I read Moby Dick at the start of this year, and while that book did nothing to influence my decision to take a whale watching cruise yesterday, I did reflect on what I’d read during the voyage.
(Don’t think me too smart, though: because it was a three-hour tour, I also hummed the theme to Gilligan’s Island for most of the trip.)
(And, more embarrassingly, I hummed the Titanic song whenever I went to the prow of the ship. I actually hum this song whenever I am on a boat. Any boat. Cruise ships, car ferries, log flume rides. Anything. It never gets old for me. I didn’t even like that movie.)
The whale watch left from Barnstable on Cape Cod. It was a jet-powered ship, meaning it had no turning parts that could injure the less-thoughtful whales. I imagine a teenage whale, perhaps looking too intently at his or her whale iPhone, stumbling into a rotor, but I guess that probably isn’t how it works.
I also brought along my new camera. I’m using an SLR for the first time since the world moved from film to digital. (I still have my old camera, which represented an enormous investment for me back in 2001. I said to it, “I’ll love you forever!” And I still do, I suppose, but there isn’t anybody anywhere who can develop film anymore, and as far as I can tell there is no secondary market for cameras that don’t belong in this century.)
The captain told us that the ship was sold out, which worried me because I can never push to the front of any scrum, but the ship was custom-built for whale watching so even at its maximum capacity there was ample room for everyone to stand on the edge and look out into the sea. There were also plenty of snacks in the galley, which was excellent, because it takes about to hour to shoot across the length of Cape Cod Bay and out into the Gulf of Maine, which was our destination.
There is a massive undersea shelf just beyond Cape Cod called Stellwagen Bank. On a map it is clearly a part of Cape Cod that simply broke off and sank. Probably for the best, considering the Pilgrims and all that.
At Stellwagen Bank various ocean currents down from the Arctic and up from the Caribbean crashed against the undersea shelf and send plant matter and little creatures up to surface. This attracts a huge number of predators, which in turn attract even bigger predators, which then attract whale watching ships. The captain called it a twenty-four hour seafood buffet.
We had just reached the bank when a group of minke whales appeared, following by Atlantic dolphins and a harbor porpoise, which our captain insisted are very different animals before proceeding to describe what sounded to me like very subtle variations, but I’m no marine biologist. A finback whale also made a guest appearance, which our captain was happy to declare was the second-largest animal that ever lived.
These whales were beautiful and majestic and all that, but not terribly photo-worthy. They had put on their proverbial eating dresses and weren’t looking to make pretty for the cameras. Except for the fact that they needed to come up to breathe, the were happy to stay underwater. When you think about, big fat whales gasping for air at a buffet table isn’t really an attractive image.
We plowed further on to a spot just north of Boston, which we could barely see out on the horizon. There—like “big black pickles,” our captain said—we found humpback whales. According to our captain, humpbacks are very poorly designed, at least as compared to the sleek minkes, which means that they have to work harder for their food. When they dive, they really need to get out of the water and arch their backs in order to get their mouths pointed in the right direction. When they do finally shove down into the deep, they end up revealing their tails.
I suppose other, more prudish whales consider this inelegant.
Happily for us, though, those tails are super photogenic. And our captain teasing was good-natured: “Cameras ready, here’s what you paid for!”
On the way back to Barnstable we passed Sandy Neck lighthouse, and the captain reflected that a century ago that lighthouse would have burned whale oil.
There is a long and graphic passage in Moby Dick about how whales were processed at sea. Melville’s descriptions are frank and frankly disgusting, but the “let me see!” part of my brain wasn’t satisfied and I poked around online until I found a video taken in the waning days of commercial whaling. These incredibly large animals stabbed to death, skinned, and dragged alongside a ship for days until their precious parts could be extracted by men covered in blood and gristle.
Melville’s actual story is simple and powerful in and of itself, but the actual journey of the Pequod makes up only about a third of Moby Dick itself. The rest is given over to long descriptions of whales and whaling. These are the parts that every student wants to skip or skim. I wanted to, too, when I read it. But I’m glad I didn’t. Melville starts by describing the animals themselves (and I think he knew he was wrong when he insisted they were fish and not mammals—whales as mammals invariably brings up philosophical and scientific questions and a sense of wonder at the very process of life itself; whales as fish, though, is clear and simple, appeals to our most elemental thoughts and primordial knowledge, and reminds us that once up a time we thought the seas were filled with monsters). He moves on to describe the very petty uses we had for these creatures—lamps, corsets, perfume—and then onto the whales’ known behavior, their record of attacking fishermen, the way that communities have learned to depend and fear them. Eventually he describes how human culture has elevated these creatures to godlike status, and how the animals themselves seem to exist on, or at least come from, a plane far grander than ours.
This steady accumulation of details gathers an awesome weight in the end, so that when we finally meet Moby Dick himself, the reader isn’t just in for a hard-fought battle between a crazy man and big fish; this is a pitched battle between mankind and God himself. Melville doesn’t make it easy for you to get there, but then matters of faith are anything but easy.
In the end it doesn’t even matter who wins, Ahab or Moby Dick. At least it seems that way to me; after hundreds of pages of preparation, the battle itself is dispensed with in a taut chapter and then a quick coda sends Ishmael and us back to shore.
Perhaps related to Moby Dick and God and Ahab and the rest, perhaps not: on the ship I rode there was a framed portrait of a little girl. I don’t remember her name and didn’t take a picture of it either so I can’t share. I read the inscription very quickly and moved on, and don’t remember if it said that the boat was dedicated to her or if just the picture was hung there in her memory. She was one of the six-year-olds killed in Newtown, Connecticut, and had been obsessed with whales. Her parents had promised to take her whale watching every summer but she only managed to go once.