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Call me Fishmael

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Since the early days of computers which could translate between whale and human languages, two questions have appeared most frequently in the comment sections of articles:

  1. Can we give them a copy of Moby Dick to read? What do they think of it?
  2. Do whales have their own literature?

At first we believed that no whale responded to these questions because the concept of literature was too alien to them. But we have finally received a salient message which arguably points to a different answer.


Call me [sequence of five high-pitched clicks – translation not available].

Just kidding. I know you people can't even hear the differences between our names. Call me whatever you like. Hell – call me Fishmael if it pleases you, and I know it will. The contrarians will get pleasure from explaining I'm wrong because whales aren't fish; the meta-contrarians will get pleasure from explaining telling them that classifications are arbitrary; and the rest of you can just enjoy the pun.

Call me Fishmael, then, and listen to my story.

Some years ago – never mind how long, precisely – I left the school where I lived with my mother and her sisters and aunts and friends and decided to swim about a little, and explore the world.

I travelled for several days seeing none of my own kind, or indeed of anyone of greater intelligence than a codfish. I slept now and again near the surface, dived to eat, jumped out of the water to feel the sun on my back. It must have been the third or fourth time I slept that I became dimly aware of a companion, nestled close to me. I awoke to find a bottle-nosed dolphin nuzzling my shoulder.

Now, lest you think that this is a normal occurrence in cetacean society, let me tell you right now it is not. Bottlenose dolphins have a number of savage habits – up to and including cannibalism – and are not regarded as civilised by any species of whale.

So you can perhaps imagine the awful fear I felt, sensing one so near me. I was bigger, of course, but I was also alone, and they normally swam in large groups.

The dolphin – let's call him Squeakqueg, because if you listened to him say his name, all you would hear is squeaking – was just waking up. "Oh, you are so lovely and snuggly," was the first thing he said to me. And he soon let me know that he was swimming alone, but hoped to meet up with a larger pod in the imminent future.

Since our people tend to eschew unnecessary verbiage, I will skip the process by which he gained my trust and finally my love, and simply tell you that we soon became the closest of friends, and set off together, and found this pod of his.

Now, the pod was comprised primarily of sperm whales, like myself, but there were one or two others, though no-one quite so outlandish as Squeakqueg. And yet they clearly knew him, and held him in high esteem as a skilled hunter. They were pleased to accept me on his recommendation.

Now, I say 'they', and of course it would usually be the leader of the pod who had final say on who may or may not join, but our leader was a very strange sort of person indeed, and kept himself aloof, delegating all such decisions to his deputy, who was a Blainville's Beaked Whale. This deputy's name was ... but I forget who I'm authoring this for. Let's call him Starbeak.

Starbeak was a serious and principled young whale: kind, but also strict when he needed to be. I liked him very much, though I was curious about the leader himself.

At first all I could find out was that his name was ... oh dear, I'm running out of inspiration. Whalehab. He'll have to be Whalehab. He was a sperm whale like me, only a great deal older and bigger. He swam at the front and I toward the back, so I only got occasional glimpses of him, but there was something odd about the way he swam.

 I mentioned this to Starbeak once, and Starbeak told me – in tones of infinite sympathy – something of Whalehab's story. He had been harpooned by whalers, who had destroyed part of his tail, and since then he had been of a somewhat melancholy temperament, as well as unable to swim quite straight.

This piqued my interest, and insofar as I could politely do so, I tried to swim further forward, to see more of this venerable old fellow. What struck me most – other than the frightful spectacle of his tail – was that he seemed to be searching for something.

I will never forget the day he first spoke to me. We were resting, I snuggled up with Squeakqueg as usual, when I heard his deep voice coming closer to me. I opened my eyes and saw his face for the first time. He was quite unlike how I had imagined him: there was nothing of frailty or sickness about him – he was old, yes, but strong with the craggy toughness of an ancient reef. Threading its way across his face and down the vast length of his body, there was a jagged scar.

He took a good look at me, as I at him.

"So you're the one who's been asking questions about me," he said, without anything by way of an introduction.

I answered in the affirmative, though feeling much abashed.

"Well, look your fill," he said, flicking that strange half-tail of his. "And see one who was broken in body and soul by those unholy monsters of the heights, mankind."

(I hope you will forgive me for quoting those words of his.)

"I ... I was very sorry to hear about your misfortune, sir," I said. Then suddenly a terrible thought struck me and – young as a I was – I did not stop myself from speaking it aloud. "Is that what you're looking for?" I asked him. "The man who wounded you?" I shuddered – it was a terrible thought.

But he laughed – an unexpected sound from such a grim and solemn person. "No," he said. "That would be a pointless waste of time. Vengeance is for fools and humans, and I am neither. It has only been a couple of decades. I am sure I will feel better about it all in time. No, I'm looking for fish, mostly. There was a particularly tasty orange one I found a few weeks ago – do you know it by any chance?"

And that's the closest thing to an answer you're ever going to get. I only could be bothered with your silly questions even for a few moments.