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from the September 2019 issue

The Whale That Blinked

Andreas Tjernshaugen details the new industrialized whaling of the nineteenth century and early warnings that the industry might lead to extinction of its quarry. ​ 

Early one Sunday morning in October 1865, a fisherman called Olof Larsson was hunting small game among the smooth rocks on the coast at Askimsviken outside Gothenburg, Sweden. There he spied something unusual sticking up out of the sea some forty meters from the shoreline. At first he thought it was wreckage. But as soon as he reached the water’s edge his doubts vanished: it was a living creature lying out there, struggling to free itself.

Olof had never seen anything like it before. But he realized it could only be a whale. He rushed off to fetch his brother-in-law, Carl.

Carl Hansson had been to sea. He had seen whales out on the North Sea and he knew they were terrible monsters that might, in the worst of cases, try to swallow up your vessel. So for safety’s sake, he opted for a large boat. The two men hoisted sail and tacked towards the beast until they were about twenty-five meters away.

The whale lay on its belly, listing slightly to one side. It was motionless for the most part. About every fifth minute, it would draw in breath, give a jerk and try to hurl itself up into the air. Its tail would rise a man’s height above the water, then slap back down again. Its flippers flapped like wings. Its spout was like dense fog and sounded like a clap of thunder or “a deep bass voice, but with the force of a ship’s steam whistle,” as August Wilhelm Malm would describe it. The echo rang against the mountainsides.

Olof dared not proceed. He returned to land and could not be persuaded to attack the brute. Carl attempted it alone. But when the boat was three or four meters away, he too became afraid and turned back. Close to shore, he summoned up his courage and set out again. He attacked the whale with a knife fastened onto a long boathook, just in front of the two blowholes. To no avail. The whale barely noticed it had been stabbed. It continued struggling to get free but instead its efforts carried it ever further into the shallows.

When Olof saw he could safely approach the whale, he went out in the boat too. He was the one who discovered that the whale’s eye had emerged from the water. The whale blinked like a human being.

 

The two fellows decided to poke the whale’s eye out so it couldn’t see them. The knife and the boathook sank more than half a meter into the eye socket. A thin stream of blood spurted out. It ran out the way beer does when you poke a hole in the barrel, Carl thought, and it carried on that way for half an hour. The sea around them was dyed red. The whale struck out violently with its tail and fins, but it could no longer lift its head. It merely sank deeper into the sand.

Now Carl took to hacking at the whale’s head with an ax. As long as he stood in the boat, he achieved no visible results, but eventually he clambered up onto the head and from there, he managed to hack a deep notch just behind the blowholes. Blood welled up from the wound, running down into the blowholes and coloring the spout red. Soon, Carl was totally drenched in blood as he stood there, hacking away with his ax. The ax blows caused the whale to jerk so forcefully that Carl was obliged to return to the boat on several occasions until it had calmed down. The whale responded especially violently if touched close to its mouth. 

From ten o’clock until half past three in the afternoon, Carl worked away with the ax up there on the whale’s head. Then the men secured the whale to land with a hawser and went home. They told nobody what they were up to out in Askimsviken.

The whale was still breathing when they turned up the next morning. Its attempts to break free had carried it even closer to land and the tide was low, so the men could reach it more easily now. Carl slashed the animal in the eye and the belly with a scythe. The stream of blood that gushed from the eye was as thick as an arm and lasted at least an hour this time. At around eleven o’clock, Carl made a deep wound behind one of the flippers. Air began to come out of the wound as the breathing through the two holes on top of the head stilled.

As the afternoon wore on, the whale lay almost motionless, although it continued to bleed. At around three o’clock, the whale’s body abruptly rose in a great arc. The whale lifted clear of the surface of the water, supported only by its head and tail. Then it thundered back down again, “so that the waters parted with a terrible crash.” After that, it lay quite still. It had been thirty hours since Olof Larsson discovered the beached whale.

