The New International Encyclopædia/Whale

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WHALE (AS. hwæl, OHG. wal-fisc, Ger. Walfisch, whale). Any large marine mammal of the order Cetacea (q.v.), the only essential difference between a whale and a dolphin or porpoise being the size, although the name is more particularly applicable to the toothless or whale-bone whales. One of the most widely current popular errors in zoölogy is the notion that a whale is some kind of a fish. The warm blood, the well-developed brain, the double circulation, the lungs, and the mammary glands and reproductive organs, all combine, however, to show clearly the far higher organization of a whale as compared with even the highest fishes. The young of whales are born alive, well developed after a long pregnancy, and are suckled and cared for by the mother as in the case of land mammals. Nevertheless, in their extreme adaptation to an exclusively aquatic life, whales have certain superficial resemblances to fishes, especially in the elongated, tapering body, the fin-like limbs, and the termination of the body in a caudal fin, the principal organ of locomotion. The skin of a whale is, however, smooth and without scales, although there are frequently barnacles and parasitic crustaceans attached to it in considerable numbers. The only outgrowths of the skin are hair-like bristles near the mouth, and these are not always present, being rather a characteristic of the young. The fore limbs of whales are supported by the same bones as in other mammals, but are very much flattened, and the digits, which have an unusual number of phalanges, are all united in a common skin. The clavicle is wanting, the scapula is very large, and the humerus and forearm bones are very short. The hind limbs are entirely wanting, the only evidence of their ancestral occurrence being a pair of small, slender bones, completely imbedded in the body wall and not connected with the backbone, supposed to represent vestigial ischia. The caudal fin, unlike that of a fish, is flattened horizontally, and the two halves, known as ‘flukes,’ are therefore right and left, not dorsal and ventral as in a fish; this fin is connected with the body by a narrow but extremely muscular part, known as the ‘small.’ Not only does the tail serve as the organ of locomotion, but it is also the most effective weapon of both offense and defense which the true whales possess. Most whales have more or less of a dorsal fin on the median line of the back, but it is simply an outgrowth of the integument, and even in those forms where it is most highly developed it has no bony supports. The head of a whale is very large proportionately, in some species as much as one-third of the total length. The eyes are small, as is the ear-opening; there are no external ears. The nostrils or nostril (there is often only one) are situated far back from the nose, on the vertex of the head, and are closed by a plug-like valve, which can only be opened by pressure from the inside. The so-called ‘blowing’ of a whale takes place through the nostrils, and is merely the release of the long-confined moisture-laden breath, which condenses in the cooler air and gives the appearance of a column of water being blown from the nostrils. The old idea that a whale takes water in at the mouth and blows it out through the nostrils is entirely baseless, although water may be blown into the air if the breath is released before the animal has quite reached the surface. The mouth of a whale is always large, though the œsophagus may be quite narrow. Teeth are wanting in the true whales, but in all other cetaceans they are present, at least in the lower jaw, and in the embryos of true whales they are found well formed about the middle of fœtal life, but they are gradually absorbed and no trace of them exists at birth. The teeth are always simple, with conical or compressed crowns and single roots, and there is only one set, milk teeth not being developed. The number of teeth shows a wide range of variation.

In the toothless whales the roof of the mouth is provided with a large number of vertical horny plates, quite close together, placed transversely on each side, so that there is a bare space in the median line. The outer end of each plate is smooth and hard, but the inner end is frayed out into long bristly fibres, so that the roof of the mouth looks as though covered with hair. (See Whalebone.) This whole apparatus serves as a sieve for straining out the minute animals on which these whales feed, the water being taken into the mouth anteriorly and then let run out at the sides of the mouth, between the ends of the baleen-plates. The surface water of the ocean swarms with animal life; on the feeding' grounds of the whale this consists largely of mollusks of various kinds, together with more or less crustacean material. All this animal life is collectively known by whale-fishermen as ‘brit’ and is the only food supply of the toothless whales. Owing to the large size of the mouth, the maxillary and mandibular bones of the skull are greatly elongated, giving the cranium proper a disproportionately small appearance, although it is in reality of relatively good size. There are always seven vertebræ in the neck, but they are crowded close together, are practically immobile, and are more or less fused together into a single piece. The remaining vertebræ are remarkably large, numerous, and very freely movable upon each other. There is no union of any of them in the sacral region. All the bones of a whale are spongy, the cavities being filled with oil.

