My Whales Speak In Poetry

“What might whales have to talk or sing about? They have no manipulative organs. They can’t make great engineering constructs as we can. But they’re social creatures. They hunt and swim, fish, browse, frolic, mate, play, run from predators – there might be a great deal to talk about. The great danger for the whales is a newcomer; an upstart animal, only recently, through technology, become competent in the oceans. A creature called ‘man.’” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Episode 11, The Persistence of Memory

Image by Lucie Hall (Linoleuim block print)Hello, and welcome back!
Reminder: Cetus Finalis, on sale NOW! Book launch is Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, Finegann’s Wake (937 Cole St., San Francisco, CA 94117)

Today’s piece describes some of the core fascinations which led to, and informed, my writing of Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. When I started reading about whales, I discovered that there were two major populations of Gray whales on earth, the Pacific Grays and the Atlantic Grays. According to archaeological evidence and whalers’ documents, the Atlantic population of gray whales became extinct toward the end of the 18th century. The Atlantic gray whale is the only population of whale to become extinct.

whalewithbookIt happened in the late 1700s or early 1800s, and was one of the things that raised awareness of whale depletion. The gray whales may have been over fished, but it is just as likely that they were starved out of the food chain by the massive trawling nets the Basque and American whaling fleets used between the 1500s and 1800s, scraping flora and fauna off the seafloor (grays feeding grounds) in one, brusque motion, disturbing everything from crabs and ells, to shrimp and worms. Trawlers left a band of desert ocean floor in their wakes, a complex ecosystem shaved off like a razor smoothing a hairy face, rapidly consuming the layer of the food chain at which gray whales procured all of their food. There were a lot more humans drag-fishing food than gray whales combing it.

Whale food!The Atlantic grays were not pelagic hunting whales, like orcas. Typically, a baleen whale like the grays feeds on copepods, amphipods, and similar small invertebrates, not eating fish larger than sardines. So, the Atlantic gray whales likely died out because of the whaling industry, which in fact was the backbone of the industrial revolution. Whale oil was called “train oil,” and used as everything from machine lubricant to lamp oil to human food.

Such a regal bearing...Back then, whales were as meaningful dead to civilization as horses alive. Whale intelligence is at least comparable to horse intelligence, and whales receive scant reverence compared to horses. How would we react to people hunting horses en masse, merely to make jackets, dice, glue and pet food? Whales are smart enough to circumnavigate the globe in a seemingly featureless ocean, with prodigious memories communicated across generations.

Whales: The First Petroleum Industry

Whales: The First Petroleum Industry

The Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without the decimation of Earth’s whale population. We didn’t drill oil out of the ground until 1851, long into the well-lubricated blossom of European rail systems. Until 1851, nearly all of the fuel and lubricant needed for the Industrial Revolution came from whale carcasses. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, the American colonies had the largest whaling fleet in the world, hundreds of ships out on the water every season. Whale oil was America’s first petroleum industry, and the American colonies never would have been able to afford to take on the British Empire if it hadn’t been for the wealth derived from whaling. When I learned how intertwined our progress was with the fate of whales, I had to write a book about it, the story of the last pod of Atlantic gray whales. And tomorrow, you will at last get to see it! Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey.

Image by Lucie Hall (Linolieum block print)

Nice Caboose.

Check out tomorrow’s piece, where I’ll commemorate the release of Cetus Finalis with a giveaway. You could win a signed copy of Cetus Finalis fresh off of the presses, showcasing Lucie Hall’s incredible artwork, and signed by both the artist and the author. How do you win? Come back tomorrow to find out!

Reminder: Cetus Finalis, on sale NOW! Book launch is Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, Finegann’s Wake (937 Cole St., San Francisco, CA 94117)

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!


About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
This entry was posted in Authors and Writing, Reflection and Personal Knowledge, Science and Nature, Sociey and Culture, Technology and Culture, The Writing Profession and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to My Whales Speak In Poetry

  1. That was an interesting bit from the Industrial Revolution that I did not know. Thanks for that!

  2. Alex says:

    So interesting and heartbreaking!

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