Caught by the River

No sign of a whale

17th November 2019

The other day, whilst looking for something else entirely, I (Jeff) came across Lisa Woollett’s book Sea Journal — a CBTR favourite on its publication back in 2016 (reviewed on the site by Malcolm Anderson). 

Turning  to the autumn section I read this chapter on whale-watching from the Rame Peninsula and enjoyed it so much I thought that you might too. So here it is, with the kind permission of the author.

Sea Journal, October
no sign of a whale

I stop in a lay-by on a stretch of cliff-top road near Rame Head, a headland separating Cornwall from Devon, and get out to photograph the sea. Over the years I’ve taken hundreds of these pictures — empty horizon, half sea, half sky — and it isn’t often like this. The weather is moving in fast on an onshore wind but the sun is still out; beneath the darkening sky the sea is so pale it seems to be the source of the light. 

It was from here that a friend saw a whale, and it was wonderful just to hear about it. Late last summer she was up on the cliff with a fisherman. It was early evening, the sea flat — ‘milky’ she called it, after a long hot day — and the first they saw were shadows at the surface. Mackerel, they guessed. Then they saw a fin. Perhaps a dolphin, then. But it seemed to be moving so slowly. It wasn’t until a local boat approached that they had any sense of scale: they knew it to be a 30-footer, and the shadow was as long as the boat. 

Although largely unseen, there are many species of whale that pass through British waters. The one they saw from here was probably a minke or pilot whale, and both of these are reasonably common off our western shores. In the deeper waters off Scotland’s Hebrides and Northern Isles though, closer to the edge of the continental shelf, there are also regular sightings of the larger, more iconic whales: humpbacks and sperm whales, even — just occasionally — a blue whale.

I continue to stare out. Now the weather is here the light is no longer extraordinary. The sea shines back at me — no shadows, its surface unbroken — giving nothing away. There is no sign of a whale. With the first spots of rain I get back in the car.

I have been reading about whales. The story of their evolution is wonderful, creatures that moved from the sea onto land and then back again. And in this return to the sea — an evolutionary reversal — they began to lose the adaptations they had acquired to live on land. With the last of the walking whales, the fins that became legs now became flippers. The anatomy of modern whales supports the fragmentary fossil evidence, as in the womb embryonic whales show traces of their terrestrial ancestry — at first they have nostrils instead of blowholes, hair, and the buds of their lost hind limbs.

Back in the sea, the early whales’ mammalian ears also proved useless — underwater they were unable to detect a sound’s direction — and some of the most interesting of the intermediate whale fossils are the ear bones. Around 45 million years ago, with their legs now adapted for swimming, some of the early whales show features of both systems: the old terrestrial ear and that used by modern whales today. Five million years on, another group had evolved — massive snake-like whales that had tiny residual hind limbs and were unable to leave the water. In these the old mammalian ear had all but disappeared, and like today’s whales they heard through their jaw.

It is the magnificent, blunt-headed sperm whale — the most ancient of the modern whales — that has the most impressive system for producing and receiving sound. In mature males the nose, effectively a huge amplifier, makes up an incredible one-third of the whale’s entire body size, producing sounds that can be heard many miles away. Famous for their battles with the giant squid sometimes found in their stomachs, sperm whales hunt at great depths in near-total darkness, and like bats use sonar clicks to ‘see’ their prey in sound. Along with these foraging clicks and communicating ‘codas’, they also emit ‘creaks’ as they home in on prey, and mature males produce a lower, more mysterious ‘clang’ that may be heard by whales 40 miles away.

Sound is produced in the sperm whale’s nose as air is forced through a valve known as the ‘monkey’s muzzle’ and then passes through the ‘case’, the first of two oil-filled reservoirs. It then bounces off a bony sound mirror before entering a second reservoir known as the melon (‘junk’ to a whaler) where a series of acoustic lenses allow the whale to focus, and so aim, the pulse.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it was for the waxy spermaceti oil in these reservoirs that sperm whales were hunted to near extinction. This valuable, almost magical oil was used to light streetlamps and turned into high quality candles, and it wasn’t until the advent of petroleum, gas and electricity that its popularity — and so the killing of the whales — began to wane.

The strange sounds the whales made, often heard through the hulls of whaling ships, were once thought to be ghosts in the sea. Of all whale song the most haunting and beautiful, as well as the most complex, is the ‘long song’ of the male humpback, which can also be heard many miles away. Underwater recordings reveal the structure of their songs echoes our own, with repeated phrases strung together in themes in a particular order. They are sung in the breeding season, although it is not known if this is primarily to attract females or threaten rival males.

Some of the most surprising findings are from longer-term research. At any one time all males in a humpback population will be singing the same song: a repeated series of long groans, roars, trills and chirps that may last a quarter of an hour. Over time the song changes, but — incredibly — all males in a population will make the same changes. So a few years later the song may be entirely different, but all the males in the group will be singing the new song.

The rain strengthens, and through the windscreen the silver sky runs into the sea. I stay on though, thinking about whales, drawn like so many of us to look out to an empty horizon.


Lisa Woollett’s next book, Rag and Bone, will be published by John Murray in June 2020.

Visit Lisa’s website here/follow her on Twitter here.