Ribs and terrors in the whale

I have just started reading Moby Dick – and yes we went whale-watching at the weekend.

Why did this book not find a place in my library years ago? In my mind it is filed with Gullivers Travels, Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe  – the probably-should-have-read-maybe-know-enough-to-blag classics. I once tried Robinson Crusoe – it is so dull, endlessly boring like the TV series; was it really only 13 episodes?  (I keep clicking on that link just to hear the music)

Maybe it is the underlying theme of insanity that has caught my attention so late in life, or maybe such texts only become good reads secure in the knowledge that nobody expects you to write an analytical essay  (why is school so successful in eradicating sparks of interest?)

Herman Melville visited Bermuda in March 1888, arriving on the Orinoco and staying in The Hamilton Hotel.  His whale story had been completed over 30 years before, receiving unfavourable reviews: the ravings and reveries of a madman.  He died in 1891, an absolutely forgotten man according to the obituary in The New York Times (not quite forgotten then).

Back to whale-watching:


We took a trip with the Bermuda Zoological Society costing $85 each for just over 5 hours.

Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo
Tel: 441 293 2727 | Email: info.bzs@gov.bm

Fantasea Diving and Watersports
Tel: 441 236 1300 | Email: info@fantasea.bm

Blue Water Divers & Watersports
Tel: 441 234 1034, 441 232 2909

BUEI (Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute)
Tel: 441 292 7219 | Email: info@buei.org

Island Tour Centre
Tel: 441 236 1300 | Email info@islandtourcentre.com

They all cost much the same and all practice “responsible whale-watching”.  In Bermuda the season is late March to April as the whales travel North.  Some trips may be unlucky with either no sightings or poor weather, it is unpredictable.  We saw a whale breach early on in the day and then several tails and fins as they rolled.  For a short time there were two whales swimming alongside at about 30 feet from the boat between us and a fishing boat – they appeared turquoise in the sunlight and beautiful clear water. For the most part I was too busy watching to take photos, and I caught the sun on my forehead, not having the sense to have taken a hat.  None of the websites I looked up beforehand told me what to wear, so I will tell you: lightweight trousers that dry quickly as the spray is wet, t shirt for the start but a warm fleece with long sleeves for when the sun hides, a waterproof jacket which hopefully will stay in your bag, trainers or sturdy sandals, not flip-flops or your best office shoes, and of course a hat, one that ties under the chin!

Bermuda whales are Humpbacks, non-toothed filter-feeders who eat krill and plankton (one of the few words I have trouble spelling, often adding a c as in Planck’s Constant, which is 6.62 x 10 to the power -34 and probably not at all relevant here).  Seeing their fins or tails above the surface doesn’t give me a feel of how large they actually are, some 36,000 kg, but the fact that they have been evolving over 50 million years is just astounding. You can read everything you could possibly want to know about them on the website http://www.whalesbermuda.com/home

I recall in 1970s whale song was a fashionable accompaniment to massage and flotation tanks, the prelude to swimming with dolphins on a doctors prescription.  I have tried to discover the supposed health benefits, let down by wikipedia, even Google Scholar fails to provide.  Some new-age sites proclaim whale song as a sonic filter for consciousness or a way to access planetary memories.  I can understand why people should wish to study the sounds whales make, but it is not to my musical taste.

Whale poetry, on the other hand, is:

The ribs and terrors in the whale, Arched over me a dismal gloom, While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by, And lift me deepening down to doom.

I saw the opening maw of hell, With endless pains and sorrows there; Which none but they that feel can tell- Oh, I was plunging to despair.

In black distress, I called my God, When I could scarce believe him mine, He bowed his ear to my complaints- No more the whale did me confine.

With speed he flew to my relief, As on a radiant dolphin borne; Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone The face of my Deliverer God.

My song for ever shall record That terrible, that joyful hour; I give the glory to my God, His all the mercy and the power.
That is an extract from Chapter 9 in Moby Dick, hymn or poem, however classified, it is certainly powerful imagery. 

I like Things to Do in the Belly of a Whale , for when life is tough.  So I have come back round to literary whales and I am going to leave it there.



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