There are many peculiarities in the soft parts of the whales, notably the development of ‘blubber,’ a layer of fat, consisting of a dense mesh of areolar tissue, the interstices of which are filled with oil. This is an extraordinary nonconductor of heat and serves to maintain the temperature of the body, thus replacing the external coat of hair present in other mammals but wanting in all cetaceans. The salivary glands of a whale are rudimentary or wanting, the stomach is many-chambered and quite peculiar, the intestinal caecum is wanting or very small, the gall-bladder is wanting, the larynx has a peculiar shape, the blood system is remarkable for its plexuses, both arterial and venous, the brain is large and round, with numerous and complex cerebral surface convolutions, and the mammary glands are situated far back, one on each side of the female reproductive opening. There is a special arrangement of dilated ducts and compressor muscles, so that the milk can be forced into the mouth of the young one in considerable quantities at a time, by the action of the mother, so that ‘sucking’ under water is made feasible.

Whales are very widely distributed in all parts of the ocean and are frequently gregarious, sometimes occurring in thousands. Some species, however, are generally seen singly or in pairs. A few species appear to be regularly migratory, while others wander almost at will, restricted by no natural barriers. All whales are carnivorous, but only the killers (q.v.) eat other warm-blooded vertebrates. Fishes and squids are the chief articles of diet of the toothed whales, while small mollusks and other invertebrates maintain the whalebone whales. Whales are generally timid, inoffensive animals, active and graceful in their movements and very affectionate toward one another. The parents and offspring are especially attached to each other.

Commercially whales are of great importance, although they were much more so in the past. Ambergris, spermaceti, whale oil, whalebone, and ivory are the principal substances supplied by these animals, although leather is made from the skins of some of the smaller species. Before the discovery of petroleum, illuminating oil was derived almost wholly from whale oil, but kerosene has now entirely supplanted the animal oil. Numerous substances have also been discovered or invented for replacing whalebone, which has been steadily increasing in price, and has thus become too expensive for many purposes. Ambergris (q.v.) is only incidentally a product of the whale fishery, but spermaceti is one of the principal productions of the sperm whale. It is a peculiar oily substance, which at the body temperature of the whale is a whitish fluid, but on cooling becomes solidified. After purification by refining it is a white crystalline substance used largely in pharmacy and in making candles. It is nearly odorless and tasteless. Whale oil and whalebone are still widely used, although so generally replaced by cheaper substitutes. Whalebone is exceptionally tough and elastic, and no perfect substitute has yet been found. Whale ivory is derived from the teeth of the sperm whale, which are five or six inches long, very solid, and composed of a superior grade of ivory.

NIE 1905 Whale - structure of whalebone.jpg

1. Diagram of the matrix of the baleen-plate, the dotted line, a, showing the outline of the pulp which forms b, the central fibrous part of the plate; c, external layers of firm substance formed by the elastic cementing material. 2. A vertical section of four baleen-plates in situ, the transverse bar at the top represents the vascular gum from which the pulps proceed that penetrate the base of the plates. Below this is shown the elastic substance cementing the plates together, beyond which the plates project free and terminate in a fringe of bristles. 3. Transverse section of a portion of a baleen-plate showing the area of the tubular cavities of the coarse central fibres, and the outer, denser substance.

For obvious reasons, the study of the anatomy, development, and natural history of whales is attended with unusual difficulties, and the accumulation of large series of specimens in museums is out of the question. It is therefore a matter of considerable question whether a given species of whale wanders into all parts of the ocean, and the number of species and their geographical distribution is practically unknown. Not more than 25 well-defined species of whale can be recognized, though nearly three times that many have been named. The classification is based primarily on the presence or absence of teeth after birth, the two suborders Denticete and Mysticete being generally accepted, though under varying names.

