A Whale of a Tale

Rashi says the tananim hagedolim (Bereishis 1:21) are the great sea creatures, whales. The Ramban says that these creatures are so unique that they were a special creation (signified by the word bara). By any measure, whales are an especially thought-provoking example of nifla’os haBorei.

A sperm whale lies stranded on a beach, close to death. Looking at him now, it is hard to imagine what an extraordinary life he’s led.

This is the largest predator the world has ever seen. Adult sperm whales can grow to 60 tons (120,000 pounds or more) and up to 60 feet, although some have been estimated to be 100 feet (such as the one that destroyed a whaling ship in the 1800s and became the basis for the legendary white whale, Moby Dick, of Herman Melville fame). By the end of its life, a sperm whale will have traveled far enough to circumnavigate the globe 40 times! That’s over half a million miles.

Whales in general and sperm whales in particular “have so many specialized features that they might as well come from a different planet,” one documentary put it. For instance, despite living their entire lives in the water, they are mammals: they give birth to live young, they nurse with milk and they’re warm-blooded. They even have hair before they’re born, a layer of fuzz called lanugo, and some even keep hair as adults.

Sperm whales spend most of their lives a staggering 1.25 miles below the waves, only surfacing to breathe. Their playground is an alien landscape cloaked in a world of eternal darkness. Down there, mountains rise higher than Everest. Ravines run deeper than the Grand Canyon. The creatures are more monstrous than anything found on land. To find their quarry in the pitch blackness of the deep, sperm whales use sophisticated echolocation similar to sonar.

Ignoble though the death of this beached sperm whale may be, its life is nothing short of spectacular. Let’s take a glimpse into it.

A World of Eternal Darkness

A giant deep sea cliff lies in the North Atlantic, 200 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Here, the continental shelf drops away to depths of over 2.5 miles. Not far away, a young version of our beached whale is about to make his first deep water dive. He’s only two years old. Until now, he’s spent his young life in the sunlit surface waters, under the protection of his huge mother. This is the first stage of an apprenticeship that will take him deeper and deeper into the oceans of the world.

At 1,300 feet, the young bull enters the midnight zone. Down here no light remains. His eyes are useless. But he isn’t blind. He uses sound to see into the gloom. A third of his body is given over to the most powerful sonar in the natural world. His ultrasound clicks produce 235 decibels, louder than a jet engine that generates 150 decibels. His giant nose fires clicks into the depths. The echoes bounce back from almost a mile away, illuminating the hidden world.

Slopes of the astonishing undersea landscapes drop for a further two miles, to where the pressure is 300 times what it is on the surface. He’s reached his limit. His young body would be crushed at those depths, but his mother, and the other females that make up his family pod, have no such restrictions. As they head for their hunting grounds, their bodies disturb tiny marine creatures, leaving a bioluminescent trail in their wake.

One of the females stays behind to babysit the young bull as he explores this unfamiliar world.

First Dive

Most species of whales survive by grazing on tiny plankton, but sperm whales use their sonar to hunt the creatures of the deep. They sit at the top of that chain. They are the apex predators.

One day, the pod embarks on a migration 3,000 miles away into the heart of the Atlantic Ocean. Down here, there’s no hard surface for life to gain a foothold. This is no place for a giant predator like a whale. They’re in for a long and hungry trek. Day and night, they move over the ocean desert, heading for the next feeding station, the next island of life.

If the young whale doesn’t eat soon, he’ll die. But hope rises out of the gloom! His echolocation system signals a mountainous form ahead. In the deep ocean, any hard structure creates a haven for life—and a hunting opportunity for sperm whales.

The giant peaks of this mountain range lie 3,200 feet below the surface, almost double the distance the young bull ever dove. Dive too deep and he could drown before he gets back to the surface. But if he stays up here, he will starve.

It will take over 20 minutes to reach the hunting grounds below. Instinctively, he dives down into the abyss. His heart rate slows to one beat per minute. Blood supply to his skin is cut off to prevent heat loss. And, most remarkably of all, as the pressure increases, his ribcage collapses, as it’s designed to. The lungs are flattened, as they are designed to, under the crushing body. Protective mucus keeps them from sticking together permanently.

