GENERAL ARTICLES

IT’S A WHALE

Twelve tons at birth, the blue whale grows to be the biggest animal alive, gulps shrimps by the carload . . . and delivers 10,000 horsepower to its tail

BJARNE SCHIELDROP December 15 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

IT’S A WHALE

Twelve tons at birth, the blue whale grows to be the biggest animal alive, gulps shrimps by the carload . . . and delivers 10,000 horsepower to its tail

BJARNE SCHIELDROP December 15 1945

IT’S A WHALE

Twelve tons at birth, the blue whale grows to be the biggest animal alive, gulps shrimps by the carload . . . and delivers 10,000 horsepower to its tail

BJARNE SCHIELDROP

A BABY BLUE whale, when born, weighs about 12 to 15 tons, but in spite of his size and phenomenal strength he is an utterly helpless and bewildered individual in the middle of a very large ocean. If mother were not there to take immediate action her poor little 20-foot darling would drown within a matter of minutes, and before even once getting to the surface.

But Mrs. Whale knows what to do. As soon as Junior is free in the water, and makes his first attempts to flap his tail or swim, or to operate his fins to keep on a straight keel, mother dives down under him, gets him carefully balanced on her broad and slippery head —and takes him up to the surface. Then, but not until then, does Junior get his first breath of briny ocean air.

It is a very delicate operation and Mrs. Whale has to be very careful and gentle in order to avoid accidents. The first difficulty is that Junior has no hands to hold on with—and even if he had there would be nothing to hold—so he is very apt to fall off, and often does. If he does it too often and for too long he will drown in spite of all his mother’s efforts to save him. So mother has to do all the balancing, adjusting her 100-ton body this way and that whenever she feels he is slipping.

Some millions of years ago the whale was a land animal, or an amphibian at any rate. His skeleton still carries the remnants of the legs on which he once walked. But it is a very long time since the forefathers of the whale had anything to do with dry land, and today his body has been so completely adapted to its chosen element that it must be wholly supported by water to retain its shape.

Put a whale on a flat slab and you will find that the enormous weight of his soft body will squeeze itself into the form of a letter “D,” with the straight line along the slab—and this will completely disorganize its innards.

Junior, being born in the image of his father, is built the same way; so if mother, in her anxiety to get his nostril into the life-giving air above, should overshoot the mark, and go up as far as she usually does when she herself wants to breathe, there would be a great risk of stopping his little heart or squeezing his lungs out of action.

The nose of the whale is at the back of his head, just about where the neck would be if he had one, and therefore at the point of the body nearest to the surface of the water. So when mother brings Junior up for his first breath of air, she takes him just far enough to get his nostril over the water and still leave his body submerged.

After the first breath she takes him down under again, leaves him there for a few minutes, and then up again for another “blow.” And so it goes on, up and down, up and down, until Junior has learned the routine of breathing which he will follow for the next 20 or 30 years. For the rest of his life he will have to come to the surface regularly every 10 to 20 minutes to produce that picture with which we are all familiar: the fountain shooting up from the rounded back of the whale’s head. This “fountain,” which in the pictures looks like a stream of water, is actually the vapor in the breath condensing in the cold air. This process goes on night and day, even in sleep, or shall we say dozing, for the whale is a very light sleeper.

Maternal Milk Bar

WHEN the breathing lessons have been properly learned Junior can take care of himself in the water. But he cannot feed himself, so for the next six or seven months of his life he is entirely dependent on mother’s milk to satisfy his ravenous appetite. But once again he is up against the difficulty that mother has nothing for him to hold onto. She cannot suckle him the way other mammals do. So when mealtime comes Junior sails up near the right point on mother, sticks his head above the water and opens wide his big mouth. Mother rolls over on her side, until one breast is over the water, and squirts. A stream of rich yellow cream—it is too full of butterfat to be called milk—shoots through the air straight into Junior’s hungry throat.

It is mealtime all day long for Junior, and mother is hard put to keep him going. His appetite is insatiable, for if he is to grow up in a normal and healthy way, and become “one of the boys” when he reaches adolescence, he has to put on weight at the rate of more than 200 pounds

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a day during the six months when he relies entirely on mother. And when this period is over, and Junior is ready to leave home to make his own way in the world, mother has been reduced to nothing but skin and bone. To express it as a whaler would, she is not good for more than about 20 barrels of oil, while her sister, who has not been burdened with the responsibility of child welfare, will yield 100 barrels or more when put into the cookers.

