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16 September 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:42pm

From the NS archive: Right whales

12 January 1918: An appreciation of the evolutionary wonder of the right whale, a long-lived, dumb, peace-loving creature – too gentle to survive man's frightfulness for long.

By J Arthur Thomson

Early in the last year of the First World War, the New Statesman published this piece by the Scottish naturalist John Arthur Thomson. His thoroughgoing appreciation of one of the great whales stood in contrast to the magazine’s core fare – politics, literature and current affairs. Although his article is scrupulous in its biological description of the right whale, Thomson’s appreciation of it as an evolutionary wonder is palpable. “It is a long-lived, dumb, peace-loving creature – too gentle to survive man’s frightfulness for long.” He does not say so explicitly, but man’s frightfulness could be found everywhere from the trenches in Flanders to the whaling fleets of the world’s oceans.


Every age has had its giants; those of today are the whales. For the sperm whale and the right whales may be 50 feet long, and there are others even larger. The two examples just mentioned suggest the familiar division of the mammalian order Cetacea into the toothed whales with functional teeth and the baleen whales with whalebone – two groups which, if they had a common ancestry at all, must have diverged very long ago, for they are now separated by a multitude of structural differences. Among the whalebone whales there are two (or perhaps three) called “right” simply because they are the right sort for whalers to pursue, being more valuable, as regards baleen and blubber, than the finbacks and humpbacks and other kinds which also bear these precious products, but in less degree. The recent publication of an admirable monograph, Glover M Allen’s Whalebone Whales of New England (Boston, 1916), has prompted us to attempt an appreciation of the right whales, of which the black North Atlantic or Biscay whale, Balcenaglacialis, is now the leading representative.

First of all, what an extraordinary bundle of adaptations is a whale! Think of the torpedo-like shape, suited for cleaving the water; the shiny, frictionless, almost naked skin; the horizontally flattened tailflukes, which serve as propellers; the transformation of the fore-limbs into paddle-like flippers, which are moved en bloc and are mainly used in balancing; the thick layer of blubber (an exaggeration of the subcutaneous fat found in most mammals), which retains the warmth of the body, compensating for the almost entire absence of hair, and also helps to make the whale’s great bulk more buoyant, and by its elasticity to resist the great pressure involved in deep diving; the shortening of the neck and the welding of the vertebrae of that region; the meticulous reduction of friction, illustrated in the absence of external ears; the dorsal position of the valved, automatically closing blowhole or nostril (single in the adult toothed whales, strangely remaining in the primitive double condition in the more specialised baleen whales); the sponginess of most of the bones, making for buoyancy; the remarkable networks of blood-vessels which probably help respiration during the prolonged submersion; the relatively huge chest-cavity and the spacious (though simple) lungs, which are hydrostatic as well as breathing organs; the usual reduction of the offspring to one at a time; and the special milk-reservoirs which give the baby a big mouthful at a gulp. These are more or less obvious adaptations, but for one that is obvious there are ten that are subtle. There is, for example, the arrangement for shunting forward the spout-shaped glottis (the entrance to the windpipe) so as to project into the posterior opening of the nasal passage at the back of the mouth. Thus the baleen whale swimming with its huge mouth yawning, so as to catch myriads of small fry, is not itself drowned. It is interesting that a very similar adaptation is seen when the crocodile is drowning its prey, and when the young Marsupial in its mother’s pouch is having milk injected down its gullet.

The story goes that a Yankee visitor to the Zoo, after a prolonged scrutiny of the giraffe, turned away with the remark: “I don’t believe it.” If he had been able to give the same attention to his own New England right whale, he might well have said the same. Black in colour, a colossus 54 feet long, with a head occupying about a fourth of the whole, with a neck as short as the giraffe’s is long (yet with the same number of vertebrae), with about 250 plates of black baleen hanging down from the roof of the mouth on each side, and sometimes reaching a length of seven feet – what a quaint creature! The plates of whalebone illustrate one of nature’s evolutionary methods, making the new out of the old, for they are exaggerations and cornifications of the transverse palatal ridges to be seen on the roof of the mouth in many other mammals. How striking, again, is the apparently disturbed topography, the nostrils far back on the top of the head, the inconspicuous eye away down at the posterior corner of the mouth, the earhole a little below and behind the eye and not wider than a match. And there is that curious, worn, warty, callous cushion near the front end of the snout, which goes by the name of the bonnet.

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The imagination is tickled by the sparse groups of hairs about the snout, jaws, and chin. They are probably the dwindled residue of an abundant primaeval pellage, for some embryo cetaceans show numerous hair-rudiments on the anterior half of the body. It is possible, however, that the ancestral cetaceans had, even more than hair, an armature of scales, which was lost when aquatic habits were acquired. Some porpoises still show traces of scales, and there are some cetaceans in which no vestige of hair has been found, even before birth. The hairs seen on the right whale are without hair-muscles or sebaceous glands, yet it is apparently to some purpose that they linger, for they are extraordinarily well innervated, 400 nerve-fibres sometimes going to a single hair! They illustrate the conservatism of evolutionary processes, holding fast that which is good, even if it be diverted to a new function. It may be, however, that tactility was the primary function of hairs; we see it highly developed in the whisker hairs of many mammals, like the cat, and less familiarly, in various types, in strategically disposed tufts about the hands and feet.