If you buy a ticket, you can still see it. Even after 150 years, the blue whale of Askimsviken is the biggest attraction at Gothenburg Natural History Museum, and it’s still the world’s only stuffed blue whale.

Since it was just over sixteen meters long when it died, this was a whale calf that had recently stopped suckling its mother. It had been born the previous winter, probably somewhere south of the Azores. At that time it would have been about seven meters long, and weighed two or three tons. Over the spring, it followed its mother north. Mother’s milk, with the consistency of yogurt and containing up to fifty percent fat, gave it the necessary strength. Its mother showed the calf the best grazing spots. Some of them were probably far out to sea, but perhaps they also visited Iceland, the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, or the coast of Finnmark, Northern Norway. It is possible they were unlucky enough to be shot at. In those days, a few pioneers were trying out something quite new: catching blue whales with the aid of steam power and explosives. 

On the autumn migration back south, the young male calf took an unusual detour to the east. Perhaps, being inexperienced, he lost his way. He must have rounded the southern coast of Norway, then Skagen at the northern tip of Denmark, and set a course into the Kattegat between Denmark and Sweden. And then he ended his life in the shallows of Gothenburg’s skerries. If he had survived it would have taken him several years to become capable of reproduction. A sexually mature male is at least twenty meters long and at least twice as heavy as the whale that ended up in the museum at Gothenburg. 

August Wilhelm Malm of the Natural History Museum thought the whale he had bought from the two fishermen was a hitherto unknown species. In a grand gesture, he christened it after his wife, Caroline: Balaenoptera carolinae. The name was not adopted by other zoologists.

The truth was, in fact, that there had already been numerous scientific descriptions of the same species. Each time one of these gigantic whales was found in civilized parts, it caused a sensation. Zoologists who got a chance to examine a beached specimen had seldom seen anything like it before. Like August Wilhelm Malm, they often imagined that they had discovered a creature hitherto unknown to science. The result was that as many as twelve different scientific names had previously been proposed for animals that were probably all blue whales. Today the blue whale is called Balaenoptera musculus, as originally proposed by Linnaeus based on a description of an animal he himself had not seen.

The shortcomings of the anatomical descriptions and sketches that accompanied the suggested names did little to lessen the confusion. They reflected the unmanageable size of the creatures, the difficult working conditions on the beaches where the carcasses lay, not to mention the decomposition that was often far advanced before the arrival of a scientist with more or less expertise in whale-related matters.

But regardless of its species, August Wilhelm Malm had laid his hands on a rare zoological treasure. He got straight down to organizing the salvage work. It took three steamships and two coal barges to transport the carcass into town, where thirty workers were employed to flay and dismember the animal, in a stinking race against decomposition—and the gawkers who kept stealing scraps of the whale as souvenirs. The sheets of skin were fixed to a specially designed wooden frame using 30,000 zinc and copper pins. The structure was built in four separable sections, which made it easier to transport the whale. 

The museum whale was equipped with hinges in its neck, so that the upper jaw could be flipped open. This allowed visitors to study the remarkable baleen up there. It was even possible to climb into the belly of the whale, just like Jonah in the Bible. The interior was cozily furnished with benches and wallpaper and all. The decision to fit it with a moveable upper jaw may have been made on practical grounds, but it is hardly consistent with baleen whale anatomy. When a living whale opens its mouth, the lower jaw is the one that moves.

The whale was exhibited in Gothenburg and Stockholm with great success. However, a planned tour of Europe got stranded in Berlin, and the wealthy burghers of Gothenburg had to open their wallets to buy back the whale from the creditors.

August Wilhelm Malm wrote up the tale of the museum whale’s discovery and preparation and had it printed, together with photographs and an exhaustive scientific description, in a fine, deluxe edition in French. The Malm Whale, as it was known, enjoyed a brief moment of scientific stardom. But experts’ interest rapidly waned when the launch of industrial whaling offered access to plentiful supplies of blue whale carcasses. Nonetheless, the blue whale in Gothenburg remained a popular museum artifact. On one occasion in the early 1900s, a couple were discovered making love inside the belly of the whale, which prompted the museum to place restrictions on entry into this unusual space. Nowadays, visitors to the museum are only allowed to clamber in through the jaws of the grotesque, blackened treasure on special occasions.  

