Respect for the Cetacean
They’ve caught our thoughts this week, those 5 dead whales spread the length of our Eastern coastline. Their big brooding silence has drawn the crowds. They come to witness their hugeness, their blackness, their bloody grazes. The connection feels strangely human; the family ties, the noisy communications, the traveling in a pack (do they squabble and scratch, like all kids in the back of an MPV?)
Indeed scientists tell us whales really are swimming with us; they exhibit social behaviour so similar to our own. They talk, congregate, grieve, have rituals for the dead. The anti-war daubing on their carcasses is tasteless but speaks a truth; whales are almighty pacifists. They can swallow a human being whole, but don’t (unless attacked or spooked). Nor do they make weapons or start wars. These brains (the largest in nature) have been evolving far longer than ours.
In the last 10 years studies have shown how sperm whales can join the list of non-human social communicators (along with chimpanzees, birds and killer whales). There are many recordings out there of their chatter, very different to the humpback’s whaling, moaning song, sperm whales click (like a ticket puncher) in short staccato sounds, a series of distinct noises called codas. Like us they don’t have a universal language. But those whales that do “speak the same language” stick together and develop clans (with several hundred whales; imagine the parties). The underwater world is vast but for whales, other whales are home. “We” and “us” may be more important than “I” and “me”.
The cultural view, call me Ishmael…
Natural history TV shows us their watery world in glorious high definition technicolor. With awe and respect. Angels of our nature. (The Blue Planet)
The story world likes the Man (defender) vs Mammoth (aggressor) epic.
Like Ron Howard’s Christmas release, In the Heart of the Sea , a huge whale tale.
This film is based on the classic Moby Dick (the Greatest American Novel?) by Herman Melville.
These kind of stories speak of a time, when whaling was an Industry and man had to Conquer.
The underwater animal world captures young imaginations with some literary representations;
The Snail & the Whale by Julia Donaldson. Winner of several children’s book awards. An aquatic adventure that spins around the world with a heart-warming message about friendship.
This Morning I Met a Whale by Michael Morpurgo. As you’d expect from this author, a moving, beautifully told tale with an environmental concern.
And there’s the biblical too
Jonah and the Whale – Assemblies – a BBC short story. Most of us can recall this larger than life Old Testament story. The one about the wayward man swallowed by a whale who lives to tale the tale.
But it is Philip Hoare who has done much to change our whale views, from foe to friend. His writing (Leviathan and The Sea Inside) offers philosophy, mythology and anthropology in an examination of the intertwining of human life with the biggest creatures of the sea.
But I’d recommend viewing something strong and impactful. Like a Russian vodka shot – Leviathan.
A contender for the Canne D’Or in 2015 (it lost to Ida) and loved by the critics. This is a brooding but funny film about faith and love and corruption (called Leviathan in reference to Hobbes and his work on individualism and the State). The washed up whale skeleton brings a thoughtful presence to this ultimately restorative tale.
Timely then, as we remember our dead sperm whales this weekend.
Featured image source – Daily Mail