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Humpback whale. Image: Christopher Swann

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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Risso's dolphin © Andy Knight

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Pilot whales pooing © Christopher Swann

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Fin whale (balaenoptera physalus) Three fin whales Gulf of California.

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A spinner dolphin leaping © Andrew Sutton/Eco2

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Moby Dick Chapter 75: The Right Whale’s Head

Especially in the face of our struggle to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, it is poignant to read/listen to Melville’s matter of fact descriptions of harvesting these animals for oil and bone all the while taking the opportunity to keenly observe the carcass. After returning intern, Emily Moss, listened to today’s Chapter read by Ruth Leeneythese were some of her thoughts.

How must it feel to stand inside the mouth of a right whale? What would it feel like to closely inspect the baleen, to stand on the tongue and examine the jaw and lips? Looking at the bones and baleen, Melville wonders at the age of the animal he examines. He astutely notices the structural differences between the right whale and the sperm whale: baleen instead of teeth, two blowholes instead of one. In this chapter, Melville proves himself to be quite the naturalist.

In addition to the physiological observation, Melville remarks on the gallons of oil that could be harvested just from the lips and tongue of these animals. It is estimated that one right whale could produce more than 90 barrels of oil. Since they were also easy to hunt (they swam close to shore and moved slowly), it is not surprising that whalers pursued right whales so fiercely.

No one knows how many right whales existed before shore-based whaling began along the eastern coast of the US in the 17th century. Basques were the first to commercially hunt North Atlantic right whales, beginning in the Bay of Biscay as early as the eleventh century. From there the Basques then spread to eastern Canada by 1530. The last Basque whaling voyages were made before the start of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). However, shore whaling continued sporadically into the 19th century. In fact, American whalers took up to one hundred right whales each year, with the records including one report of 29 whales killed in Cape Cod Bay in a single day during January 1700. It’s estimated that at least 5,500 (it could even be twice that number) right whales were taken by whalers before they received protection in the 1930s.

Before they noticed or understood the consequences of their intense hunting efforts, right whales populations were decimated. Already at the time of Melville’s writing, North Atlantic right whale populations were depleted and were commercially extinct, meaning there were too few to make hunting worthwhile. Whalers had already turned their focus to the more abundant sperm whales or traveled to hunt the Southern and Pacific right whales. Currently,there are fewer than 500 individuals remaining, making them one of the most endangered whale species.

As Melville moves to a more philosophical comparison between right whales and sperm whales he describes the right whale as a stoic animal; slow and seemingly impassionate. Hauntingly, he asks “Does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death?” Was Melville giving a nod to the decimation of right whales that had already occurred?

Thankfully, the North Atlantic right whale no longer faces the same hunting threats, although this critically endangered species is still vulnerable. Mortality and serious injury resulting from collisions with marine vessels, entanglements in fishing gear, and inadequate habitat protection continue to inhibit the species’ recovery.

Even if Melville was correct in his assessment of the right whale’s resolution in the face of death, it is apparent that these animals need our help to ensure their survival.

WDC is actively working to increase protection for the NA right whale and we need your help.

About George Berry

George is a member of WDC's Communications team and website coordinator.