Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sea Monsters: Bet On The Leviathan

As usual, I'm up to my elbows in research the other evening and I happen across this headline from an 1875 issue of the Illustrated London News: Merchant Sailors Witness Struggle Between Sea Serpent and Whale.

OK, I think to myself, that's intriguing. So I keep reading and find that the merchant ship in question, a brigantine out of Liverpool bound for Buenos Aires, is graced with the name Pauline. Now, of course, I'm hooked and here is the interesting story of what Captain George Drevar and his crew thought they saw. This is followed by the even more interesting story of what they probably actually witnessed.

In July of 1875, Pauline was some 25 miles off the coast of San Roque, Brazil when her people spied, per the article according to the Captain's log, a "monstrous sea serpent coiled around a large sperm whale." The log entry is quite clear that the thing wrapped around the whale is a serpent "somewhat in the shape of an enormous eel". Drevar goes on to say that this eel-like Gargantua dragged the hapless whale below into the depths "...where no doubt it was gorged at the serpent's leisure." It's fairly sensational stuff, even for it's time, but the News makes no effort to interview naturalists to comment on the possible veracity of such a sighting. The article comes off very pulp but one must recall that as late as the early 20th century many sailors firmly believed in the existence of mammoth, snaky sea monsters.

The reality, as we know it now, proves Captain Drevar and his mates both right and wrong. Science has at least partially vindicated the reporting of the Illustrated London News.

Sperm whales, so gigantic in size that they were referred to up until Medieval times as Leviathans, are in fact fond of making a meal of an animal that could easily be mistaken for a serpent of the sea. As the illustration above from the American Museum of Natural History's website shows, sperm whales very much enjoy calamari, and particularly the giant variety. The old whale vs giant squid, of which both Jules Vern and Herman Melville wrote, is more fact than fiction.

As it turns out, male sperm whales can dive deep enough and swim fast enough to catch a giant squid. Apparently they get the main body of the animal in their jaws and the struggle is on. The whale drags the squid up toward the surface - not the other way around as Drevar imagined - which disorients the deep water cephalopod even more. All the while the squid is fighting back, surrounding the whale with his tentacles and gouging great hunks out of the mammal's hide with it's spiked suckers. Male whales frequently carry the scars of these life and death struggles the rest of their lives.

In the end, a healthy sperm whale will have a nice giant squid meal. Though doubtless Drevar only reported what he saw, the conflagration he and the men of Pauline witnessed most probably ended with the whale victorious. Here's a tip from your humble hostess: at that next whale vs squid throw down, put your money on the Leviathan.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Interesting. And here I thought all whales ate little stuff like plankton and so forth (except for Orcas which aren't really whales but members of the dolphin family)... Just goes to show what little I know. Nice coincidence that the ship was named Pauline too... Thankee for more fun and enlightenment, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It's just too back *Pauline* was a merchant ship. In my fantasies, she's one of Dominique Youx's privateers... and not a sea serpent in sight.

I do think it's pretty awesome that sperm whales run around with scars from their lunch on their bodies. Not many can show off to the chicks like that.