The Year of the Whale: A Lyrical Illustrated Serenade to Our Planet’s Largest-Brained Creature
“Moving through a dim, dark, cool, watery world of its own, the whale is timeless and ancient; part of our common heritage and yet remote, awful, prowling the ocean floor a half-mile down, under the guidance of powers and senses we are only beginning to grasp.”
By Maria Popova
“The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open,” Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick as he was falling in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he would dedicate the novel, “and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”
A century later, marine biologist and author Victor B. Scheffer (November 27, 1906–September 20, 2011) would make that white colossus of wonder the subject of his short, lyrical book The Year of the Whale (public library) — a forgotten gem I discovered through one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, in which author, historian, and anthropologist of science Laurel Braitman recounts the formative influence of Scheffer’s quiet masterwork, bequeathed to her by her father.
With an eye to the ancient enchantment of this unusual and inadequately understood creature, Scheffer writes in the prologue:
The sperm whale has held for mankind a special, mystical meaning from the time of Moby-Dick down to today. Moving through a dim, dark, cool, watery world of its own, the whale is timeless and ancient; part of our common heritage and yet remote, awful, prowling the ocean floor a half-mile down, under the guidance of powers and senses we are only beginning to grasp.
Published in 1969, the book emanates Rachel Carson’s influence. Three decades earlier, Carson had pioneered a new way of writing about the natural world with her masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had long ago called “the world below the brine,” a world more mysterious then than the Moon. Carson invited the human reader to fathom the most enigmatic recesses of Earth from the perspective of nonhuman creatures. Nothing like this had ever been before. She eventually expanded the essay into the stunning book Under the Sea-Wind, exploring each of the three main areas of marine life through the eyes and senses of a particular, personified creature in order to avoid the human bias of popular books about the ocean, always written from the perspective of a human observer — a fisherman, a deep-sea diver, a shore wanderer.
Carson modeled not only this novel perspectival lens on the natural world, but also a new aesthetic of science as a literary subject. She would soon become the most esteemed and influential science writer in the country. “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” she would assert in her 1951 National Book Award acceptance speech. “And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”
It is with this dual Carsonian influence of a nonhuman perspective lyrically conveyed that Scheffer approaches his inquiry into the world of this enormous and enigmatic mammal. Alongside beguiling illustrations by artist Leonard Everett Fisher, winner of the Pulitzer Art Prize, he tells the story of a mother whale and her baby, Little Calf. Fittingly, he chooses as the book’s epigraph Henry Beston’s poetic insistence that “we need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.”
Scheffer limns the moment of birth, itself a miracle of nature as this fourteen-foot baby that weighs one ton takes its first breath of weightless air:
It is early September when for the first time the Little Calf sees light — a blue-green, dancing light. He slips easily from his mother’s body beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean two hundred miles west of Mexico, on the Tropic of Cancer. He trembles, for the water is cold and he has lain for sixteen months in a warm chamber at ninety-six degrees. He gasps for air as his mother nudges him anxiously to the surface with her broad snout. He breathes rapidly and desperately for a while, puffing with each breath a small cloud of vapor down the autumn breeze.
Already at birth, Little Calf has overcome immense peril. Together with sea cows and hippopotamuses, whales are the only mammals born underwater. Unlike a human baby, a whale is born tail first, backing into the outer world. Its enormous, awkward head — a head that would grow to hold Earth’s largest brain, fivefold the size of a human’s — follows the comma of its tadpole-shaped body, narrowly escaping the noose of the five-foot umbilical cord.
As mother and calf roll in the wash the cord snaps. The baby opens a pink mouth with knobby, toothless gums and seems suddenly to smile, for the upturned corners of his mouth break into a satisfied smirk. This is illusion, of course; the smile of a whale is a built-in feature with which it is endowed at birth and retains throughout life.
Little Calf… is far more advanced in body development than any newborn human child. He is wide-eyed, alert, and fully able to swim. Every whale of every kind is in fact precocious at brith; it has to be, for within brief moments it finds itself awash in the grown-up world — no nest, no den, no shelter except the dark shadow of the mother floating beside it.
By the following summer, this precocious baby has begun mastering life in the open ocean. Scheffer describes the beautiful dance between Little Calf’s fledgling independence and the deep bond with his mother:
In the year of the whale there are days when nothing is new. One such a day in July the air is filled with a monotonous hissing of sound as one rain squall pursues another across the dappled sea. The Little Calf swims beneath his mother’s body in a dark shadow illuminated at the edges by a blue-gray light from above. Subconsciously he tries to match the rhythmic undulating sameness of her body, for the beating impulses of her flesh and the suffocating water have been one great throbbing part of his life from its beginning. In trying to keep pace, he sometimes falls behind and must sprint for a dozen strokes to re-enter the comforting zone of the shadow.
As the year ends, the form of the Little Calf leaves a thin track on the flat immensity, a swirling punctuation, a blend of liquid and life. A cool wind moves. The red light gleams on the wave at his brow. Then the sun sinks below the sea, and the tiny whale is gone.
Following Little Calf month by month, as different constellations come to populate the season’s skies, Scheffer goes on to explore the courtship of whales, the fascinating science of their underwater communication, their ferocious protectiveness of one another, the courageous battles they wage against the unforgiving ocean, the dynamics of a whale “family” — a loose social group of thirty or so individuals — and various other aspects of lives so wildly and wondrously different from our own, yet so strangely kindred, evocative of naturalist Sy Montgomery’s lovely observation that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom… far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”
Underlying Little Calf’s story are the subtle but palpable pulses of an environmental conscience, wistfully aware — even in 1969 — that unless we radically reform our civilizational regard for the natural world, this remarkable creature may vanish forever. Scheffer opens the first chapter with the cautionary words of former United States Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall — one of Carson’s most spirited champions and a fierce conservation advocate himself:
This decade may go down in history as marking the end of life for the largest animal ever to inhabit this earth. If so, it will be another morbid monument to man’s short-sighted exploitation of the world’s wildlife bounty.
Complement The Year of the Whale with this poetic stop-motion animation about the afterlife of the whale, the illustrated story of Mocha-Dick — the real-life sperm whale who inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick — and this lovely picture-book about the blue whale, then revisit naturalist Sy Montgomery — one of the most lyrical science writers of our own time — on how to be a good creature.
Published February 21, 2019