All civilized nations who engage in the hunting of whales have agreed that a mother with a calf must not be shot. But accidents will happen, because during the short time when a whale comes up to “blow” it is not always easy to see that there is a little one there as well.

If this should happen in Junior’s family while he is still very young and dependent, it will be a sentence of death on him too, although he will not realize it right away. In any case he does not leave mother as long as he can see her. He will follow her dead body, and he may even put his head above the water, near her breast, and open his hungry mouth. When she is transferred to the big factory ship, and hauled up the slipway he is still somewhere in the offing as an awed spectator to something which he can’t understand. He will not come too close, because the small steamers and other forms of strange life around the stern of the factory ship scare him off to a safe distance, but he is around.

He does not leave right away, for probably he still hopes mother’s visit on board is only a temporary one, and that by-and-by she will come sliding down the ramp again whenever her business with the captain has been successfully concluded. But when that hope at last fades he will leave the wake of the big ship and without compass, sextant or conscious knowledge of navigation, he will set course for the exact spot where mother first met her accident. There, probably still waiting for her, he will swim around in small circles until he starves to death and sinks to the bottom.

40-ton Youngster

But if mother is spared from mishaps of this kind and is able to look after Junior for six months or so, he will be able to look after himself. He is a big boy by this time, weighing about 40 tons and measuring about 50 feet from stem to stern. But he has still a long way to go before he can claim to have reached manhood. If he should wish to better authentic records he will have

to grow to more than 90 feet in length and 156 tons in weight. If only 75 feet long, his friends would call him Shorty.

To carry out his ambitious program of growth Junior requires food and lots of it—several tons a day. The diet is monotonous. Except for a fish or two, which might slip in by mistake, nothing but shrimps has ever been found in the stomach of a grown blue whale.

Junior wants shrimps and nothing else, and therefore nature has to provide them. How and where nature does this is an interesting story in itself, and an important one for whalers, who have to know where the whale can be found at dinner . . .

No vegetation can exist without water, but it can grow without earth, and the ocean is very fertile.

There are forms of vegetable life in the ocean known as “plankton,” which drift around with the currents, get their nourishment direct from the water and never take root on solid soil. Some of these are microscopic, but others are large enough to be seen with the naked eye; and may reach such abundance that they can be seen as differently colored patches on the water.

Plankton varieties are very particular where and how they will breed and live. The dissolved mineral salts on which they feed must be available in the right proportion, the temperature must be right, life-giving sunshine must have an opportunity to play its part, and the currents, not only north, south, east and west, but also up and down in the water, must be to their liking before any particular area can be classed as fertile.

At many points of the southern ocean cold currents from melting ice around the South Pole meet warm currents from the north, each bringing its particular forms of life-supportingminerals. As the water can’t very well pile up at the meeting place it will spread in all directions, including downward, and new currents, moving in large vertical circles, will be set up. Here we find the really fertile grounds in the ocean, and here plankton abounds.

These moving streams of plankton are the grazing ground for higher forms of ocean life; among these is the shrimp. Some species of whales live on fish; others consider an octopus as the most delectable among culinary offerings; and some of the tougher breeds go so far as to practice cannibalism. But the blue whale, largest of them all, largest animal in the world, will eat nothing but little shrimps.

After Junior has left his mother this is where we will find him—in all the places where shrimps graze on plankton. When he feeds his table manners

are akin to the pelican’s. With his jaws wide open he swims into the dense shoals of shrimps and takes a mouthful. Retaining the shrimps, he then squirts out the water through the sievelike baleen curtain which in the blue whale takes the place of teeth. Now he has to wait for a while, for— although his mouth is big enough to hold several full-size barrels of food and his tongue, that weighs as much as an elephant—his throats (there are two of them) are so small that he can only swallow a few dozen shrimps at a time.

When on the feeding ground Junior has to make the best of his opportunity, because there is evidence to support the theory that he only eats for about four or five months of the year. The rest of the time he has to live on stored-up blubber. During the hunting season in the antarctic, from December to March, the blue whale always comes on board with a full stomach, but when caught two months later off the coast of Africa his stomach is invariably empty. Other observations made also tend to confirm the idea that food is only available during or near the time which coincides with the hunting season in southern waters.

10,000-IIorsepower Tail

So Junior has to keep busy and eat while he can, not only in order to grow to manhood, but also to store up blubber for the lean days—the fuel which keeps his blood and body at mammalian temperature in very cold surroundings and stokes his enormous muscular engine.