The Denticete (Odontoceti, Delphinoidea) include, besides the toothed whales, all those other cetaceans known as dolphins, narwhals, porpoises, killers, etc. The most important whale in this group is the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), also called cachalot and spermaceti whale. It has a very wide geographical range, occurring in all the important oceans, but it is most abundant off New Zealand, in the Sulu Sea, about the Cape Verde Islands, and in the Indian Ocean. It occurs more generally in the tropics and warm temperate seas than elsewhere. The sperm whale reaches a length of sixty feet or possibly more, but the female is much smaller than the male. The head is enormously large, forming about one-half of the entire bulk of the animal and occupying more than one-third of the entire length. From the head, the body tapers to the tail, and at last rather rapidly. The general color is very dark gray, nearly black on the upper parts, lighter beneath. Old bull whales usually have a large gray spot on the front of the head. The muzzle is very obtuse, almost as if squarely cut off in front, the breadth of it almost equaling the thickness of the body. In a protuberance on the upper part of it is the blow-hole, which is single, situated a little on the left side, and in form not unlike the letter S elongated. The mouth is very large and wide; and the throat, unlike that of the Greenland whale, is very wide, sufficiently so to admit the body of a man. The upper jaw projects some feet beyond the lower, and is destitute of teeth; the lower jaw has from 20 to 25 teeth on each side, according to the age of the animal. The teeth are conical and slightly recurved, projecting about two inches from the gum. The lower jaw is extremely narrow, the two branches being in contact throughout the greater part of its length; it fits into a groove in the upper, in which are cavities for the teeth. The eyes are small, and placed far back in the head, above the angles of the mouth; the left eye is said to be smaller than the right. Just above the eyes, the dorsal line rises considerably; the dorsal fin is also represented by a protuberance about half-way between the neck and the tail; and these parts are seen above water in the ordinary swimming of the animal, which is at the rate of from 3 to 7 miles an hour, and just under the surface of the water, although when alarmed it swims with greater velocity. The enormous head of the sperm whale is occupied in large part by an aggregation of numerous small chambers separated and divided by connective tissue, in front of the cranium and above the upper jawbones, called by whalers the case, which are filled with the spermaceti; sometimes as much as ten barrels of it occur in a single case. The blubber of the sperm whale is only about a foot thick and is not notably rich in oil, a large whale yielding about 100 barrels. When aroused these whales are dangerous adversaries, and either by biting or striking with the tail they can completely destroy whale boats, while by using the head as a ram they can sink small vessels. The remaining Denticete are mostly of small size and comparatively little importance. See Dolphin; Porpoise; Narwhal; Killer.

NIE 1905 Whale - lower jaws and teeth of a sperm whale.jpg


The Mysticete (Mystacoceti, Balaenoidea) include the true whales, those without teeth. They are nearly all of large size, some of them being the largest of living animals. The largest species is probably the sulphur-bottomed whale of the Pacific Ocean (Sibbaldius sulfureus), which reaches a length of 90 feet or more, and the weight of which has been calculated to approach 150 tons. Several genera of whalebone whales are recognized, but the most important is Balæna, to which belong those species that supply the most valuable whalebone and oil. The most important species is the Greenland or Arctic right whale (Balæna mysticetus), which is circumpolar in its distribution, but does not range far to the southward, preferring the regions of icebergs and ice-floes. It attains a size of sixty or seventy feet in length. The body is thickest a little behind the ‘flippers,’ or pectoral fins, tapering conically toward the tail, and slightly toward the head. The tail is five or six feet long, and from twenty to twenty-five feet broad, formed of two diverging lobes, broadest almost where they are united, but with a slight indentation. The pectoral fins are eight or nine feet long and four or five feet broad. The mouth is fifteen or sixteen feet long. The eyes, which are situated on the sides of the head, about a foot above and rather behind the angles of the mouth, are not larger than those of an ox; but the sense of sight seems to be acute, at least in the water. The blow-holes are situated on the most elevated part of the head; they are from eight to twelve inches long, but of comparatively small breadth. The upper parts are velvety black, the lower, parts white. The upper parts, in very old whales, sometimes become piebald, the black being mixed with white and gray. The period of gestation is uncertain; one young is produced at a birth, and is from ten to fourteen feet in length when born. The mother displays great affection for her offspring, of which whale-fishers sometimes take advantage, harpooning the young one—itself of little value—in order to secure the mother. Suckling is performed at the surface of the water, and the mother rolls from side to side, that she and the young one may be able to breathe in turn. The usual rate of progress in swimming is about four or five miles an hour, and whales often swim not far beneath the surface of the water, with the mouth wide open to take in water from which to sift food. This whale is capable, however, of swimming with much greater rapidity. Its tail is extremely powerful, and a single blow of it is sufficient to destroy a large boat. Whales usually come to the surface to breathe at intervals of eight or ten minutes, but they are capable of remaining under water for half an hour or more. When they come up to breathe, they generally remain on the surface about two minutes, during which they blow eight or nine times, and then descend. The noise which they make in blowing is very loud, and the spout of spray ejected ascends several yards into the air, appearing at a distance like a puff of smoke. They often assume, as if in sport, a vertical position, with the head down, and flap the surface of the water with the tail, making a sound which is heard two or three miles off. The Greenland whale is not properly gregarious, being generally found alone or in pairs, except when numbers are attracted to particular feeding-grounds, as is sometimes the case in the bays and inlets of northern coasts.

