Modern history

Chapter 6


With no enemies in the sea

The whale is loth to believe in the attack

As were the Indians, as were the aborigines.

The Nootka claim that the whale allows his death,

To spare people from hunger

And that therefore they must be worthy of it.

Heathcote Williams

Whale Nation, 1988

The whale shed its burden as dawn broke on the New Year of 1884. It had felt the burden begin to weaken, to grow more unwieldy as the line began to give. It twisted its body left and right, arched its back, rose and fell, saw the waves grow tall and quicken so that the boats and even the Bell Rock Lighthouse disappeared for several seconds at a time. It knew that sea-change for an ally, felt encouragement, summoned all the energy that was left. It did not occur to the whale that what was left might not be enough. But it knew the boats swam less fluently in big seas, knew too that the big seas did not affect the light one way or the other, that it remained the lowest star in the night sky, that it flashed more brightly than the other stars, that it also made light like moonbeams, and these the whale understood.

It seized on the memory of countless mid-ocean nights when it would lie perfectly still on the surface at the centre of its circular world (the ocean horizon unbroken through 360 degrees, the dome of the sky, the rounded depths of ocean), at the centre of the rhythmic cycles that played there – moon, stars and shooting stars, the south-in-autumn-north-in-spring rituals of geese and swans, the haphazard dance of the aurora borealis. All these had underpinned its life, regular as tides, until this last ebb.

The whale might have let go then, might have died there, still tethered to the source of its suffering, close to the lowest star in the sky that made the light like moonbeams, and with the beauty of that oceanic memory painted on its mind’s eye. But that is not the way with great whales. The remembering had calmed the whale again and dulled its suffering and instilled the illusion of returning strength. The sea hammered over it suddenly, and James Lyons’s harpoon twisted deeper, and pain seared in steel shafts. The moonbeams snuffed out (the Bell Rock light extinguished for the day), and the whale was fighting for its life again in the grey dawn of the North Sea, and it heaved again, and it felt again the tethering line weaken.

So James Lyons’s God did not let the whale die quickly. After twenty-two hours it was still swimming. Twenty-two hours after Lyons harpooned it from the steam launch of the Polar Star and saw his harpoon strike true and bite deep and hold fast, and urged his notion of God to let the whale die quickly, it still lived. Twenty-two hours in which it suffered two more harpoon strikes, twenty-two hours in which all manner of iron missiles had peppered its flanks as liberally as buckshot (and how many bullets and sundry varieties of improvised ammunition were fired into it in the previous six weeks by amateurs and idiots playing games with guns in open boats is anyone’s guess), twenty-two hours in which it had hauled first the steam launch then the two open whale boats, one of which was replaced by the brute mass of the Iron King, hauled them all from the narrows of the firth to the open sea, where the Bell Rock brightened the long winter darkness for perhaps eighteen of the twenty-two hours . . . after all that, the harpoonist’s God had declined to let the whale die.

And in any case it had declined to die itself, and then it was the last harpoon line and then the whalers that gave up the ghost.

The whalers were defeated. They were defeated not just by their own half-heartedness but because they underestimated and misunderstood the wildness that was in the whale’s blood. They were defeated by its wild resolve; by the wild strength that was the servant of its resolve; by the wild power that it could bring to bear in controlled spasms; by the wild knowledge that it leaned on and wedded to the sea’s increasingly turbulent mood. ‘Owing to the heavy strain caused by the breeze the remaining line, being nearly worn through, broke,’ wrote the anonymous pamphleteer of 1884, ‘and the whale swam away out to sea, carrying with it enough of the war material of its foes to start a small museum.’ It would do better than that in the years to come, but its museum career was still ahead of it.

It ‘sped on to Stonehaven with all its might’, wrote McGonagall, flourishing his poetic licence deep within the bounds of his ignorance, but in truth it did nothing of the kind. True, it would have surged forward when it felt the burden fall away, and in the whaleboats that was their last sight of it alive, and that was the story they would take back to port with them – the whale sped away. But the debilitating effects of blood-loss and pain and exhaustion had accumulated beyond all prospect of recovery. The whale was beyond speeding; all the resources it could muster were sufficient only to allow it to vanish from the sight of the weary pursuers. Freedom, when it finally came, was too late. The whale was too damaged. The wildness was in it like blood, but its blood was strewn back down the open sea for 50 miles. It was free, but only to dive deep, free to die alone, free to die untethered. Yet as long as the last residues of wildness sustained the whale, it swam. It swam unerringly north, thinking only of life and living, for north was where the open ocean lay, and the northern ocean was sanctuary, sanctuary and life and living. And because of the boats at the surface, and because it did not know that it had outlasted them and that they had given up, it dived deep, and the deep sea opened to it and comforted it.

The whale dived on a single intake of breath, and as it dived deeper it allowed its chest to collapse, which is the whale’s way of handling the enormous pressure of deep-sea diving. The lungs collapse at about 300 feet down; any remaining air is held in the windpipe and nasal passages, and nitrogen, which produces problems like ‘the bends’ for human divers, cannot be absorbed. And then the whale can dive and dive and dive, sustained by oxygen in its tissues, and stay deep for well over an hour at perhaps 10,000 feet down. All this exerts extraordinary pressures on the whale, but the whale is extraordinarily fashioned to cope with it. One of the earliest scientific accounts of whaling in the northern oceans, written by William Scoresby in 1820, made the following calculations:

The surface of the body of a large whale may be considered as comprising an area of 1540 square feet. This, under the common weight of the atmosphere only, must sustain a pressure of 1386 tons. But at the depth of 800 fathoms [4800 feet], where there is a column of water equal in weight to about 154 atmospheres, the pressure on the animals must be equal to 211,200 tons. This is a degree of pressure of which we can have but an imperfect conception. It may assist our comprehension, however, to be informed that it exceeds in weight sixty of the largest ships of the British Navy, when manned, provisioned, and fitted for a six-month cruise.

