10/6/10 - whales

In today's excerpt - in the late 1800s, the newly well-to-do middle classes of England and America developed an insatiable fascination with the exotic, including a chance for an up-close view of living whales. But they didn't know how to keep those whales alive, including the P.T. Barnum whale that was roasted to death:

"In 1861, Phineas T. Barnum had imported a pair of belugas to his American Museum on Broadway. Fished out of the waters off Labrador and brought south in hermetically sealed boxes lined with seaweed, the whales were twenty-three and eighteen feet long respectively. Their basement tank measured fifty-eight by twenty-five feet, but it was barely seven feet deep, and was filled with fresh water. ...

"This fascination with the whale ... was an expression of Victorian fashion, a characteristic marriage of ingenious science and human curiosity. In England, live whales were delivered to aquaria in Manchester and Blackpool (although one porpoise show was closed, for fear the flagrant activities of its performers should offend genteel dispositions), and in September 1877 a beluga whale arrived in Westminster, in the centre of the world's greatest city. The nine-foot, six-inch specimen had also been caught—along with ten others—off Labrador, where it had stranded at high tide and was netted by Zack Coup and his men. From there it began its long journey to London.

"Taken in a narrow box by sloop to Montreal, the whale was put on a train to New York—a trip that took two weeks. The animal spent seven months at Coney Island's Summer Aquarium where 'he contracted his habit of swimming in a circle', before being taken out of its tank and put on a North German Lloyd steamship, the Oder, bound for Southampton [England]. During the voyage, it was kept on deck in a rough wooden box lined with seaweed, and was wetted with salt water every three minutes. Despite such intensive care, the whale had already begun to live off its own blubber.

"At Southampton the beluga was transferred to the South-Western Railway, traveling on an open truck to Waterloo Station and to its final home, an iron tank forty-four feet long, twenty feet wide, and six feet deep, at the Royal Aquarium, a grand gothic structure recently built opposite the Houses of Parliament. The whale waited as the tank took two hours to fill. 'He had been lying still in the box breathing once every 23 seconds. He flapped feebly with his tail when he felt them moving the box. He fell out of it sidelong into the water and went down to the bottom like lead.' The animal was allowed three hours of privacy before the public, 'in great numbers,' were admitted to view it from a specially built grandstand. ...

"In what appeared to be delirious behaviour, the whale—which was in fact a female—swam up and down the tank rapidly, hitting its head on the wall. Then, 'having somewhat recovered, it again swam several times round the tank, again came into collision with the end of the tank, turned over, and died.'...

"A necropsy performed by eminent naturalists and physicians ... discovered that far from starving, the whale had a full stomach—but also highly congested lungs. The fact that the animal had been kept on open deck on its way over the Atlantic, and, rather than keeping it alive, the regular dousing it had received had resulted in rapid evaporation between soakings, causing it to catch cold. ...

"Back in New York, Barnum's whales met with their predicted fate. Victims of equally inappropriate conditions, like fairground fish brought home in plastic bags, they too had died within days—only to be replaced by successive specimens until a fire destroyed the museum in 1865. Futile attempts were made to rescue the last beluga, until a compassionate fireman smashed the tank with a hook, 'So the whale merely roasted to death instead of undergoing the distress of being poached.' "


Philip Hoare


The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2010 by Philip Hoare


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