Sea Monsters: Whales

Anyone who has seen a whale or any recent representation of a whale may be forgiven for not understanding why they are featuring in my sea monster section.  Whilst we may revere these amazing animals today, they have been cast as villains and monsters in history.

For a long time, whales (and other marine animals) were depicted as oddly shaped creatures, what we would today consider cartoon like.  It wasn’t until the 1800s that a more accurate idea of the whale started to emerge.  The advent of photography helped of course as previous images were based on earlier drawing and beached specimens.  This vagueness around the reality of the whales allowed for myths and folklore to build up around it, including one of the prevalent beliefs that can still be found today.  That is, the idea that whales can swallow creatures, including humans, and shoot them out their blowhole.  Yes Disney, I’m looking at you and the myth you perpetuated in Finding Nemo!

The monstrous whale

“Whales were likely every bit as exotic, weird and frightening for the Greeks and Romans as the likes of vampire squids or goblin sharks are to us”
Philip Boyes

In terms of whale stories, there is one recurrent theme, that of man being eaten by whale.  We see it in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in Pinocchio, in the bible and in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So story.  Whilst it is impossible for a whale to swallow a person they could trap you inside their mouth where you’d probably drown as you’d likely to be in there with a lot of water…

Although I guess this take on the whale wouldn’t work so well for the stories…  It wouldn’t show God’s dominion over the whale (or generic big fish) in the biblical tale of Jonah.  And a quick death would have made Jonah’s punishment rather less meaningful – once swallowed, he prayed and prayed until God told the whale, or big fish, to spit him out on dry land.

Despite it not being possible, we hear tales of ‘real life’ swallowings such as in Hull in the 1800s where James Bartley alleged to have been swallowed by a whale and to have survived inside it for three weeks.  Later research found that whilst the ship he was on was real, there was no record of him on the crew list.  It is posited that it was a publicity stunt carried out by a man who then sought to portray himself as a real life Jonah and do the rounds of music halls and sideshows.

We also find tales of sailors who came across whales but mistook them for islands, rocked up to shore and got out, often in search of treasure.  Then the island would suddenly move and dive deep into the sea, drowning the people who’d landed there.

In Leviathan, we find the whale as a biblical symbol of evil, a reminder of the wrath of god.  And in the pictures on old maps, we find the whale presented as an unknowable and destructive force, wild and violent, epitomising the power of the sea.

Outside of literature, in the real world, whales do kill humans, but when they do, it is accidentally or understandable.  In 2002, a whale leapt out of the water and landed on a boat, killing the boat’s owner.  Probably an accident, the result of the whale not looking where it was landing…!  Grey whales show aggressive behaviour when boats approach them and their calves.  I’m betting we would all be a bit angry in the whale’s position.  Their size means that accidents and aggressive behaviour are more dangerous and more threatening to us but the whale is not malicious.

Unlike some of our sea monsters, the attitudes towards whales in history are a bit more nuanced, for whilst the whale may be alleged to kill, it also provides.  And I suspect most whale related human deaths or sunken ships have occurred because of whaling…

The bounteous whale

In Iceland, the word for beached whale is the same as that for windfall, and for many indigenous cultures, a large creature appearing as if from the gods was like winning the lottery.  I’ve read numerous myths, folk tales and stories about communities who were struggling, who were facing starvation and then, by a miracle of their particular deity, a whale, or similar, was found on the shore.

Given the immense size of whales and the multitude of uses for them, it is no wonder they were seen as a gift from the gods.  But, as is so often the case, we got greedy.  And along came the whaling industry.

As a commercial enterprise, whaling began in Europe in the 11th century but it was during the 17th century that it rapidly grew until the 19th century when technological advances meant it was even easier to catch a whale.  In the US, at this time, whaling was the 5th largest industry.  But, with whaling came danger.  It was a perilous way of life, battling the sea and facing the intense struggle between whale and man.  Whilst it’s easy to see how the whale could be portrayed as a monster in these situations, we have evidence that tells of tender, heart breaking encounters as well:

“Close nestled to her side was a youngling of not more, certainly, than 5 days old, which sent up it’s baby-spout every now and then about two feet into the air.  One long, wing-like fin embraced its small baby, holding it close to the massive breast of the tender mother, whose only care seemed to be to protect her young, utterly regardless of her own pain and danger… could a mightier example have been given of the force and quality of maternal love.”
– Frank T Bullen, 1898, an account of his time on a whaling boat

Whales were used in many ways that to catch one would truly provide a bounty.  Whale oil was used in products ranging from paint to soap to candles.  Baleen plates were used in corsets and skirt hoops.  Whales were used as fuel, for food and their vomit was even used in perfume…  Heading back to medieval times, we have evidence of whale ribs and mandibular being used as yokes and harnesses for animals.  In ancient Ireland, baleen was used to make saddles and sieves.  We also have houses built using whale bones, whale scapulae used as tomb covers, and whale bones hung outside town halls in whaling societies in the Netherlands as a sign of the wisdom of the authorities.  Whale faeces were even used to dye clothing apparent…

As late as 1939, whales were being killed in large numbers, around 50,000 a year. And in the 1950s, to get footage for Moby Dick, whales were killed on camera.

In so many cases, its hard to see how we can cast the magnificent whale as a monster, given the actions of humanity.

Whale research

One reason we may have feared, or disrespected, whales for so long could be down to lack of scientific research.  Between 1324 and 1913, the law said that the British monarch owned all cetaceans and sturgeons in the water around the UK.  This meant that if dead specimens washed up on the shore, they belonged to the king or queen and scientists, natural historians or curious amateurs couldn’t turn up and start dissecting them.  Now, when whales, dolphins etc wash up on our shores, a group of scientists get a call and can head off and do their thing, the result being better knowledge of this wonderful animals.

On a similar note, because of the size and lifestyle of whales, it wasn’t so easy for a scientist to just pop out and see one.  Yes, whales were caught by the whaling communities but these were cut up and made into things, they weren’t kept as a whole beast and used to increase our knowledge about them.  Also, they were dead by this point meaning any understanding would be predominantly anatomical, not behavioural.

Whales today

Today whales are seen as a symbol of gentleness, of peace, of song and, because their numbers declined, of fragility.  Instead of being viewed as a resource to be exploited, they are seen as a wonder to be protected.  This is illustrated well by the outpouring of concern over the whale which got stuck in the Thames in 2006.

We show whales our compassion, our concern and instead of hunting them, we now head out on boats to try and see them.  NB, this is not without it’s problems as boats can affect natural behaviour, cause pollution, create noise etc but action can be taken to protect them whilst also allowing us to get close.

Knowing more about whales has fostered our relationships with them.  We know that they communicate and once humans found they had a song, the whale started to have a voice.  This created a sense of connection and gave the whales a sentience.

Our attitude towards whales had a complete turnaround.  The whale went from monster to be killed to kin that we need to save and protect.  Despite this, there are still countries who continue to hunt whales today and there are the ‘sanctuaries’ which keep whales in tiny, unfit pools for long and painful lives.


Totally off topic from everything I’ve been talking about but whales used to live on land!  These are creatures which evolved out of the sea, onto land and then went back into the sea, isn’t that amazing?!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s