I confess my conception remains imperfect, but I have the gist of it.

So the whale dived deep, and as it dived the sense of tranquillity also deepened. The whale wanted a reef to rasp against, to wrench the harpoons from its body. It wanted to open the harpoon wounds to the benevolent sea. It intended to survive. There were no enemies in the sea below the surface. There was no reason to fear. And if it proved too difficult to get back to the surface, it would find and summon other whales and these would come to its aid. It would call for help. Perhaps it had been calling since the first harpoon bit and held and the whale felt the sudden drag of the first boat.

It is not a fanciful notion. The copious literature of whaling over more than 200 years – and more recently of nature writing about the whales themselves – is awash with accounts of whales going to the aid of their own kind. Lyall Watson and Tom Ritchie in Whales of the World (1981) wrote that ‘most, if not all whale species have a powerful, possibly innate, tendency to come to the aid of others in distress. And it is entirely appropriate that this behaviour pattern should involve the simple invariable response of helping an ailing animal to get to the surface. One of the stimuli which sparks the response seems to be a distress call.’

An injured whale’s cry for help is so effective that the early whalers (in the days before the explosive harpoon was invented) relied on a whale they had already harpooned to lure others within shooting range, and killed many whales that way. Strange that the rescuer-whales never learned to suspect a trap, although of course there must be many occasions when the whale’s distress is not caused by whalers. But the impulse to rescue was known to galvanise loitering whales or prompt a change of course in swimming whales several miles away. There is also this: the lowest ‘notes’ in the astonishing repertoire of humpback ‘songs’ can travel hundreds and perhaps thousands of miles through water to be received by other humpbacks. Their meanings baffle science, a state of affairs I find profoundly reassuring. My heart leaps with gratitude every time some workaday function of nature confounds the best efforts of smart-ass science. And science is baffled by almost every aspect of whale song, not least by the fact that whales don’t open their mouths to sing, nor is it clear which part of their bodies is the singing part. But what science does know, because it has been observed time without number, is that a whale in distress can send out a cry for help. One possible conclusion to draw from all this is that humpbacks, the most accomplished singers among whales, are capable of mobilising rescue parties from far beyond the horizon.

But there is no evidence to suggest that there was a rescue mission for the Tay Whale. It was an adolescent male making its way in the world, sometimes in the company of other humpbacks, sometimes alone, which is how humpbacks travel, and it seems that it was more or less lost. Humpbacks do not normally linger within the force field of the Tay estuary. There were probably none closer to the Tay Whale when it died than the North Atlantic off Norway, and the North Atlantic off Norway is probably where the Tay Whale took the first of two fatal wrong turnings. (The second was to turn right at the Bell Rock.)

If it had sounded its first distress call when the first harpoon struck and held and the drag of the steam launch from the Polar Star kicked in, and if it had carried on calling for more than 24 hours as its difficulties increased, there would have been all the information ‘out there’ that a rescue party might need. These calls would have travelled through the North Sea at a mile a second, five times faster than through the air, and they would have been more than capable of travelling as far as Norway. Science theorises that whales many thousands of miles apart travel towards each other to mate, and find each other by calling, even though they may have to swim for weeks before they meet. That leaves me free to theorise that a rescue mission might have set out on a similar journey, to come to the aid of the Tay Whale, but that it turned back when the Tay Whale stopped calling because it died, and that the huge brains of whales allowed the rescue party to conclude that its journey was fruitless.

The Tay Whale was on its own. It dived deep, it found a reef on which it wrenched two of the three harpoons from its body and then it began to die alone.

In the endless roll-call of all the sorry, inglorious thousands of deaths that the whaling industry has ever inflicted on the tribe of whales anywhere and everywhere in all the oceans of the world, there was surely never a more inexcusable and pointless death than this one. I am with Thoreau on the matter of killing whales: ‘Can he who has discovered only some of the uses of whale-bone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for its ivory be said to have seen the elephant? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones . . .’

The killing of a whale to make do with its ‘petty and accidental uses’ is grim enough. The killing of a whale for no reason at all, other than that it turned up where it did and the people in the place where it turned up knew how to kill it . . . that is a touch grimmer. Knowledge of the details merely piles on the culpability. This was a young whale that might have lived to be 200 and sired flotillas of whales; to kill it half-heartedly and in that way, the job botched so badly that the whale suffered all the eternities of agonies that any dying whale can ever suffer . . . that is savagery. And it all happened in the place on the map that I call home, my own ancestors were surely among the cheering, laughing mobs, the descendants of the whalers themselves are in the streets where I am accustomed to walk. For a nature writer, that is not an easy inheritance to be handed.

Time airbrushed away the details of the story. The city laughed at it through the eyes of McGonagall, who credited God with the whole thing, so that’s all right then. But writing down the whale’s death and growing angry has made it acutely personal for me. It was not all right, and McGonagall’s faintly mocking tone only reflected the prevailing mood of the time and the place. The city was as culpable as the whalers.

To choose to write it down, knowing in advance how my home city comes out of the story, is like firing an explosive harpoon into the exposed flank of its reputation among the seagoing places of the world. Without apology, I take aim and fire. And I hope she feels it.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!