Very impressive are the deeply buried relics of a hip-girdle and thigh-bone, measuring in a typical specimen of a North Atlantic right whale 18 and five inches respectively. They show an interesting variability not uncommon in dwindling structures, and their long lingering may be partly due to the fact that they afford insertion to certain small muscles. In some unborn whales there are two small button-like projections-external hind-limbs literally at a vanishing point. Absolutely vestigial are the right whale’s teeth, which never cut the gum and are absorbed before birth. Yet there is a first set and a second set as in ourselves.

There is much that is interesting in the sense-organs. The eye is without the usual eye-cleaning third lid, its absence being compensated for by the continual washing; its practical absence in our own case is compensated for by the frequent movements of the upper eyelid. The smelling membrane is degenerate, and there are other olfactory deficiencies, intelligible enough in animals of terrestrial origin which have come to be habitually submerged. The outer ear passage is open to the water, and the drum is so fixed that it cannot vibrate; it is probable that the chief use of the whale’s ear is in equilibration, and in making the animal aware of changes in the pressure of the water as it dives or rises. If sounds pass to the ear-ossicles and the inner ear, it must be through the bones of the skull. The black right whale is not gregarious, but a pair may keep company for long, and they may be followed for over a year by their calf. The ordinary rate of swimming is leisurely, about four miles an hour; and the creature is fond of lying quietly on the surface, perhaps asleep. Allen quotes an old story of the Mayflower’s encounter in Cape Cod Bay. “We saw daily great whales, of the best kind for oil and bone, come close aboard our ship, and in fair weather swim and play about us. There was once one, when the sun shone warm, came and lay above water, as if she had been dead, for a good while together, within half a musket shot of the ship; at which two were prepared to shoot, to see whether she would stir or no. He that gave fire first his musket flew in pieces, both stock and barrel; yet, thanks be to God, neither he nor any man else was hurt with it, though many were there about. But when the whale saw her time she gave a snuff, and away.”

The blowing or breathing-out of hot air occurs half a dozen or more times in rapid succession, and the “spout,” consisting of water-vapour condensed into drops, plus, it may be, a little spray carried up by the nose-opening blast, may rise to a height of fifteen feet. Since Aristotle did not think of a whale as a fish, Milton was not very happy with his “And at his gills draws in, and at his trunk spouts out, a sea.” After a longer or shorter period of forceful breathing the whale dives (almost perpendicularly, so that the flukes are the last parts seen), and may remain underwater for ten to 20 minutes. The right whale is a dainty feeder as far as quality goes, for it depends mainly on small crustaceans. These are engulfed in the yawning cavern of the mouth, strained on the frayed inner edges of the baleen whales, collected by the slow raising of the fat and flabby tongue, and then passed clown into the narrow gullet. Whatever a cachalot may have done, no right whale ever swallowed even a minor prophet.

No one has yet got on terms of intimacy with a black right whale, but the general impression seems to be that it is a gentle creature, only taking the offensive then tormented. It may then break a boat with the impact of its bonnet or bumper. In illustration of its endurance Allen quotes the case of a “60-barrel” right whale which was struck early in the morning off Nantucket, and, heading out to sea, towed a boat with six men in it for seven hours, and eventually got free. It took the men five hours’ hard pulling to get home. Very little is known of the breeding habits, but the pairing seems to take place in early summer and the birth in January or February. The length of the new-born calf is about 20 feet. It is said to accompany its mother for at least a year, being weaned when between one and two years old. There is no doubt as to the parental attachment of the mother, for she will sacrifice herself in the attempt to rescue her offspring, or in the refusal to leave it even when dead. So far as is known, the North Atlantic right whale has no natural enemies, and they are not known to fight among themselves. It is a long-lived, dumb, peace-loving creature – too gentle to survive man’s frightfulness for long.

The particular whale we have discussed is probably not specifically distinguishable from the black right whale of the South Atlantic, but it is quite different from the Greenland whale or bowhead, Balcena mysticetus, which used to be the object of the eager quest pursued by the whaling vessels that went north from Dundee, Aberdeen, Peterhead and similar ports. But that is a story of the past, for the Greenland Whale is now a rarity. In the fascinating whale-room of the British Museum we have seen the enormous lower jaws of one of the largest of these magnificent creatures, which was killed in 1887. It yielded 26 tons of oil and 26 hundredweight of whalebone. This Greenland whale is entirely Arctic; it is recorded as attaining a length of 70 feet; its head occupies a third of the body; its black colour is relieved by white below the jaw, and there are various important structural differences between it and its non-Arctic relative. F E Beddard, an authority on whales, tells us that the Greenland whale is “an extremely timid beast.” It has been remarked that “a bird alighting upon its back sometimes sets it off in great agitation and terror”. But we do well to be cautious with psychological adjectives when speaking of whales. For what do we know of the “terror” of this marine colossus, whose brain is of a very high order? The timidity is probably in part a function of the frequency of whalers. There is unanimity, however, in the theoretical admiration of the whale’s parental solicitude. “It would do honour,” said Scoresby, “to the superior intelligence of human beings,” who will nevertheless seek after blubber and baleen until the right whales have, alas, shared the fate of other giants and passed into the keeping of monographs and museums.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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