The Modern Leviathan

The Modern Leviathan

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet: Shakespeare; 1599

Life as we know it developed in the vast oceans that surround our planet. There can’t be a literate person alive who hasn’t seen one of the myriad cartoons of a prehistoric fish ambling out of the sea on its flippers, looking to colonise the land. The process of evolution that Darwin set out in his epic tome ‘Origin of the Species’ is well documented, much debated, but little denied in this enlightened age. (Apart from a few Flat Earthers who still believe that walking too far in any direction will bring you to the Antarctic, which supposedly encircles the coin-shaped disc we call Home. With the Arctic at dead centre, of course.)

What is less known is the fact that quite a few species, in what be a sensible move to get away from humans, have returned to the waters and continued their evolutionary processes back in the oceans and lakes of our planet. Here in the Western Cape we are lucky enough to have a host of perennial visitors, the Southern Right whales, that are refugees from the land, and these incredible creatures are worth studying for their presence, beauty and amazing attributes. We reckon it’s a safe bet that very few people visiting one of South Africa’s numerous game parks will look at a giraffe and mutter “Very like a whale.” Come to think of it, camels in the desert are equally unlikely to bring Moby Dick to mind, but the fact is that whales are descended from the genus Artiodactyla, known more colloquially as even-toed ungulates, which also includes such common creatures as sheep, goats and cattle. Not to mention the varieties of deer and buck that roam the planet. Perhaps Polonius knew more about even-toed ungulates than we give him credit for.

There is a closer, more obvious cetacean relative in our game parks: the lumbering hippopotamus. It is the land-based creature closest to the whale families in historical genealogy, and like the whale, has found that it far prefers a watery habitat, although retaining its ability to roam around land and carve paths through the undergrowth and farmer’s fields. They are certainly closer to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick representation of whale as cunning hunter; the hippopotami of Africa kill more humans per year than snakes. But it’s the whales we are focussing on; not too many hippos out in Table Bay for our guests to be awed by.

The  primitive cetaceans, or archaeocetes, including incipient whales, porpoises and dolphins, first returned to the sea about 50 million years ago (which probably absolves humans of the responsibility), and after about ten million years or so were fully aquatic – no more roaming through the undergrowth like cousin hippo. In terms of evolutionary progress, this is relatively fast; the adaptations that allow whales to live and survive in the ocean were quite astounding under the circumstances. Their limbs shrank and changed, and in the case of their back legs, disappeared completely (apart from some tiny vestigial bones); the bodies became streamlines (once again, as opposed to cousin hippo, who retained his blockbuster body), and their tails grew flukes. The front limbs became the flippers that can help urge them through the water at up to 40 kph, and their nostrils migrated upwards towards the top of the cranium and became the blowholes that blast out the vapour that alerts humans to their presence.

About 35 million years ago there was another major evolutionary change, and whales split into two distinct categories: the baleen whales (Mysticetes) and the toothed whales (Odontocetes). The Southern Right whales that frequent our shores are baleen whales, they filter feed through a sheet of baleen; the Sperm whales that that gave rise to most of the fiction surrounding whales eating humans and crunching through whaleboats are toothed whales that feed on other sea creatures. But the ‘toothed’ aspect is only partly true: they only have teeth on their lower jawbone. Evolution is a mysterious force. More astounding are the changes that occurred internally over time: whales developed an echo-location system known as biosonar – similar in concept to bats – with their jawbones acting as receiving antennae, sending returned signals through to their ears. This was a fortunate development, as whale eyesight is not a strong point. Although their sight is quite good, they can only effectively see downwards, and in two fields, not binocular like most mammals. Sometimes even the mysterious evolutionary force gets things wrong. Whalers in past centuries would debate why whales often swam long distances upside down; the answer was simple. They were looking upwards at the whalers and sizing up whether to eat them or escape.

Whales are incredible. Research accumulated by Charles Siebert and summarised in 2009 shows that whales are known to teach, learn, cooperate, scheme, and grieve. ‘The neocortex of many species of whale is home to elongated spindle neurons that, prior to 2007, were known only in hominids.’ We’ll take your word for it, Chuck. All we know is that on our cruises, as we watch whales in pods, we are fascinated by the interaction, the affection and the maternal aspects of their social groups. We could also go on and on about these beautiful creatures, and how man abused them, slaughtered them and cut down their numbers, but right now it’s time just to get out on the water and admire them.

Join us for a cruise; our Ocean Safari adventures are tailor-made for whale watching, but all our cruises have great viewing possibilities, allowing us to marvel at these intelligent 200 ton refugees from the land. All details and booking on the website, of course.