September 8, 2000.
Whales As Monsters
Before he wrote Moby Dick, Melville crewed on the whaleship Acushnet. During a gam in the Pacific with another whaleship, he met William Henry Chase, the teenage son of the first mate of the Essex. The son loaned Melville a copy of his father's book about the Essex disaster, about which Melville wrote: "The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, and so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me."
I'll say! the effect it seems to have had was to suggest to Melville the principal plot for Moby Dick-considered by many as the greatest American novel.
Humans seem to demand that monsters exist. The trouble is that though we have been rummaging and ransacking through the furthest reaches of this world for the past 500 years we have never managed to come up with even one, genuine, ferocious monster. Whales are the closest we ever came. For a while they seemed to fill the bill. They were enormous, fearful, and they killed people right and left. But only in self-defense-overwhelmingly such deaths occurred after people had harpooned them, let them drag the boat their boats to exhaustion, and were driving a long lance into the whale's body trying to kill it by piercing its lungs or heart. Thirty-five years ago it struck me that if, during such an attack, an animal lashed out in self defense it was hardly an indication of its viciousness. So, during the last thirty years I, along with many others, have been trying a different approach. We have managed to resist the temptation to harpoon whales, and having done so, discovered that their natural inclination is to greet humanity in peace-a most un-monsterlike behavior.
One of the clearest examples is the gray whale. The majority of this species now calves in the lagoons along the west coast of Baja California. When these gray whale nurseries were discovered by Captain Scammon, he launched his whaleboats in pursuit of the whales and the whales responded by destroying so many boats and wounding or killing so many whalers that the whalers named them "Devil Fish," a name that stuck.
However, in recent years it has come unglued, because in these same lagoons we have learned that gray whales like to be patted and stroked by people! It is their tongues that they appear particularly to like to have stroked. I have been present in a boat in which three other people and I had our hands inside the mouth of an adult male gray whale (one man's hand was up to his shoulder). Our boat was being blown along by the wind, and the whale was going through slow contortions of its body which kept it next to our boat. Unless our hands and arms were inside it's mouth, the whale kept its mouth shut. Only when approaching the boat did it keep its eyes open, apparently to monitor its progress in stationing itself alongside our boat. But when people stroked it it closed its eyes, and lay motionless. It appeared to seek out such attention.
Some "Devil Fish" !
© 2000 - Roger Payne