Introduction: The Surface Broken
The whale rolls on the boundary of air and sea, sovereign in one world but forever bound to the other. The ancients knew that whales are not fish, and they knew it by their breathing. As the whale swims, it stitches a seam of air and water with thread drawn, in part, from our own breath.
As much as their great size, it is our shared mammalian ancestry that draws us to the whale. Perhaps all mammals are called to the sea; certainly, human beings feel its pull. The difference between us and the whales is that 50 million years ago, the terrestrial ancestors of the whale answered that call. Spending more and more of their time in the water over generations, they evolved the fusiform bodies that allow them to slip through water as easily as we move through air.
Long before terrestrial evolution shaped the hands and the minds of human beings, the sea streamlined the limbs of the cetacean progenitors. Perhaps what we feel for whales and dolphins is as much envy as it is kinship. While the evolution of the hand equipped us ably for a life of technology—a life of work—the whales were relieved of manual tasks. They are like the cousin who quit her office job and went traveling.
With the exception of some birds, whales and dolphins are the freest of animals. The gray whale travels the longest migration of any mammal—10,000 kilometers from the Bering Sea to the Baja peninsula. There is evidence that baleen whales can communicate with their own kind half an ocean away through low-frequency calls. When a blue whale dives, before its tail has left the surface its head is already deeper than most scuba divers will go. The world must seem a small place to beings 30 meters long.
But cetacean life is far from carefree. Toothed whales hunt in some of the coldest and darkest water on earth—the polar and abyssal oceans. For baleen whales, the summer is a constant search for food. The remainder of the year is spent swimming half a world away to their breeding grounds or sustaining their young. For dolphins, the open ocean is a truly restless place. Even in sleep, half the dolphin brain remains awake to keep its breathing hole above water.
Our view of whales has not always been as romantic as it is today. For millennia, people saw only their beached and decomposed corpses or their backs rolling by in the distance. Finding dread preferable to nescience, we imagined the worst. Mediaeval engravers often depicted whales with rhinoceros horns, walrus tusks, and even smoking chimney pots for blow holes. The eyes and teeth were greatly enlarged, and the baleen drawn as a beard or eyebrows. In general, they were made as fearsome-looking as possible.
There is probably no whale more famous than the title character of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Although Captain Ahab remains one of the most imposing characters in all literature, even aided by a crazed crew, he proved less than a match for a sperm whale with a grudge.
The Leviathan of the Bible, sent by God to swallow Jonah, is usually assumed to be a whale. Whales that swallow men persist in myths from cultures the world over, even in modern times. In 1891, a whaler, James Bartley published his first-hand account of how a whale saved him—albeit the hard way—from drowning. According to Bartley, he fell overboard and hadn’t even hit the water before a sperm whale swallowed him. Bartley’s shipmates caught the whale within an hour and began butchering it. When they cut open the stomach, out spilled Bartley, his hair and skin bleached a deathly white by the whale’s gastric juices.
After two weeks in a coma, Bartley made a complete recovery but stayed an albino for the rest of his days. Most authorities today dismiss the account as a hoax, arguing it wouldn’t be possible for a person to survive more than a few minutes in a whale’s stomach.