Chapter 105: Does the Whale's Magnitude Diminish?--Will He Perish?
Inasmuch, then, as this Leviathan comes floundering down upon us from
the head-waters of the Eternities, it may be fitly inquired, whether,
in the long course of his generations, he has not degenerated from the
original bulk of his sires.
But upon investigation we find, that not only are the whales of the
present day superior in magnitude to those whose fossil remains are
found in the Tertiary system (embracing a distinct geological period
prior to man), but of the whales found in that Tertiary system, those
belonging to its latter formations exceed in size those of its earlier
Of all the pre-adamite whales yet exhumed, by far the largest is the
Alabama one mentioned in the last chapter, and that was less than
seventy feet in length in the skeleton. Whereas, we have already seen,
that the tape-measure gives seventy-two feet for the skeleton of a large
sized modern whale. And I have heard, on whalemen's authority, that
Sperm Whales have been captured near a hundred feet long at the time of
But may it not be, that while the whales of the present hour are an
advance in magnitude upon those of all previous geological periods; may
it not be, that since Adam's time they have degenerated?
Assuredly, we must conclude so, if we are to credit the accounts of such
gentlemen as Pliny, and the ancient naturalists generally. For Pliny
tells us of Whales that embraced acres of living bulk, and Aldrovandus
of others which measured eight hundred feet in length--Rope Walks and
Thames Tunnels of Whales! And even in the days of Banks and Solander,
Cooke's naturalists, we find a Danish member of the Academy of Sciences
setting down certain Iceland Whales (reydan-siskur, or Wrinkled Bellies)
at one hundred and twenty yards; that is, three hundred and sixty feet.
And Lacepede, the French naturalist, in his elaborate history of whales,
in the very beginning of his work (page 3), sets down the Right Whale at
one hundred metres, three hundred and twenty-eight feet. And this work
was published so late as A.D. 1825.
But will any whaleman believe these stories? No. The whale of to-day is
as big as his ancestors in Pliny's time. And if ever I go where Pliny
is, I, a whaleman (more than he was), will make bold to tell him so.
Because I cannot understand how it is, that while the Egyptian mummies
that were buried thousands of years before even Pliny was born, do not
measure so much in their coffins as a modern Kentuckian in his socks;
and while the cattle and other animals sculptured on the oldest Egyptian
and Nineveh tablets, by the relative proportions in which they are
drawn, just as plainly prove that the high-bred, stall-fed, prize cattle
of Smithfield, not only equal, but far exceed in magnitude the fattest
of Pharaoh's fat kine; in the face of all this, I will not admit that of
all animals the whale alone should have degenerated.
But still another inquiry remains; one often agitated by the more
recondite Nantucketers. Whether owing to the almost omniscient look-outs
at the mast-heads of the whaleships, now penetrating even through
Behring's straits, and into the remotest secret drawers and lockers
of the world; and the thousand harpoons and lances darted along all
continental coasts; the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure
so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last
be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man,
smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
Comparing the humped herds of whales with the humped herds of buffalo,
which, not forty years ago, overspread by tens of thousands the prairies
of Illinois and Missouri, and shook their iron manes and scowled with
their thunder-clotted brows upon the sites of populous river-capitals,
where now the polite broker sells you land at a dollar an inch; in such
a comparison an irresistible argument would seem furnished, to show that
the hunted whale cannot now escape speedy extinction.
But you must look at this matter in every light. Though so short a
period ago--not a good lifetime--the census of the buffalo in Illinois
exceeded the census of men now in London, and though at the present day
not one horn or hoof of them remains in all that region; and though the
cause of this wondrous extermination was the spear of man; yet the far
different nature of the whale-hunt peremptorily forbids so inglorious an
end to the Leviathan. Forty men in one ship hunting the Sperm Whales for
forty-eight months think they have done extremely well, and thank God,
if at last they carry home the oil of forty fish. Whereas, in the days
of the old Canadian and Indian hunters and trappers of the West, when
the far west (in whose sunset suns still rise) was a wilderness and
a virgin, the same number of moccasined men, for the same number of
months, mounted on horse instead of sailing in ships, would have slain
not forty, but forty thousand and more buffaloes; a fact that, if need
were, could be statistically stated.
Nor, considered aright, does it seem any argument in favour of the
gradual extinction of the Sperm Whale, for example, that in former years
(the latter part of the last century, say) these Leviathans, in
small pods, were encountered much oftener than at present, and, in
consequence, the voyages were not so prolonged, and were also much more
remunerative. Because, as has been elsewhere noticed, those whales,
influenced by some views to safety, now swim the seas in immense
caravans, so that to a large degree the scattered solitaries, yokes, and
pods, and schools of other days are now aggregated into vast but widely
separated, unfrequent armies. That is all. And equally fallacious seems
the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer
haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that
species also is declining. For they are only being driven from
promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with
their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very
recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.
Furthermore: concerning these last mentioned Leviathans, they have two
firm fortresses, which, in all human probability, will for ever remain
impregnable. And as upon the invasion of their valleys, the frosty Swiss
have retreated to their mountains; so, hunted from the savannas and
glades of the middle seas, the whale-bone whales can at last resort to
their Polar citadels, and diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and
walls there, come up among icy fields and floes; and in a charmed circle
of everlasting December, bid defiance to all pursuit from man.
But as perhaps fifty of these whale-bone whales are harpooned for one
cachalot, some philosophers of the forecastle have concluded that this
positive havoc has already very seriously diminished their battalions.
But though for some time past a number of these whales, not less than
13,000, have been annually slain on the nor'-west coast by the Americans
alone; yet there are considerations which render even this circumstance
of little or no account as an opposing argument in this matter.
Natural as it is to be somewhat incredulous concerning the populousness
of the more enormous creatures of the globe, yet what shall we say to
Harto, the historian of Goa, when he tells us that at one hunting the
King of Siam took 4,000 elephants; that in those regions elephants are
numerous as droves of cattle in the temperate climes. And there seems no
reason to doubt that if these elephants, which have now been hunted for
thousands of years, by Semiramis, by Porus, by Hannibal, and by all the
successive monarchs of the East--if they still survive there in great
numbers, much more may the great whale outlast all hunting, since he
has a pasture to expatiate in, which is precisely twice as large as all
Asia, both Americas, Europe and Africa, New Holland, and all the Isles
of the sea combined.
Moreover: we are to consider, that from the presumed great longevity
of whales, their probably attaining the age of a century and more,
therefore at any one period of time, several distinct adult generations
must be contemporary. And what that is, we may soon gain some idea
of, by imagining all the grave-yards, cemeteries, and family vaults of
creation yielding up the live bodies of all the men, women, and children
who were alive seventy-five years ago; and adding this countless host to
the present human population of the globe.
Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his
species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas
before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the
Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah's flood he
despised Noah's Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like
the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still
survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood,
spout his frothed defiance to the skies.