Like Birds on a Lawn

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I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing about whales for some time now. And as I make slow, stately, and somewhat distracted progress through my project on the whaler and scientist William Scoresby Jr., I’ve been thinking more about how whales appear to us now, and how they appeared 200 years ago. The obvious difference of course is that, apart from a few dishonourable exceptions, most countries–and most people–now think killing whales is a bad idea. But it is the idea of whales that interests me: how do we look at them, what do we see, and what do they mean to us?

Most whales are of course, very large, and it is this aspect of the whale that dominates our view of them. But there is more than a trace here of an old-fashioned Western view of otherness in which that which is not of us is necessarily mysterious and strange. The whale skeletons in places like the Natural History Museum in London certainly provide a spectacle, and their size, emphasised by their room-filling juxtaposition with the large gallery spaces used to display them, is akin to the marvellous size of a Saturn rocket, or some vast Gothic cathedral. But of course in their context none of these things is large or powerful at all. Saturn rockets may have helped transport a few men to the Moon, but they were sacrificed in so doing; the vastness of a cathedral may hint at the glory of heaven, but it is a weak effort in the face of a divine power that notionally created the universe.

And so it is with whales: in the museum, or more poignantly, stranded on a beach, their bulk is a spectacle, and a logistics problem. But out at sea, perhaps thousands of kilometres from land, they are, if not small, then to scale. The vastness of the whale skeleton, like the surprising girth of a fallen tree, is a puzzle: how can something so large and extraordinary exist alongside us? But here, in their family group, Sperm whales rest at the surface, as ordinary as birds on a lawn.

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