A closely related and very important species is the southern right whale (Balæna australis), which has a smaller head, shorter baleen, and a differently shaped under lip. It has fifteen dorsal vertebræ and ribs, while the Greenland whale has generally only twelve. The southern right whale is found in all temperate seas in both the northern and southern hemispheres, although generally wanting in the tropics, and is not known to occur in the Antarctic Ocean. The right whales of the North Atlantic have been separated from those of the South Atlantic, and both from the Pacific Ocean forms, as distinct species, but the differences are slight and inconstant. All of the right whales have been, and are still to a certain extent, pursued by whalers, and their numbers accordingly have become greatly reduced during the past century, and the North Atlantic form is now very rare. The smallest of the whalebone whales is the New Zealand right whale (Neobalæna marginata), which reaches a length of only about 20 feet. Other whales of this same family are the gray whale (Rhachianectes glaucus) of the North Pacific, the baleen of which is very short and coarse; the hump-back whales, of the genus Megaptera, which are nearly as large as the Greenland whale and have black baleen; and the rorquals of the genera Balænoptera and its allies. The rorquals (q.v.) are the largest whales and have a distinct and falcate dorsal fin. The pectoral fins are rather small and the skin of the throat is plicated, as is the case with the hump-backs, which, however, have very large pectoral fins. The rorquals are the most abundant and widely distributed of whales at the present time, as it is only recently that they have been sought by the whalers. The blue whale (Balæna Sibbaldi) is the largest of the North Atlantic forms, while the sulphur-bottom, already referred to, replaces it in the North Pacific. The fossil remains of whales occur in the Pliocene and later strata. See Cetacea.

Whale Fishery. The beginnings of the whale fishery are obscure, but it appears that in the ninth century the Norwegians sent out vessels in pursuit of whales, perhaps even as far as Greenland. The Biscayans, however, seem to have been the first to make a regular commercial pursuit of whale-hunting, in order to profit by the sale of oil, whalebone, etc. Between about 1300 and 1500 the hunting of whales in the Bay of Biscay and adjoining waters was one of the principal industries of the Basque provinces and Gascony. Whales' tongues were then an important article of commerce, and in 1261 were subjected to a special tax. The Biscayan fishery finally died out through lack of whales, but meanwhile the northern fishery prosecuted by the English, French, Spanish, and Dutch came into prominence. The coasts of Spitzbergen became the centre of a very successful industry carried on mainly by the Dutch, who, it is said, supplied all Europe with oil during the latter half of the seventeenth century. In 1680 they had 260 ships and about 14,000 men employed in the whale fishery, but after that their fishery began to decline. In the eighteenth century Great Britain took the lead, encouraging the sending out of sailing vessels to engage in whale-hunting by a generous bounty, the object being quite as much the training of seamen as the development of the whale fishery. The industry was in its most flourishing condition in 1815, when 164 ships were engaged in it. During the nineteenth century the United States became the great centre of the whale fishery, and it is to-day the principal producer of whale products. Nantucket was the original centre of the American whaling industry, and sent her boats to Newfoundland, the Gulf Stream, West Indies, and even as far as the Cape Verde Islands and Brazil. The Revolutionary War paralyzed the industry and many of the interests were transferred to England and France. The whalers ventured into the Pacific in 1787, but the famous Kadiak ground on the coast of Alaska was not discovered until 1835. New Bedford fitted out her first vessel in 1755 and soon became the centre of the whaling industry. For years she was the greatest whaling port in the world. In 1846 there were 735 vessels engaged in the fishery, valued at more than $20,000,000, and 70,000 people were more or less directly dependent on whaling for their livelihood. With the discovery of the abundance of whales in the Pacific and the growth of San Francisco, that city became a small centre for the whalers, but the universal use of mineral oils and cheap substitutes for whalebone has relegated the whaling industry to a comparatively unimportant place.