The sixteen-meter long stuffed whale is enormous. And yet it would pale into insignificance beside the world’s largest preserved whale skeleton—a twenty-seven-meter blue whale shot off the coast of Iceland. This record-holding skeleton is exhibited in the small town of Tønsberg in southeast Norway. Tønsberg’s Slottsfjell Museum stands by the hill where Norway’s medieval kings had their great halls and fortified walls built, and where they besieged one another when civil war broke out. Before getting to the whalebones, you pass through exhibitions displaying the remains of Viking ships, along with bronze jewelry and swords.

Right at the end of the building, beyond a section containing artifacts from Tønsberg’s days as a whaling and sealing town in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, lies the whale hall. The giant mounted skeletons are packed tightly together. The blue whale, which dominates the room, was shot with a harpoon cannon from a steamship, then hauled into the Norwegian-run whaling station in Hellisfjord, Iceland, in the summer of 1901. At the busy factory the blue whale bones were not, for once, sawn up and boiled down to produce oil. Instead they were cleaned and taken home to Tønsberg.

At the far end of the exhibition room, beside the tip of the giant skeleton’s snout, a small brass plaque explains that this particular blue whale skeleton is the largest preserved specimen of a living species anywhere in the world. The reason for the reservation about it being a “living” species is that some long-necked dinosaurs were longer from their snout to the tip of their tail than even the largest blue whales. As for body mass—the dinosaurs didn’t even come close. And the bones either side of the blue whale’s lower jaw are the very largest bones ever seen in the animal kingdom. These dimensions would be normal for a tree.

No employees are to be seen in this corner of the museum. The exhibits are not roped off and directly beneath the blue whale’s ribcage is a bench where visitors can sit.

If things had gone the way many people feared, the world’s largest whale skeleton might have been better guarded. At the time when it arrived in Tønsberg, there was some doubt about how much longer there would still be blue whales in the oceans of the world. Perhaps the whale would soon belong among the “museum animals,” warned one member of parliament during a debate on whaling in 1903: “Practically speaking, the blue whale has vanished from our coasts,” stated another. He thought the species should now be conserved and protected, for its own sake, as a kind of remnant of the giants of the past.

But would people really miss the whales, any more than they missed extinct giant sloths and mastodons? Did they really matter to the well-being of humanity? These questions were posed by one of the speakers in a previous parliamentary debate as early as 1885. He admitted that it would be a disadvantage to lose the opportunity for whaling, but otherwise, he said, he did not know “whether the Whale plays such a role in the world that it would be any great calamity if it were to wholly depart the ranks of Living Creatures.”

This is where modern whaling began. It was people from Tønsberg who established whaling operations using the fast, steam-powered boats, grenades, and harpoon cannons that made the possible extinction of the blue whale a topic of debate. Over the course of seventy years at least, Vestfold County—including the towns of Tønsberg, Sandefjord and Larvik—was the world’s whaling hub. Whaling expeditions headed first to the Finnmark coast. Later, they went all over the world.

In the Antarctic in particular, the blue whale nearly died out. This was where the majority of the world’s blue whales originally lived, and the Antarctic subspecies, which is today considered critically threatened with extinction, was the biggest. The largest individuals were around five meters longer than the one that ended up in the museum in Tønsberg. They were several dozens of tons heavier.

Dozens of tons. We still share the planet with animals so huge that we struggle to imagine whether ten or thirty tons would make any discernible difference. We nearly finished off the very largest of them, and the yellowing wooden bench beneath the whale’s ribcage in Tønsberg is a good place to mull the question posed by that member of parliament in 1885.

Would it have been any great calamity?
 

From Hvaleventyret. Hvordan vi nesten utryddet det største dyret som har levd. © Andreas Tjernshaugen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Lucy Moffatt. All rights reserved.

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