Environment Magazine

Love and Revenge: Sperm Whales Adopt Disabled Dolphin

Posted on the 04 February 2013 by Earth First! Newswire @efjournal

It was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day. Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. –Captain Ahab–

illustration by becka rankin

illustration by becka rankin

Spoiler alert, Moby Dick, the human devouring sperm whale of Herman Melville’s epic whaling novel of the same name, eats Captain Ahab—that ole son-of-a-barnacle’s-taint—and to the great relief of many a hunted sea beast. As a character, Ahab truly was a fine example of a dastardly whaler and neither Greenpeace nor Sea Shephard could be written to have given him his just deserts as well as our cetacean comrade.  In the text, Moby Dick is both hero and antagonist and a truly enigmatic literary metaphor for the savagery of both nature and civilization, for revenge, madness, greed, god, the soul and justice, but never love.

But what shall ye make of the knowledge, Mr. Mellville, of sperm whales as loving adoptive parents who were recently sighted crossing the species boundary to care for a disabled dolphin?

Alexander D. M. Wilson / Aquatic Mammals

Alexander D. M. Wilson / Aquatic Mammals

In a soon-to-be published research paper for the journal Aquatic Mammals, behavioral ecologist Alexander Wilson reports that the dolphin calf, which had a rare spinal curvature that would make it difficult to keep up with its own kind, traveled many days with the slower pod of whales. The scientists even observed the whales nuzzling and playing with the dolphin. It shocked the observers to witness the general aloofness between the two species dissolve.

“It really looked like they had accepted the dolphin for whatever reason,” said Wilson, “They were being very sociable.” He also noted that as far as he knew, sperm whales have never been known to mingle with another species like this.

In fact, according to ecologist Mónica Almeida e Silva, bottlenose dolphins often chase and harass sperm whales and their calves.

“Why would sperm whales accept this animal in their group?” she said. “It’s really puzzling to me.”

In Moby Dick, the white whale is a vengeful creature, long tortured and scared by the hands of whalers. Under Melville’s pen he is a creature with agency—if only fictional—to fend off the decayed spirit of a dubious captain in the service of a dubious industry and a brazenly anthropocentric worldview. For me, as a literary model, Moby Dick is the height of zoomorphic revenge on the seemingly unstoppable industrial nightmare.

“Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled.”

And yet now, the sperm whale is doubly my hero, both as the great violent redeemer burned in my psyche at childhood and a gentler beast as well, which promises forgiveness, care, and inter-species support.


P.S. in case you haven’t read Moby Dick and would like to relish the final words of Captain Ahab, that ole pickled bowel movement, as he is gnawed and dragged to his tomb at the bottom of the sea, here you go:

“Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”



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