Whales, not Wales, but whales. Neither are really places you want to find yourself in albeit one more fatal than the other. Anyway, whales we now know are good for spotting. Statistics suggest that more than thirteen million people went whale watching in 2008. Now this statistic is a little stale, so perhaps even more people now go whale watching. 2008, though, was also a chaotic year for global stock markets and so maybe it was just a spike, a one off, as weary tourists retreated to the simple beauty of nature priced out of Sea World’s $80 day pass. Still, today, it is believed that more than thirteen thousand people rely on whales to pay their mortgage and the whole whale watching industry is thought to generate more than $2bn in annual revenues. But then with moneyed-men like Lord Ashcroft bobbing around clutching a pair of binos and half a loaf of stale bread, perhaps that should not come as a big surprise. Whale watching has, though, caused problems in places like Japan, as Japan also has vibrant whaling industry. Whale watching is very different to whaling. Whaling involves harpooning the inquisitive beasts for meat, oil and blubber which is an activity that predictably stokes the inner orca in all seasoned whale watchers.
Whales are not as big as Wales, but in the context of mammals, they are seriously big. The biggest, the Blue Whale, is basically the largest creature that has ever lived. Blue Whales can stretch to more than thirty metres long and weigh anything up to two hundred and forty tonnes. Two hundred and forty tonnes is a whole lot of blubber. Many types of whales – from the melon-headed whale to the false killer whale – exhibit sexual dimorphism in that, like many couples on estates in places like Stoke, the females are bigger than males. Whales actually evolved from land-living mammals, they breathe air, although given their size they have a lung capacity bigger than Sir Steve Redgrave. A humpback whale can hold about five thousand litres of air which means they can stay underwater for long enough to comfortably watch The Postman and Dances with Wolves, back-to-back. They can swim at about 40km/h, they like squid and generally prefer cooler water and so only head to the equator to give birth. Which makes a lot of sense given the only Japanese people they are likely to encounter at the equators are Nikon-wielding tourists keen to spot a baby whale.
As a further point of interest, the whale’s closest land based living relative is the hippo, who shares the same semi-aquatic ancestor that roamed the earth some sixty million years ago. Long time. Humans by way of reference – humans being modern humans i.e. ones we might have round for tea – have only been on earth for about two hundred thousand years. Indeed civilisation, as we know it, is just six thousand years old. Whales, and hippos, then, are both somewhat long in the tooth. Metaphorically speaking that is. For not all whales have teeth. The whales of popular culture, the Moby Dicks, Willies from Free Willy, and Jaws, tend to trade off their nippers but not so for all whales. You see there are toothed wales who, as you rightly mutter, have teeth; and baleen whales who don’t. Instead, baleen whales have plates of baleen, which seems to be some sort of a loose walk-through curtain, the like of which you’ll find in the local butcher or foreign strip clubs, which can cleverly expel water while retaining krill and plankton on which they feed.
Whales are also quite bright. The sperm whale has the largest brain mass of any animal on earth. It has long been held that animals with small brains, like chicken or goldfish, will struggle with the crossword as the bigger the brain, the more capacity there is to deal with more complex cognitive tasks other than maintaining basic bodily functions and staring vacantly into space. Whales are known to teach, learn, co-operate, scheme and even grieve. Sea World also discovered that it’s probably not best to capture baby whales in the wild, separate them from their family, and make them perform tricks twice a day in sold-out arenas. One day they are going to snap. Which one did. The documentary Blackfish lays bare the risks of keeping whales in tanks after Tilikum, a blue orca, turned on his trainer and killed her in front of some startled holiday makers. Sad, but perhaps not a huge surprise. Whales don’t make good pets.
Now, given they have been around for sixty million odd years, and given they are massive, whales are deeply woven into myths and folklore. Icelandic legend whispers of a man who threw a stone that landed in a whale’s blow-hole which caused the whale to burst. He did not go to sea for twenty years, but when he did, yep, he got eaten by a whale. In much of the Pacific Islands and indeed, amongst Australian aborigines, whales are regarded as good news as they bring great joy. That is all except French Polynesia, who choose to butcher whales given any opportunity, but then French Polynesians are quick to butcher each other at any given opportunity so perhaps that should also not come as a big surprise. In Vietnam and Ghana, two countries with not a lot else in common, whales hold a sense of divinity. Indeed they are held in such high regard, if one ever gets beached, they will often get a proper funeral. In Chinese folklore, the God of the Seas, is a whale with legs. Scary stuff. And of course whales feature prominently in the Bible. Famously when one swallowed Jonah, but also in Genesis, Job and Ezekiel. Rudyard Kipling much later penned ‘How the whale got his throat’, Walt Disney’s Pinocchio features a giant whale called Monstro and the admired French composer Leo Ferre’s song “Il n’y a plus rien” includes biomusic, where he basically mixed his own voice with an orchestra and some whale songs. As you do.
And that’s whales really. In full flow, mother nature at her best.