Sea History 162 - Spring 2018

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Animals in Sea History

by Richard King

courtesy new bedford whaling museum

n historic illustrations and comic books, angry sperm whales are constantly crunching up boats and whalemen in their mouths, as if they were pretzel sticks. This has always seemed a bit of a stretch to me. It turns out that, although sperm whales are typically shy and afraid of humans, when individual whales are harpooned—as they were by the thousands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the animals did indeed sometimes use their lower jaws and teeth to grasp and mash boats and men. There are just too many historic examples to dismiss them all, and modern studies of sperm whale behavior suggest it makes sense, too. Here are three of the more reliable accounts. According to historian Margaret Creighton, in 1831 the chief mate of the Good Return, Henry Howland, drowned after he was carried down Detail from a painting by a whaleman, likely aboard the whaleship Young Phoenix. under the surface in the jaws of a whale after the animal smashed his boat. The whale then got hold of another sailor in his mouth, but this man survived. In 1840 Frederick Bennett, a surgeon and naturalist aboard a British whaleship, wrote that sperm whales commonly defended themselves with their jaws. He visited the whaleship Augusta in the South Pacific, where he saw a boat on deck that had recently been “nipped completely asunder by the jaws of a harpooned whale.” Bennett learned that sperm whales would continue to bite a boat into pieces and, when they were finished, would keep their mouths threateningly open for several minutes. A third event took place on 15 August 1841. A mate of the whaleship Coral wrote in his journal that a sperm whale had bitten up their boats when they were just south of the Galápagos Islands. This was an enormous male, likely more than sixty feet long. Two boats had harpooned the bull, which rolled over and “chewed [one up] in many hundred pieces.” The whale was severely injured and blood began to collect in its blowhole, so when it spouted, its exhale was filled with blood. The mate said that the whale “entirely consumed” the boat and swam away, but they still had another boat attached to him with a harpoon. Their next attempt to kill the whale resulted in the death of one of the crew, as described by the mate in his journal: “While the third mate was in the act of lancing him, he turned upon him and eat his boat

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