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Book Review: The Great Sperm Whale

The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean’s Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature
by Richard Ellis
University Press of Kansas, 2011

“Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal men could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s bow till men and timbers reeled …” So Herman Melville wrote of Moby Dick, the great marauding star of his 1851 novel Moby-Dick, and although he was writing about a single sperm whale, a lone example of Physeter macrocephalus, his bizarre and towering book, the hymnal and breviary of the 19th century American whale-oil industry, came to typify the whole race of these whales – and to upend the logic of that industry by leaving the whale victorious when the book’s last chapter ends.
In reality, sperm whales, like every other predator except the mosquito, have always been on the losing side of their 3000-year battle with humans. Wooden wind-driven vessels like Melville’s Pequod did plenty of damage in their day, all but extirpating sperm whales from most of the cruising, hunting, and mating ranges they’d held since their emergence as a distinct species somewhere around 25 million years ago in the Late Oligocene. Much more powerful engine-driven whaling ships with whale-locating technology and rocket-powered harpoons on board drove the species to the brink of extinction. Various whaling bans and moratoria were enacted in the 1980s, but not all nations observe those bans, and even sporadic poaching can wreak havoc on a species like the sperm whale, whose members are slow to reproduce and slow to reach maturity. Frantically increased industrial fishing is rapidly emptying the world’s oceans of wildlife; it’s delusional to think that process will slow down or reverse, and so it’s delusional to think Earth will have sperm whales very much longer.
These facts add a elegiac undertone to the prolific author Richard Ellis’ new book The Great Sperm Whale – an elegiac tone the author himself would most vigorously reject. Ellis – still somehow boyishly handsome even after more than three decades of writing and publishing books on the world’s oceans and wildlife – is as enthusiastically optimistic an advocate of whales and their future. His justly famous paintings and murals of whales are so suffused with light and playing reflections that it’s impossible not to smile when beholding them. In The Great Sperm Whale he’s written a loving, wide-ranging, and altogether magnificent natural history of the animal he calls “the largest predator that has ever lived on earth.” Despite all the worldly reasons Ellis knows as minutely as anybody, this is an intensely hopeful book. It’s a celebration, not a wake.
It’s not blind, however. Ellis knows that on one level extinction is haunting his tale of these endangered animals. He nudges the subject often and once or twice confronts it directly:

Even though we don’t quite understand how it works, extinction is an integral part of the evolutionary process … Species develop, live and prosper for a while, and then die out, sometimes adapting to changes in the environment, but more often not. Most of the animal species that have ever lived on earth are gone, whether predator or prey. The great sharks such as C. megalodon are gone (despite silly novels that postulate their continued existence), and Leviathan melvillei has not spouted for about 13 million years.

But whatever their ultimate fate, sperm whales are here now (Ellis was present in the room when the key 1980s moratorium was enacted – like every other whale-lover in the room, he bolted to his feet and hooted like a lunatic until solemnly asked to leave), and this book takes them in all their moods and modes and memorials. Melville of course gets pride of place, but also movie-adaptations of Moby-Dick, the history and lore of the whaling industry in general, and all that’s known of the natural history of the species. In the way of all the best natural history volumes, The Great Sperm Whale tries to encapsulate the whole spectrum of the species’ existence, to present its particulars and wonders to readers who likely have never caught so much as a glimpse of the creature in the wild.
Those readers and the ones who’ve seen a sperm whale in the open ocean will share one standout impression: they’ll both note the sheer size of the animals head. The massive rectangular ‘battering ram’ extending forward from the eyes seems so disproportionate that it begs for explanation. Sperm whales have the biggest brains of any animal on the planet – 300 pounds in adults – but the brain is located behind the eyes: forward is the nose, also the biggest in the world, and the source of amazements Melville never imagined:

The “battering ram” of the sperm whale may be impervious to the hurled harpoon, but within that “boneless toughness” there would be found the single most extraordinary organ in the animal kingdom, a complex of tubes, air sacs, lips, and vast reservoirs of oil, the function of which is only now being investigated. If Melville had any idea what really went on in that nose, Moby-Dick would have been a very different novel – wider and deeper, perhaps, but certainly a lot noisier.



Unfortunately for the sperm whale, once humans learned of those “vast reservoirs of oil,” the race was on to harvest every last drop of that spermaceti in order to light the lamps of the world. Each sperm whale contained hundreds of gallons of oil, and whaling fleets out of Nantucket and New Bedford had high quotas to meet. Far too many of the thousands of books that have been written about sperm whales end up just being prolonged descriptions of the near-genocidal slaughter wrought by mankind on this species. Ellis gives the subject its due without rancor or judgement, but the best parts of his book are elsewhere.
The Great Sperm Whale is at its best when teaching all the fascinating facts about these amazing animals. We learn that they actually have two sets of teeth: only the ones in the lower jaw are visible because the ones in the upper jaw don’t erupt in the animal’s lifetime. We learn about the enormous dimorphism of the species – females grow to 35 feet but males to 55 feet or more. As Ellis puts it, “Along with the size dimorphism, adult male and female sperm whales differ so dramatically in many respects that it is possible to think of them almost as different species.” And in a riveting examination of all the known facts, we learn about the latest theories in how this preyed-upon species does its own preying.
It’s been known since ancient times that sperm whales hunt giant squid in the unrelieved darkness of the ocean’s depths. Since squid are much faster than sperm whales, speculation has been active as to how that hunting happens – made all the more active by the condition of the food whalers found in the stomachs of their victims:

… the majority of sperm whale stomachs examined by whalers and cetologists are filled with squid, so they have to be able to catch them somehow. (One whale had the beaks of 14,000 squid in its stomach) There was something most peculiar about the squid in the stomachs of whales: they rarely showed evidence of having been chewed or bitten. … The teeth of sperm whales do not erupt from the gums until long after weaning, and there are many cases of captured sperm whales with completely deformed lower jaws that nevertheless had full stomachs.

Is it possible sperm whales use tightly-focused sonar blasts to stun their victims and then just suck in the limp bodies? We’re unlikely ever to know for certain, but it’s an explanation that fits the facts.
And the work-life of the sperm whale isn’t the only aspect of their world that receives plenty of attention in this book: this species is big-brained, highly communicative, and highly social, and Ellis devotes a refreshing amount of space to an attempt (doomed to be sketchy) at unraveling some of the mysteries of the 99 percent of sperm whale life about which we know next to nothing. Thanks to the high-profile nature of his illustration work (and the boyish charm previously alluded to!), Ellis has talked with all the world’s top whale-experts, including the late Bill Schervill of Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts (Ellis rightly notes that “he had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly”) and the great Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Ellis rightly refers to him simply as “the world’s foremost authority on sperm whales”), who puts things succinctly when talking about sperm whale societies:

It’s like they’re living in these massive, multicultural undersea societies. It’s sort of strange. Really the closest analogy we have for it would be ourselves.

Other public figures fare less well – Stephen Jay Gould and especially Jacques Cousteau come in for some deserved but perhaps indelicate drubbings – but thankfully, humans are not the ultimate focus of this superb book, even though humans have caused such devastation to the species that is. Physeter macrocephalus still swims the black ocean bottoms of the world, and the man who’s given them so many glowing portraits in paint has now done them the same favor in words. The book is highly recommended, no matter the strength of the doom it defies.