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

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A spinner dolphin leaping © Andrew Sutton/Eco2

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Orca (ID171) breaches off the coast of Scotland © Steve Truluck.

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Chapter 86: The Tail

You can now listen to Dennis Minsky read Chapter 86: The Tailof Moby Dick. Dennis is a long-time naturalist aboard whale watching boats in the Gulf of Maine, so i can not imagine anyone better to read about the power and glory of whale tails then someone who has witnessed it for decades. Our intern, Evan Henerberry, echoes Melville’s ideas about The Tail’s strength……and also a little about it’s vulnerabilities in the face of modern-day fishing.

The fact that Melville dedicates an entire chapter to the whale’s tail is yet another example of Melville’s deep understanding of whales.Melville reviews the internal architecture of the massive tail and lays out five different ways in which whales use their tail, including calling one of the behaviors ‘lobtailing’ – a term we still use today.

The tail is oft-overlooked in comparison to the sheer size and majesty of the rest of the whale but as Ishmael describes, it is a vital body part used for so much more than locomotion. For instance, since Melville’s time, scientist have discovered the underside of a humpback whale’s tail is as unique as a human fingerprint.Conservation organizations have identified thousands of individual humpbacks around the world based solely on these unique pigmentation patterns.

One of the ways Melville describes whales using their flukes is ‘peaking of the flukes’ which is what we know call ‘fluking up’. Studies show whale species with a thicker blubber layer are more buoyant, require them to ‘fluking out’ for extra propulsion when diving deeper into the water column. Whales clearly also use their muscular tail fluke to propel themselves through the water. The sperm whale can dive up to 3 kilometers or almost two miles beneath the surface when hunting the notorious giant squid, all of it made possible via the power of its flukes.

The tail is also a useful tool for defense. Ishmael describes the terrible force a sperm whale can use to smash whale boats in a single massive stroke of its tail. When threatened by predators sperm whales often use a ‘rosette’ formation. They form a circle with their heads pointed in and their powerful tails facing outward and confronting the enemy. Ishmael playfully notes how sperm whales challenge one another face to face but disdainfully disposes of humanity with their rear end.

There are other uses for the tail that are not nearly so utilitarian. With only one or two strokes of the powerful tail, a whale can propel their entire 30 ton body out of the water in a display called breaching, a behavior science has yet to find a definitive cause for. Humpback whales also use their tales to aid in making their feeding more efficient. They smack the surface with their fluke to concentrate their prey before scooping them up in their massive gullets. This behavior, called kick feeding, is a learned behavior unique to the North Atlantic population of humpback whales.

The importance and vulnerability of the tail was highlighted tragically in the case of an unknown humpback whale seen in 2011 off Cape Cod. The whale had become entangled in fishing gear so severely that he/she lost his/her tail and was unable to dive and feed properly. When it was spotted by WDC scientists the whale was skeletally thin from its inability to feed properly and is feared dead. The tail stock and fluke join up in a t-formation called the peduncle, making it a prime location for entanglement. Lines become caught on the edge of the fluke as the whale moves along and as it rolls to relieve the drag of the trailing line and tension, the whale becomes entangled in wraps of line around the tail stock.

Entanglements on the tail stock are also dangerous to remove, as disentanglement teams must come right alongside the mighty flukes Ishmael and his shipmates once feared. Except in this case, instead of simply trying to kill the whale, the men and women in the tiny boats towed by the huge whale are attempting the much more delicate and dangerous task of trying to save it. Entanglements are one of the most prevalent human-caused dangers to whales now that worldwide commercial whaling is, at least for most, a thing of the past.

It makes one wonder what Ishmael would have thought of his majestic whale brought low by fishing equipment not even intended to capture it, and by the very tail he so admires. If we want to continue admiring whales as Ishmael and by extension Melville once did we need to start taking steps to ensure their survival. Please donate to the Moby Dick Big Read and help support WDC’s efforts to help protect whales.

About George Berry

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