Extra Credit: Whales

I love whales.

Seriously. For me they hold a natural affinity, one which other (possibly sane) people often reserve for primates. There is something eternal and wise, ancient and prescient about the beasts from the deep. It may sound silly, but somehow, they seem to sing to my soul.

They didn’t always, but then my knowledge of them as a child consisted entirely of the unattractive and barnacled (if admittedly majestic) Humpback, inspired by Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Anyway, the BBC recently broadcast a programme called Ocean Giants, hosted by their man for all seasons, Stephen Fry.

These are amorous southern right whales (warning: explicit mammalian content included):

Nifty though they may be, with their phallic monstrosities, this programme also profiled a whale species I’d never heard of before – not that it would be difficult to do so. My interest in whales hasn’t induced me to read any books on the subject or even look them up on Wikipedia.

You could say it’s a rather passive adulation.

Behold the arctic bowhead whale. Total love.


I know. They don’t look like much. But neither did the Enigma machine.  Or Freddie Mercury.

Sara’s entirely bias Bowhead Profile:

  • These giants live in the arctic, those scratches are from crashing into ice sheets to make blowholes.
  • Bowheads live alone under the frozen expanse, solitary and peaceful for most of their adult life.
  • They are  notoriously skittish. A wave-slap against a boat’s prow a quarter-mile away is enough to send them trundling to the deep.
  • Recent research indicates they may be some of the oldest creatures on the planet. Estimates surmise they are over 200 years old.

Possibly the oldest creatures – how cool! How mysterious! It explains rather a lot of their anti-human behaviour in my mind too.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago whaling was an exotic imperialist hobby and dastardly big business (though some would say it still is when there are stories like this in the world).

Leaving the politics to one side however, I found an article about a bowhead carcass found in 2001 which had old, ivory harpoon heads lodged in its skin.

[Totally pointless footnote, how do you post 48 frozen whale eyeballs? How big of a box is that and what do you put on the customs declaration? These are the things that keep me up at night.]

If the harpoon heads and eyeball dissection prove they are that old, it’s hard to imagine what all they have witnessed in 200 years. Reminds e of Darwin’s tortoise.

Now, a little imaginative history says a sow of 200 could easily have witnessed the harpooning of family members in Victorian expeditions. Quite likely she would have been chased herself at least a few times in the remaining centuries. Their trademark trepidation regarding ships and humanst is suddenly more than understandable. I’d be pretty freakin’ skittish too.

Yes, it’s anthropomorphizing a bit.

It also feels like the seeds of a Disney movie: some Bambi-esque tale of survival and distrust.

Of course in modern-day ultra-PC Disney world, the orphaned baby bowhead would make friends with some Inuit child.

They’d probably have a swimming montage, and a reggae duet.

Fin-tacular high-fives aside, it does make me wonder. After a hundred years of being hunted, how long would it take you to trust humans in the water? It may be generations to us, but the world is a different place under the Arctic seas, where centuries stretch to the frozen horizon.

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On  a related note, the new BBC One Natural History programme has been announced.

Every other winter sees a new multi-million dollar nature show hit prime time. It’s all HD gloriousness with chase scenes heightened by saccharine symphonic interludes. It’s the sort of thing I plan my calendar around.

And it is always, always, always narrated by Sir David Attenborough, our National Treasure.

He’s been making nature docs since the 50s, and still does it with charm, though now he is more narrator than intrepid explorer.

Here is the new preview. I am getting rather excited.

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