Whales Tales


I’ve been meaning to bring this up for a while. It’s been on my mind. You might say it’s my preoccupation du jour. Du saison, really, since it’s been bothering me for a few months.

Here’s the thing: you know sperm whales, right?

Hang on. Let me back up and add some context.

In November, we were in New Zealand for a while. One grey afternoon, we went, as you do, on a whale watch off the east side of the south island. We ran across a couple of sperm whales. While the boat was tracking down said whales, the guide gave mini lectures about the local whale populations. These speeches were accompanied by short graphical videos. Maybe it was because she looked all of twelve years old or because of her strange, lopsided haircut or because the video representation of the whale made it look like it was four times the size of our boat, but a lot of it sounded like she got it out of comic books.

For starters, only Moby Dick was four times the size of our boat. I looked it up: the largest male sperm whale on record was 67 feet long. That’s eleven times longer than your average man. (And by “longer” I mean the man’s height, just so we’re clear.) I didn’t lie down on the deck or anything, but that boat must’ve been 60 feet at least. Which means the largest whale we’d see outside of Gulliver’s travels would be about the same size as the boat. That’s plenty threatening, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the 180-foot whale the video made it out to be.

It’s not the misrepresentation of the whale’s size that’s bothering me most though. That just got the skepticism ball rolling. It’s this thing about the oil in its head.

Apparently, most of the space in sperm whales’ heads is filled up with oil, which inebriated whalers mistook for sperm the first time they split one open, hence the embarrassing name. “Sperm Whales: the story of drunken idiots getting their feet wet in zoological nomenclature.”

No one knows why the oil is there. This baffles me. If Facebook can figure out what size shoe I wear and we tracked down water on Mars, how have we failed to sort out why one of the biggest mammals on the planet is schlepping around a head full of oil? How did that not make the list years ago? I would have thought Jacques Cousteau would have been all over that. This seems like a massive project management oversight on the part of whoever’s running the planet, much like how we lost track of an entire population of turtles between the ages of one and five.

In the absence of real data, “scientists” have been spending their time making up answers instead of suiting up and figuring out the actual answer.

Here’s my favorite: when the whale is on the surface, hanging out and breathing and what not, the oil is liquid. When the whale gets peckish, it magically solidifies the oil, which weighs it down enough to take it to nearly 10,000 feet underwater to collect snack packs of squid. When it can’t breath for having eaten so much squid, it liquifies the oil again, creating a lightheadedness that allows it to rise to the surface.

I understand the logistical appeal of this buoyancy theory, but my question is this: where is it getting and then storing all the freezer packs necessary to solidify gallons and gallons of oil? Related, how does it power the space heater required to re-liquify the oil at 10,000 feet down? Does it have giant pockets filled with mini fridges and generators? Please show your work.

Why can’t we test this theory anyway? If we’ve sequenced the human genome, I can get text messages from halfway around the world, and someone as jerky as James Cameron can sort out a submersible camera capable of examining the Titanic, how come we can’t tail a whale with a thermometer and some binoculars?

The other going theory involves echolocation wherein the whale can bounce sound around inside the oil to magnify its volume before s/he emits what must be a hell of a bellow, given the size of the head and the amount of oil we’re talking about. I like this one, because it implies that with a little training, we might be able to get a whale on board for some kind of voice-throwing Vegas act, which would be awesome.

Barring that though, which admittedly might take a while what with the tanks and the contracts and the so on, I think it’s about time someone got on the stick and figured this out once and for all. Really, how hard can it be? Once we do, someone needs to send a memo to that guide in New Zealand so she can stop misinforming tourists. Make sure you include a note about the inexplicable haircut too. That’s got to go.


Categories: News, Nuisance, Miscellany


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