sperm whale

Excessive Pedantry (Either Way)

Detail: Engraving of a sperm whale

There is this joke, see, and it’s not exactly a good one. Rather, it is a barb intended to poke and cut, and comes when one is just being a bit too pedantic: Do you read novels? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … come on, Charlie, it can’t be both!” Don’t laugh. Er, I mean … right. Go ahead and laugh. But take a moment to consider the chuckle and what it is for; you might be amazed how often this point comes up.

Then again, when it is not politics but, merely, a job to keep the roof raised and the cable television connected … oh, wait. We’ve picked on Todd Van Luling before, but then, the pointα still holds.

Scrutinizing the science of Moby-Dick is definitely beside the point, especially because there’s evidence in Herman Melville’s notes that he purposely skewed facts to bolster his story. Melville even wrote a friend saying he embellished things writing, “To cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy.”

But the rambling scientific musings of the character you’re supposed to call Ishmael are often so maligned by high school and academic readers alike that noting a few places where the facts are all wrong seems a worthwhile exercise. Today, November 14, is the anniversary of the United States release of Moby-Dick, so it’s as good a time as any to knock it down a peg leg.

Here are five scientific inaccuracies in Melville’s masterpiece ....

Yes, really.

It’s a living.

Perhaps it should suffice to say that Moby Dick is a difficult novel to read for any number of reasons, not the least of which would be its length, general verbosity, or glacial pace; and, further, we might remind that not everything is a drinking game. Spotting inaccurate science in a nineteenth century adventure novel is a bit like looking for inaccurate science in science fiction. Where The Odyssey becomes Star Trek, reality warps.


α That is to say:

Articles like these always recall a curious episode from over a decade ago, before CNN Headline News became the HLN monstrosity you find playing on the flatscreens in a bourgeois McDonald’s. Late autumn, 2003 or so. There’s a war on. The phrase, “I died a little inside”, had not yet risen to fashionable heights. Or maybe it had. A new young reporter gets his first big shot on the air, and he’s stuck doing a report on which sweaters will look best on your small dog during the Christmas season. Which, in turn, is enough to inspire a recollection of the old Wayne Cotter joke about masturbating a fish.

Van Luling, Todd. “5 Scientific Inaccuracies You Didn’t Know Were In ‘Moby-Dick'”. The Huffington Post. 15 November 2014,

An Overdose of Coolness

Chelsea Wald explains yet another cool mammalian surprise:

Photo by Alexander D. M. WilsonSperm whales are fierce squid hunters, but they also have a softer side. In a serendipitous sighting in the North Atlantic, researchers have discovered a group of the cetaceans that seem to have taken in an adult bottlenose dolphin with a spinal malformation, at least temporarily. It may be that both species simply liked the social contact ….

…. Among ocean-dwelling mammals, dolphins are perhaps the most gregarious. They’ve been spotted traveling, foraging, and playing with a wide variety of other animals, including many whales. On the other hand, as far as the authors of the forthcoming paper in Aquatic Mammals know, sperm whales had never been reported cozying up to another species. Specialized deep-water hunters who travel great distances, the whales are more timid than dolphins and harder for people to observe.

Indeed, behavioral ecologists Alexander Wilson and Jens Krause of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin did not expect to find a mixed-species group when they set out to observe sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) some 15 to 20 kilometers off the island of Pico in the Azores in 2011. But when they got there, they found not only a group that included several whale calves, but also an adult male bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Over the next 8 days, they observed the dolphin six more times while it nuzzled and rubbed members of the group. The sperm whales seemed to at least tolerate it; at times, they reciprocated. “It really looked like they had accepted the dolphin for whatever reason,” says Wilson, who was snorkeling nearby. “They were being very sociable.”

The dolphin itself was easy enough to recognize for its unusual spinal curvature. While low predation rates in the Azores suggest the interspecies partnership is not for protection, it is possible that the dolphin’s spinal issue caused it some trouble with its own species. “Sometimes some individuals can be picked on,” explained Wilson, suggesting some alienation within its own social group. While the dolphin can keep up with sperm whales, and may eventually play a role in the group’s behavior, the question remains as to what the whales get from the relationship. Cetacean ecologist Mónica Almeida e Silva called the relationship “puzzling”, and behavioral biologist Luke Rendell suggested it’s too early to read deeply into this seemingly unique example of cross-species socialization.

And caution is wise, as there is always a risk of overdosing on this kind of coolness.