Sunday, October 28, 2012
Chapter 85: Wherein Whales Need Air
I hope that my obsession with the tale of Moby-Dick is not becoming boring to my readers while it's becoming all the more fascinating to me.
I mentioned before how this great book is interwoven with what are essentially intercalary chapters about whales. And I just read a real doozy of one.
Chapter 85, entitled The Fountain. Here, Melville discusses the mechanics of a whale's respiratory system. It answered a question I've had all the way through, which is this:
Why is it that when a whale surfaces and senses danger, it doesn't just dive down again and basically get away from its attackers?
The reason is, because it can't. It needs air. Whales are mammals, and have lungs -- not gills, like normal fish. But the issue of escape goes beyond this fact, because by the time a large whale finally surfaces, it does not need merely one breath of air. It takes upwards of seventy such breaths to fully replenish the reservoirs of air within its body. In other words, the whale is really out of breath when it surfaces, and requires several minutes in contact with the… upper world. It intends to stay below the surface for up to 90 minutes, feeding, and doing other whale-things.
Hence, that first jet of exhaled moisture from its spiracle [or blowhole] is a dead giveaway! It might as well be a horizon-disturbing sea-wide advertisement saying COME KILL ME!
The bastardly whalers see this, and move in quickly.
The initial thrust of the first harpoon accelerates the heart rate, requiring even more oxygen in the already depleted reserves. He's in trouble, and "sounding" or diving deep is no longer an option. It never was in the first place, but now that you have this hunk of steel piercing through you, a deep dive means death by drowning.
The battle is engaged, and with the repeated slashings of the whalers, death will now come to the poor beast through a quick combination of loss of blood and lack of oxygen.
Again, reading all of this brutality [I'm sorry] it makes me cheer for Moby.
Let me end with some fun.
If my endless whale-lore is possibly boring you, here is a video-clip of a breaching whale that I find utterly fascinating. If I was in that boat, I'm afraid I may have quickly lost some moisture from at least one [or more] of my own mammalian orifices!