Right Whales Through the Eyes of Herman Melville

The following post is part of a series of blogs created for the Face-ing Extinction: The North Atlantic Right Whale page on Facebook. Three organizations (WDC, ASRI, NBWM) from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium meet monthly to create and update right whale related curriculum, discuss important issues related to the NARW and devise ways to bring awareness to the precarious status of the population of this highly endangered species. The FB page is a result of these meetings.

Because the Whaling Museum hosted the 19th annual Moby-Dick Marathon earlier this month, it was deemed appropriate to weave Eubalaena glacialis and Herman Melville together, something he first did in 1851. However, in 2015, it has been done in a more contemporary form of print media.

Two North Atlantic right whales. (nmfs.noaa.gov photo)

Two North Atlantic right whales. (nmfs.noaa.gov photo)

When Moby-Dick was published in 1851, confusion still existed as to which whales were Right whales and which were later to be known as Bowhead whales. In Chapter 32, Cetology, Melville attacks the topic of whale taxonomy like a librarian, splitting up the whales based on size. Thus, the known whales were split into three groups: Folio Whales, Octavo Whales and Duodecimo Whales.

Our whale is considered as Chapter 2 of the Folio Whales and is called a Right Whale. “In one respect this is the most venerable of the Leviathans, being the one first regularly hunted by man. It yields the article commonly known as whalebone or baleen; and the oil specially known as “whale oil”, an inferior article in commerce.”

However, it becomes clear immediately that there is confusion as to which whale he is trying to describe, “Among the fishermen, he is indiscriminately designated by all the following titles: The Whale; the Greenland Whale; The Black Whale; The Great Whale; the True Whale; the Right Whale. There is a deal of obscurity concerning the identity of the species thus multitudinously baptized. What then is the whale, which I include in the second species of my Folios? It is the Great Mysticetus of the English naturalists; the Greenland Whale of the English whalemen; the Baliene Ordinaire of the French whalemen; The Growlands Walfish of the Swedes.”

The text that follows makes it clear that rights and bowheads are being conflated, “It is the whale which for more than two centuries past has been hunted by the Dutch and English in the Arctic seas; it is the whale which the American fishermen have long pursued in the Indian ocean, on the Brazil Banks, on the Nor’ West Coast, and various other parts of the world, designated by them Right Whale Cruising Grounds.”

Later in the story in Chapter 58, Brit, however, there is no confusion as to which species they see while sailing north east of the Crozetts (small islands directly south of Madagascar). “On the second day, numbers of Right Whales were seen, who, secure from the attack of a sperm whaler like the Pequod, with open jaws sluggishly swam through the brit, which, adhering to the fringing fibres of that wondrous Venetian blind in their mouths, was in that manner separated from the water that escaped at the lip.”

Two paragraphs later he captures the experience of most people the first time they see any species of right whale in the water, “Seen from the mast-heads, especially when they paused and were stationary for a while, their vast black forms looked more like lifeless masses of rock than anything else….And when recognized at last, their immense magnitude renders it very hard really to believe that such bulky masses of overgrowth can possibly be instinct, on all parts, with the same sort of life that lives in a dog or a horse.”

Melville later dedicates an entire chapter, #75, to describing the head of a right whale. “So, at a broad view, the Right Whale’s head bears a rather inelegant resemblance to a gigantic galliot-toed shoe.”

Luckily the science of cetacean taxonomy has come a long way since the mid -1800s and there’s no confusion as to which whales are Eubalaena glacialis and which are Balaena mysticetus.  We have also long settled the discussion as to whether or not whales are fish. Just before he dives into his book-focused classification of cetaceans, Melville states, “To be short, then, a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.”

There are many intentionally funny moments in Moby-Dick. This one was not written to be humorous, but has become quite laughable. That being said, Moby-Dick has stood the test of time to become one of the humankind’s classic stories. It has put whales in the consciousness of thousands of people, including those who attend the Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon each January. Perhaps some of you will join us at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2016.

One response to “Right Whales Through the Eyes of Herman Melville

  1. This made me remember passages of Melville that I should not have forgotten. I’ll use some of the material in my teaching…

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