Tail flukes of a southern right whale

Moby Dick whale classification round up

We’ve read several excerpts from Chapter 32 (“Cetology“) of Moby Dick by Herman Mellville, in which he describes the various kinds of whale and dolphin encountered and hunted by whalers in the first half of the nineteenth century. Mellville spent some time on a whaling boat in his youth, and knew whereof he spoke. The fact remains, however, that at times he misidentifies one kind of cetacean as three separate species, and that his science is often sketchy. He is also sometimes hard to understand – so many words! So many unnecessary capitalisations!

So why are these extracts of 19th century literature interesting, and do they have any use or relevance to us today at all? Here’s my opinion.

  1. They are beautifully written pieces of literature. I can’t resist Mellville’s description of the blue whale as a “retiring gentleman”, and the narwhal as having a very “picturesque, leopard-like look, being of a milk-white ground color, dotted with round and oblong spots of black”.
  2. They are history. Mellville mentions which whales were found where, and their relative abundance. He also describes the various products derived from each whale. Today we are accustomed to high frequency, high quality data in useful formats (i.e. not words written in longhand on a piece of paper), but if we go back a few decades we have to change our expectations. Data from ships’ logbooks, for example, has been used to generate data for analysis of trade routes where detailed satellite and port data was not yet available or being used.
  3. Mellville was not a scientist, nor does he claim to be. His observations of the appearance and behaviours of various whales, however, are frequently spot on, capturing their essential character in a few (or, more often, many) words.
  4. Mellville writes from the perspective of a hunter, and as repugnant as whaling is, there is an undeniable respect that Mellville the whaler displays for his prey. He writes of the whales as one who has observed them, measured their powers, and who understands their lofty position in the ecosystem.

I hope I’ve persuaded you that there is at least some merit and joy in these passages. In case you want to go back and check them out, here’s Herman Mellville on:

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.