 years or more and in some parts of the world they cooperate with native fishermen in the catching of fish.

Whales are both a cause and a symbol. They represent timelessness, space, improbability -- they are the largest creatures ever to evolve, demonstrate great intelligence, live in complex societies, use tools, cooperate with each other, can recognize themselves, have a lifespan at least as long as ours and can speak to each other, communicating through what zoologist Nicholas Slocum, who runs Whale Watch West Cork, calls "low-frequency grunts and whines" over vast distances, even across oceans.

"There's an air of mystique about whales," said Slocum.

"They live in an environment very alien to us," he said.

He takes groups out on his boat in search of minke, fin and humpback whales. If there is a sighting, he said his passengers are "to use the modern term, gobsmacked."

"You only see a small part of them, and you only see them on their own terms," he said. "That always struck me as rather attractive."

He described this communing with whales as "mystical."

It is easy to get carried away by whales. Look at Melville. When he began Moby Dick, he thought he was writing an adventure story. But as his biographer Andrew Delbanco said: "He soon swerves away from the adventures of a young man in flight from his own despondency, and he finds himself swept up by a larger tale -- about a maimed sea captain and the prodigious white whale that has `dismasted' him."

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