This last item is a formidable figure in itself, for a grown blue whale, in times of distress, can move under water at a speed of about 14 knots, and can maintain this speed for half an hour or more. To do this his tail needs about 10,000 h.p., and shrimps have to be burned under his boilers at the rate of more than 300 pounds a minute.

Junior feeds while he can, and when he can’t he wanders around, but exactly where we do not know. We find him in the North Atlantic and Pacific, along the coasts of South Africa, South America and Australia and elsewhere, but we cannot be certain that it is the same Junior we see in all these places, for up to now we have no evidence of a blue whale ever crossing the equator. For some time before the war expeditions were sent out from England for the purpose of plotting the wanderings of the blue whale and other whales by marking them with numbered arrows shot into the blubber. But so far the results of these expeditions have been too meagre to enable definite conclusions to be drawn.

In the meantime Junior wanders

around unchecked and leads a very dull life. Unlike some of his cousins he is not gregarious, and except during very brief periods of courtship and love he sails around all by himself.

He is a very peaceful creature, never picks a quarrel with anyone. His enormously powerful tail could be a formidable weapon if he knew how to use it. But ho doesn’t, not even to defend himself. He can only use it for running away, and even at that he is not very clever. The mere size of his good-natured hulk keeps most wouldbe attackers away, with the result that, apart from diseases to which he is very prone, he has only two enemies in this world—the killer whale, a comparatively small but unbelievably bloodthirsty and ferocious toothed whale, and Man.

The killer whale is too cunning and tenacious to give Junior much of a chance to defend himself. He will get his teeth into the back of Junior’s head and close the air duct, so that after a few minutes the poor lad is forced to open his mouth. At that moment the wives of the killer, who have come along for the sport, go to the attack and tear the tongue out. They have jaws the size of small doors and can crack the shell of a sea turtle like a walnut. When the killers have devoured the tongue—the greatest delicacy—and while the victim is still alive, they go to work on the body. Great strips of blubber are torn ofT and either eaten or dropped, for, hungry or not, the killer whale will murder and mutilate just for the sheer fun of it.

Against Man the blue whale has one method of defense—speed—but he doesn’t use it in a way which does him any good. He can move three times as fast as the average whale catchers (10 to 12 knots when happy—14 when pushed, or with a harpoon between his shoulders),and if he kept on a straight course he could run away every time. But the habits of a million years are too firmly rooted in his miniature brain to allow him to develop tactics of defense against an enemy who has so recently appeared on the scene. So when the little 500-ton steamer is sighted, and has been identified as a possible enemy, he tries to be smart and deceitful and get away by running in circles or zigzags. But the gunner, who usually has a relatively bigger brain, can tell by experience where his victim is likely to come up to blow

after the next evasive circle. He takes the short cut across and is there to meet him with his deadly harpoon.

If Junior survives these dangers he will reach maturity when he is two years old, and will start looking for a mate. He will always select a sweetheart bigger than himself, and when he finds her ho has a short but blissful break in the deadly monotony of his life.

Oblivious to their surroundings they will swim together—now close to each other, then coy fathoms apart—until by mutual consent they meet again in another instantaneous embrace, and so on into a wedding night of many miles.

But again danger lurks, for to the cool and calculating whale hunter a love affair is a sure thing for a double catch if properly played.

If the man behind the gun is a novice he will probably shoot at the nearest target, and if that should happen to be Junior his newly found bride will sheer off at the highest speed she can muster, disappearing before the gun can be reloaded. But an experienced gunner knows better than that. He bides his time, until he is sure which is the larger of the two love birds, before he goes to the attack. Then the gun bangs, you see the explosive harpoon, trailing its line, shoot through the air into the back of Junior’s girl friend. An explosion shakes her body, the sea is whipped into a white foam as she fights to get rid of this awful thing which has hurt her. But she is still alive, and as long as she lives Junior will not leave her.

The next time she comes up to blow, a fountain of red blood shoots out of her nostril, coloring the water around her, hut Junior takes no notice—she blows and that means she is still alive, and she is his.

The gunner shouts an order to the sailor at the windlass, and the harpoon line is drawn in slowly and ever so gently. She is getting weaker, but she still blows now and then—and by now a new harpoon has been put into the gun.

Another crash as the gun goes off, another swish through the air and the second harpoon plunges its way into Junior’s body. The charge of dynamite in the head of the harpoon, set for 30 seconds, goes off, and Junior, at the moment of the only happiness he has known in his short life, passes into oblivion.