“But in the great Sperm whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified that the gazing upon it, in that full front view , you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature…” Moby Dick… Herman Melville
On Saturday I attended the Sperm Whale workshop which brought together experts from all over the world to present quick papers and have discussions on their research. It was meant to be informal and a way for people to meet and make connections. They also invited squid and fish experts so that they could have a better understanding of what the things that the sperm whales liked to eat were doing. Which I thought was pretty clever.
I’ve been married to a scientist for almost forty years now so I’m good at faking like I understand what scientists are saying, but much of the time I’m like the dog in that Far Side cartoon where the owner is saying “Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Missy, Blah, Blah, Missy.”
But the truth is, I like hanging around with scientists, mostly. A lot of them like to drink. A lot, and some of them are quite funny, like lawyers and cops, I think that has something to do with spending a lot of time cutting that fine distinction. That’s where the humor is after all. Lots of people don’t like people who use hard words, that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is arrogance, of any kind…and obfuscation, which is what you find when not-so-smart people use words they don’t know, to cover up the fact that they don't really know what they are talking about. I mention this because, I can, and have been guilty of this, particularly when writing about science. So, when and if... I sound particularly stupid describing the topics or the science in these coming blogs, please, please, please, do not take it as a reflection on the intelligence or the eloquence of the people I spoke with, but all blame falls squarely on me. The tone is not meant to be smarmy. The tone is meant to be awestruck unless otherwise noted.
Back to the workshop. Part of the workshop had to do with the anatomy of the sperm whale’s snout. Now some people refer to the big part past it’s eye as it’s head, but the two scientists referred to it as it’s “nose.” It’s filled. Melville called it its “brow.” It is the most distinctive aspect of the animal. Big and blunt as it goes through the water, The blowhole also pokes off to the left side of the animals head which also makes it distinctive when you see it at sea. This I’ve experienced for myself. I’ve been around them in the Gulf of Alaska where we mostly see the big males., Males are bigger, I’m not being sexist here, that’s called being “sexually dimorphic” I’m told. Moby Dick was a whopper and he was a male, and he was based in fact on a whale that sank the ship the Essex, as we all know know thanks to the big screen. Anyway this Big Nose is filled with spermaceti which was the prized oil for the whalers, for machine oil and smokeless lamp oil. The Whales have these incredibly strong lips in the front of the head where they pass air and generate clicks and clangs, This sound passes through the spermaceti and circles through another set of membranes “that are somewhat like lenses that somehow focus the sound… we don’t really know how” but tests have been done determining that the whales can narrow the sounds to very narrow, (five inch in radius?) beams. So, not only do Sperm Whales have the biggest brain of any animal on earth, they are the loudest. Not only that, they can move and shape that big old schnozzola around to shape and focus that sound around.
Now… why do they do that? They disorient their prey to slow it down… it’s suspected… again it’s hard to say for sure because no one has ever ridden on the back of one at three thousand feet underwater. But pretty sure, they locate their prey with echo location, essentially they “see” underwater with sonar, otherwise why have such a well developed sonar system and such shitty little eyes on both sides of their great big noggin. (again those are my words) A well known scientist showed her notes from the time, long ago when she took Ken Norris’s class, and she diagramed the anatomy of the whale’s head. It didn’t look like my notes. But here are mine. Ken Norris, by the way was a GOD.
The other part of the workshop I attended, was Bill Gilly’s lecture on squid. I have met Mr. Gilly before. His wife is a noted authority on John Steinbeck, she wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition to Cannery Row and she is the Director of the Steinbeck Center. She kind of scares me, not that she means to, she is very nice, she just does. When we were going to meet Bill at his office in Pacific Grove, I asked Jan about him, and she almost swooned, “Are you kidding me,” she said, “he’s the squid man.” Jan sometimes forgets who she is married to. I asked her what that meant and she snapped back to reality and said, “Oh… Bill Gilly knows more about squid than anybody I’ve ever, met. Probably anybody, anywhere.” Now, you should know something about my wife, this is saying something because she knows quite a few squid people.
So, I could tell there was something happening because people were sneaking into to hear Professor Gilly’s lectures. There was standing room only by the time he spoke. He is a big man with a round face. There is not a trace of arrogance about him, and a sweetness and a love of his subject that comes through. He seemed genuinely concerned about squid. Now there was a lot I didn’t understand about certain aspects of his talk, but it was because he was talking to people who he assumed had a working knowledge of ocean chemistry and oceanography. So I asked him a question afterwards, he had mentioned that tagged squid had been recorded diving to the depth of the “Oxogen Minimum Layer” (which is the depth where oxogen is minimally sufficient to support the prey layer. my understanding again) and then could dive further, if they were possibly being chased by a whale??? He was cautious, but said that it was certainly possible.
I asked him what effected the depth of the Oxogen Minimum Layer, (Mostly I wanted to know how deep it was in Alaska because I wanted to know how deep to fish) Essentially he said, lots of things effect the useable oxygen in the ocean, and here his voice was even more concerned and he seemed a little more sad, and I didn’t understand and of course I thought I had offended him somehow, but he explained, the depth of the OML(of course there is an acronym) is effected by many dynamic influences, such as sunlight, so that in Alaska it varies with the seasons, but also by currents and river systems. What drives it is bacteria, refreshing the O2 from the bottom and the side. “A great deal of the oxogen in the ocean comes from bacteria that is trapped under the polar ice cap and is flushed into the system from the currents. Now of course with the warming and the disappearance of the ice cap there is a real chance of mass extinction events caused by the possibility of the ocean becoming anaerobic."
This is the kind of language that doesn’t sound dramatic until it sinks in for a while. “Mass extinction events caused by the possibility of the ocean becoming anaerobic.” Then he added, “Which of course, is very bad.”
What made it worse for me was the tone of his voice and his eyes. He knew what he was saying. We are all connected, of course. The whales, the squid. Herman Melville and you and I dear ones.
Consider this: The days of commercial whaling and out of control harvesting of the great whales are largely over. We are closer than ever to signing a world wide global warming accord. So, there are good things happening, all the more reason for doubling down in our efforts, I suppose. All the more reason to remember the poets and mystics of the past.
Here’s Herman Melville blissful in the gore, processing the spermaceti on the Peaquod:
“Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! all the morning long, I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it: I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me: and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers hands in it… Come; let us squeeze ourselves into each other: let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”
Tomorrow: Herman Melville, Homosexuality, and the “Lone Bachelor”