10 JUNE, 2015
By: Maria Popova
An affectionate tour of an alternate universe right here on earth, where it’s possible to grow by nine pounds an hour and never sleep.
“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on the color of distance and desire. No creature compresses the edgeless grandeur of our Pale Blue Dot into a single body as perfectly as the blue whale — an animal absolutely awesome in the true sense of the word. That awe-striking being is what London-based illustrator Jenni Desmond celebrates in the marvelous nonfiction children’s book The Blue Whale (public library) — a loving science lullaby about our planet’s biggest creature, and a beautiful addition to the finest children’s books celebrating science.
Alongside Desmond’s immeasurably warm and largehearted illustrations is her simply worded, deeply intelligent synthesis of what marine biologists know about this extraordinary mammal — in fact, she worked closely with Diane Gendron, a marine biologist who studies blue whales. At the heart of the book is a compassionate curiosity about the beings with whom we share this world, effecting what the great Mary Oliver called a “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”
Indeed, despite the gaping disparity of scales, we have more in common with this gentle giant of the ocean than we realize — the blue whale, like us, is a highly intelligent mammal and one of the few creatures with a lifespan comparable to our own.
There is a charming meta touch to the story — the protagonist, a little boy with a crown that evokes Maurice Sendak’s Max, is learning and dreaming about blue whales by reading this very book, which he is seen holding in a number of the scenes.
Although the whaling industry of yore may have inspired some legendary art, more than 360,000 blue whales were killed in the first half of the twentieth century as these magnificent creatures were being reduced to oil, blubber, baleen, and meat. A global ban on whale hunting made them a protected species in 1966, but other forms of our arrogant anthropocentrism are putting them in danger anew as our our commercial fishing entangles them in its indiscriminate nets, our passenger ships pollute their habitats, and our general human activity continues to raise ocean temperatures.
And yet it isn’t with alarmism or bitter lamentation but with love befitting this largest-hearted of earthly creatures — its heart alone weighs around 1,300 pounds — that Desmond invites us into the world of the blue whale. She writes in the preface:
Blue whales are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and like all of the natural world they deserve our admiration and care. It is only then that they will flourish and multiply in their native ocean home.
And so it is with admiration and care that Desmond opens our eyes to the glory of this beautiful and intelligent creature — a creature whose own eye measures only six inches wide.
Next to its gargantuan weight of 160 tons, “about the same as a heap of 55 hippopotami,” and size of up to 100 feet, “the same length as a truck, a digger, a boat, a car, a bicycle, a motorcycle, a van, and a tractor — all lined up,” this minuscule eye devoid of tear glands and eyelashes makes for terribly poor eyesight.
But for this handicap of sensorial proportion the blue whale makes up in its astounding skin sensitivity and hearing — its ears, tiny holes located next to its minuscule eyes, can hear other whales’ songs up to 1,000 miles away. Because whales navigate the expanse of the ocean by sound, the noise of human-made vessels can disorient them, traumatize them, and even precipitate the kinds of mental illness Laurel Braitman explores in her excellent Animal Madness.
Desmond writes that no terrestrial animal can be nearly as big as the blue whale, for it would be impossible for a skeleton to support this much weight out of the water — the blue whale’s tongue alone weighs three tons “and its mouth is so big that 50 people can stand inside it.” This number, in fact, is a testament to what a whimsical cross-pollination of art, science, and sheer imagination this project is — Gendron manually measured how many people could stand in a boat the size of a blue whale’s mouth. (Fifty. Check.)
We learn, too, that while adult blue whales eat tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, baby whales — being mammals — eat not krill but their mother’s milk for the first eight months of life, consuming nearly 50 gallons of milk every day and growing by as much as nine pounds an hour.
But the most astounding fact about the blue whale are its sleep habits, which make even the most irregular human sleepers look like professional slumberers. Desmond explains:
Blue whales sleep by taking very short naps while slowly swimming close to the ocean’s surface. This is called logging. They sleeping this way because they have to remember to open their blowhole in order to breathe. Blue whales can never completely lose consciousness, not even in sleep, otherwise they would drown.
Unlike blue whales, people can drift into sleep without having to remember to breathe and keep themselves float, so we can fall asleep over a favorite book and begin to dream…
The Blue Whale, endlessly wonderful from cover to cover, comes from Brooklyn-based independent picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of some of the finest children’s books of our time — including an uncommonly tender Japanese take on The Velveteen Rabbit, the repeatedly rewarding The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.
Complement it with an equally wonderful fictional counterpart, Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale, then dive into the grownup mesmerism of marine life with this fantastic On Being conversation with legendary oceanographer Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle.
Donating = Loving
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.