The vessels engaged in whaling are usually sailing vessels of three to five hundred tons burden, or screw steamers of somewhat greater tonnage. Each vessel carries from four to seven boats and a crew of 35 to 60 men. each boat requiring at least six. The crew, from captain to cabin-boy, have their wages regulated, at least to a certain extent, by the number of whales taken and the amount of oil brought home. Harpoons and lances were formerly the only means of capture, but in recent times rifles with explosive bullets have been considerably used. The introduction of prussic acid or strychnine into the body of the whale with the harpoon or bullet has been tried, as it results in a more rapid death for the animal and consequently less danger of loss; but it is said that the sailors object seriously to the use of such poisons.

When the ship arrives at the whaling-ground a lookout is stationed at the mast-head. As soon as a whale is discovered, the boats are lowered, and a competition ensues among their crews, all exerting their utmost strength to reach the whale first. The harpooner is ready, as soon as the boat is sufficiently near the whale, to hurl his harpoon with all, his force; the crew instantly back the boat, and the whale generally plunges in terror to a great depth, sometimes carrying out more than 200 fathoms of line. It remains below for 20 minutes or more, and when it rises the boats hasten to it again; it is struck with a second harpoon, and probably, instead of at once descending, it strikes violently with its tail, to destroy its enemies, when great caution is requisite. It cannot now remain long below the surface, and when it conies up it often spouts blood through the blow-holes if the lungs have been injured. When it is lanced, it sometimes dies almost at once, but occasionally there is a terrific struggle—the water is lashed into foam and dyed with blood. It not infrequently happens that, instead of dying at the surface of the water, the whale descends, and does not rise again, so that it is lost to the whaler. The carcass of the whale is towed by the boats to the ship, and made fast to the ship's chains. Should the prize prove to be a right whale, the process of ‘flensing’ is then commenced. Some of the crew, having their boots armed with iron spikes, to prevent them from slipping, descend upon the carcass, and cut into the blubber with ‘blubber-spades,’ removing a broad strip or ‘blanket’ of skin, 20 or 30 feet long, which is hoisted to the deck by means of a hook and tackle. Great cubical pieces of blubber, of half a ton or a ton in weight, are then cut out and hoisted on deck. In this way the process is carried on, the whale being turned over and over, that every part may be reached; till in three or four hours the whole mass of blubber is removed from it—probably amounting to 20 or 30 tons. Meanwhile others of the crew have descended into the mouth of the whale and removed the baleen. The remainder of the carcass is then flung adrift, and sometimes sinks, but often floats, in consequence of incipient putrefaction. The blubber, after being hoisted on deck, is cut into smaller cubical pieces, and subjected at leisure to a process by which the cellular tissue is separated from it. This is called ‘making off’ or ‘trying out;’ and to accomplish it, the blubber is heated in a large pot, and afterwards strained, the scraps or cracknels from one pot serving as fuel for another, and the ship being made filthy with smoke, soot, and grease. The product is finally stored in casks, to be conveyed home and boiled for oil. A ton of blubber yields nearly 200 gallons of oil. A single whale has often furnished blubber and whalebone to the value of $3500 or $4000.

The pursuit and capture of sperm whales is not essentially different from that of the right whale. But after their capture the carcass is handled somewhat differently, as the head is the most valuable part. The whale is first secured by the head and then the whole ‘case’ with the attached blubber is cut away and hauled up beside the vessel and made fast. The contents of the ‘case’ are then bailed out with a bucket and the spermaceti separated from the oil by cooling. The blanket-strips are then removed from the body and the blubber is tried out as in the right whale.

Bibliography. The most recent general work is Beddard's A Book of Whales (London and New York, 1900); it contains all necessary references to other authorities on the natural history of the group. Consult also Goode, Fishery Industries, sec. i. (Washington, 1884); Scammon, Marine Mammals (San Francisco, 1874). For the whale fishery, consult the exhaustive treatise of Temple Brown in the Annual Report of the United States Fish Commission for 1883; also Bullen, Cruise of the Cachalot (New York, 1900).

See Colored Plate of Mammals; and Plate of Whales.


NIE 1905 Whale - whales.jpg

3. SULPHUR BOTTOM (Pacific). 7. HUMPBACK (Pacific).
4. FINBACK (Pacific). 8. SPERM WHALE.