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Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño C. — © 2010
Department of Biology, Univesity of Massachusetts Dartmouth
To be reassured that evolution is true one just needs to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Three mounted skeletons of a 50-foot North Atlantic right whale, a 40-foot humpback, and a 70-foot juvenile blue can impress anyone curious to compare human bones to those of whales. The vertebrae are identical in shape, the rib cage is a magnified version of a human’s, and the forelimbs are shortened into appendices like “fins,” each with digits. Only vestigial hips remain. The legs have disappeared during 35 million years of “sea galloping,” thus passing on to the tail the job of thrusting the animal.
Humpback whale, photo © G. Paz-y-Miño C. Massachusetts Bay 2010
The skulls of whales differ much from those of primates, like ours, but every component is present. The orbits and cheek bones surround tiny eyes in respect to the large head, and the rostrum or face — made of the upper maxilla and nasal bones — is conspicuously protruded to meet the jaw, which, in the baleen whales like the trio above, has no teeth, only tough skin to hold up corneous plates made of hair-protein, evidence of ancestral furred relatives. Such whales gulp water to sieve shrimp, squid or fish.
The apparent lack of forehead is remarkable in cetaceans (whales and dolphins). During evolution, the frontal bone retreated toward the back of the skull and, in some species, created a boat-shaped cavity which stores wax, and the museum exhibits a fourth magnificent specimen to account for this, a toothed sperm whale (photo © G. Paz-y-Miño C. 2010, above). This 50-foot skeleton emerges over a silhouette of the whale’s flesh sketched on the floor next to a giant squid, its favorite prey.
Herman Melville‘s 1851 edition of “Moby-Dick” rests ahead this specimen, on a glass plinth, almost challenging the beast to resume the chase, to dive into the old book and confront Ahab’s obsession again — that of “wild vindictiveness” against Moby Dick for having reaped away the captain’s leg — to bear harpoons piercing its back, to smite the Pequod and drown its crew, and to spare only Ishmael so that he drifts on a coffin — carpentered for his ill-with-sweatings friend Queequeg — and survives to narrate how the whale defeated all.
“Be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of man cometh,” is encrypted on the cenotaph of “Captain WM. Swain, Master of the Christopher Mitchell of Nantucket … [who] after fastning to a whale, was carried overboard by the line, and drowned [on] May 19th, 1844.” This dramatic epitaph on marble at the Seamen’s Bethel — built in 1832 and still upright a few steps away from the museum — is analogous to those that daunted Melville while attending services in the early 1840s.
In his romantic novel, Melville imagined the pulpit of the Seamen’s Bethel (photo © G. Paz-y-Miño C. 2010, below) as the bow of a whaler’s ship, from which Father Mapple sermonized (watch video), “Beloved shipmates “¦ what is [the] lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? “¦ the sin was in his “¦ disobedience of the command of God “¦ by seeking to flee from him “¦ He [thought] that a ship “¦ will carry him into countries where God does not reign “¦ A dreadful storm [came] on, the ship [was] like to break “¦ And Jonah “¦ dropped into the sea “¦ seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale [shot] “¦ his ivory teeth “¦ Jonah prayed unto the Lord out of the fish’s belly “¦ the whale vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”
The potential fury of whales and the obsession of whalers with killing them are historic. The Essex, which left Nantucket in 1819, was wrecked a year later by a sperm whale. The survivors ate the corps of shipmates while sailing small whaleboats 3,000 miles back to South America, ironically avoiding the Marquesas Islands, only 1,200 miles west from the Essex’s sinking waters, where “cannibals could devour them.” And the museum displays panels with estimates of whale massacres during the 18th through 20th centuries: 1 million sperm whales, 384,000 blues, 275,000 humpbacks, 92,000 bowheads, and 10,000 North Atlantic rights.
Whales were hunted for their oil, wax and baleen. Nothing was wasted. The collection of ornaments, utensils and capricious art on ivory, at the museum, accounts for that (photo © G. Paz-y-Miño C. 2010, below). Prosperity of the American colonies and the Industrial Revolution of the young republic (1820-1860) were fueled by the slaughtering of whales, and this ecocide must not be forgotten.
Perhaps all cities should first be explored by visitors through the eyes of museums, and later be walked and valued for their details. The Whaling Museum of New Bedford is such a shepherd; it brings sight to the modern “Ishmaels” who can come to discover the shared ancestry between humans and whales or to understand the legendary madness connecting whalers to whales. — © 2010 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved
(Above: the two major groups of whales as depicted at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Whashington DC, photo G. Paz-y-Miño C. 2010; click image to access site).
Ancient whale has shown a key step in the evolution in filter-feeding whale’s enormous mouths (illustration by C. Buell, click on image to access source at BBC Nature article).
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