Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick was published in 1851. The notorious white whale that compelled Captain Ahab to dedicate his life to finding it was famously described by Melville as being the largest creature on the planet. The author took a bit of literary license with that statement. The great white whale was a sperm whale, which, while undoubtedly massive, is dwarfed by its cousin, the blue whale. The impressive records of whales are so significant that even Melville’s one-legged sea captain would certainly get a kick out of them.
There are whales in our oceans today that were living when Moby Dick was written.
While not qualifying as the oldest living thing on the planet, Bowhead whales do rate as the longest-living mammals. Their lifespan is in excess of 200 years. When a bowhead whale was caught off the Alaskan coast in 2007, fishermen found the head of an explosive harpoon in the side of the beast that was manufactured between 1879 and 1885. The whale was probably harpooned sometime between 1885 and 1895, and and it continued to live a healthy life for well over a century afterward.
Moby Dick was published in 1851. This means there are bowhead whales in our oceans today who were alive at the time the book about the world’s most infamous whale was released.
Earth’s Biggest Beast
Even though it doesn’t compare to the largest living thing on earth, the blue whale does qualify as the largest animal. The largest recorded blue whale weighed in at 144 metric tons (317,466 pounds) and was 30.5 meters long — equal to the length of a Boeing 737. The tongue alone of a blue whale can weigh as much as an elephant and an entire football team could stand on it.
To put it in literary terms, a blue whale weighs the equivalent of 163,632 copies of the Redburn, White-Jacket edition of Moby Dick and would be as long as 150 copies of the book, laid end to end.
The heart of a blue whale is about the size of a VW Beetle car and weighs up to 1,000 pounds. Herman Melville, when he was a teenage boy, could have comfortably crawled through a blue whale’s aorta while carrying the manuscript of the book he was to author.
Something as lasting as Moby Dick didn’t spring into existence overnight. Melville began writing the book in February 1850 and labored over the manuscript for eighteen months before calling it complete. He was surprised at how long it took to finish creating the terrifying whale of his story. He might have been surprised at how long it takes for the real thing, as well.
Blue whales are pregnant for 10-12 months. When they are born, the little guys tip the scales at 5.5 – 7.3 metric tons — about the same as 100 adult men. The newborn calf is about 7.5 meters long. Like any newborn, it comes out hungry. The baby’s voracious appetite demand a bathtub-full of its mother’s milk each day and grows at an impressive rate of about 8 pounds per hour. That is like stacking four copies of Moby Dick per hour onto its back. In the time it takes for an average person to read Moby Dick, (7 hours and 42 minutes), a newborn whale will gain over 60 pounds.
Impressive — um — Qualifications
As long as we’re discussing records, it should be noted that the southern right whale boasts the largest testicles on the planet. Each of its testicles weighs a little more than 1,000 pounds. Imagine trying to stuff more than 1,200 copies of Moby Dick into your jeans, and you can see why whales choose not to bother wearing pants.
While we’re on that subject, it should also be noted that the fin whale pees about 970 liters (256 gallons) per day — enough to fill up more than 3 bathtubs. What you would do with those urine-filled bathtubs is another matter altogether.
Although whales need to come to the surface to breathe, they are no strangers to the ocean’s depths. A Cuvier’s beaked whale, for example, has been observed at a depth of 3 km, staying there for over two hours.
It’s hard to understand just how deep 2000m under the sea is, but try to imagine the Eiffel Tower in Paris – now picture seven of them going down into the ocean and it’s like diving down the length of all seven. Humans definitely couldn’t do that – the water pressure would squash us.
It would take almost nine minutes for an edition of Moby Dick to fall that distance through the air, or about 25 seconds for it to fall through a vacuum.
A site that estimates the IQ of famous authors failed to opine about the size of Herman Melville’s intellect. When it comes to whales, however, we know for certain that they have the largest brains on the planet. The sperm whale holds the record, with a brain of up to 9 kg (nearly 20 pounds). This is nearly seven times larger than its human counterpart. Imagine if they had to box up the whale’s brain the way they did with Einstein’s.
The bowhead whale, which lives exclusively in the Arctic, has the thickest blubber of all cetaceans. It can reach a whopping 70 cm (27.5 inches) in thickness. This is about the same thickness as 9 copies of Moby Dick stacked together.
Moby Dick‘s reach as a literary classic is so long that it has even inspired songs and albums. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering that whales are the loudest vocalists in the animal kingdom. The songs of whales can be heard hundreds of miles away, with calls as loud as 230 decibels. In comparison, a jet produces noise at a paltry 140 decibels. Sounds over 120-130 decibels are painful to human ears.
Male humpback whales sing the most complex songs and have long, varied, eerie, and beautiful songs that include recognizable sequences of squeaks, grunts, and other sounds. The songs have the largest range of frequencies used by whales, ranging from 20-9,000 Hertz. Only males have been recorded singing. They sing the complex songs only in warm waters, perhaps used for mating purposes. In cold waters, they make rougher sounds, scrapes and groans, perhaps used for locating large masses of krill.
A commitment to read Moby Dick takes a big bite of your time. It should be no surprise that whales boast some of nature’s biggest biters. The male narwhal has two teeth. The left one pierces the animal’s lip and grows to an impressive 2-3 meters in length.
These majestic creatures are among the most endangered species. Even with such laws as those of Great Britain, that put all British whales under the direct ownership of the monarch, they continue to decline in numbers. Only about 150 Western Pacific gray whales survive. About 400-500 members of the North Atlantic right whale remain. Once filling the ocean, these mammoth marvels have been hunted to near-extinction. When Moby Dick was published, about 3,000 copies of the first edition were printed. Sales were disappointing, and Melville never managed to see much more than 3,000 copies of his book sold in his lifetime. Remaining copies of that first edition are rare and can easily fetch an asking price of $25,000. Subsequent reprints, however, have made the book one of the best known works of literature in the world. It remains to be seen if the whale, itself, can flourish in the same manner as the literary masterpiece they inspired.