His powerful sonar sketches the landscape hundreds of yards below him. The deep shapes the creatures that live here into bizarre forms. An oarfish can grow to the size of a two-story house; it’s the longest fish in the sea. Almost never seen at the surface, rare sightings of this creature sparked legends of man-eating serpent sea monsters.

After his marathon descent, the young whale has less than 10 minutes at the bottom. Using sonar, he searches the new world for potential food. The juvenile has no teeth, so he sucks in his prey, crushing it in his stomach. The spiny oarfish is the wrong choice, so he spits it out.

Following his mother’s lead, he’s goes after a squid. An adult whale can eat 500 squid in a single dive. He satisfies himself with much less.

Killers on the Prowl

After feasting on some squid, the young bull runs low on oxygen, and the surface is 20 minutes above him. His first encounter with one of the greatest landscapes of the deep has been all too brief.

Alone on the surface, he uses his sensitive hearing to listen to the sounds of the ocean. He tracks the clicks of his mother. However, there are other sounds in the ocean. There are animals out here that will eat a young whale. A team of killer whales have been following the social chatter of the sperm whales for miles. If they isolate the young male, they’ll eat him alive.

Two orcas peel off. They close in from behind. Traveling at 35 knots, a killer takes a bite of flesh from the young bull. Now there is blood in the water and the frenzy begins.

Just when things look bleak, the bull’s mother arrives and puts her body between the injured calf and the killers. Far below, the pod hears the orcas. They know they must return before it’s too late. The females arrive first. They instinctively form a protective rosette around the injured calf, but the killer whales are relentless. They can kill an entire pod…

But not today. A fully grown bull suddenly arrives. Male sperm whales are 30% larger than females and carry over twice the weight. Like the females, they possess a formidable row of teeth. He’s one whale too many for the killers. For the first time, the young whale meets the giant he will one day become.

Squid Hunting

An adult sperm whale needs roughly one ton of food per day. That’s about as much as one African elephant bull a week. Adult sperm whales routinely dive for an hour or more in pursuit of their favor food – giant squid. Bigger than a family car, as swift as an arrow, its eye the size of a basketball, a giant squid is one of the most successful predators of the deep. With eight arms and two additional feeding tentacles, each of which is riddled with hundreds of serrated rings, they process their food with a razor-sharp, parrot-like beak at the center of their tentacles, capable of cutting even the toughest catch into bite-sized pieces. Coordinating eight arms with precision takes one of the most advanced nervous systems in the world.

Yet none of that can protect them from the biggest toothed predator on the planet, the sperm whale. Sperm whales are voracious hunters of squid—the species as a whole consumes an estimated 110 million tons a year. Battles between giant squid and sperm whales have never been witnessed by humans, but evidence of what must be a battle of epic proportions often leave the whales scarred with sucker marks.

When the young bull reaches 12 years of age, he is a 35-ton teenager as big as a bus. As the pod reaches a hunting area, the adults waste no time in diving down. But the young bull stays on the surface to prepare himself. This will be the deepest dive of his life.

The young bull finally dives and 30 minutes later finds himself in an area where some of the underwater trenches are three times deeper than the Grand Canyon. He’s at the limits of his endurance, but at this depth, giant squid like to forage. Meanwhile, the adults have already returned to the surface, ready for a snooze after their big meal. Their giant nose causes them to float upright, allowing the blowhole to sit just above the surface.

Deep below, the young bull is still hunting through the labyrinth of canyons. He’s spotted a shape in the murk. It’s bigger than anything he’s eaten before. The battle begins.

On the surface, the pod is unaware of the plight of the teenager below them. If not handled right, a giant squid can inflict real injuries on a young whale.

Deep below, the squid is wrapped around the young bull’s head. Serrated suckers cut into his skin. And he’s running low on oxygen. As the young bull heads for the surface, the squid momentarily releases its grip. But the writhing mass of tentacles is still alive. The whale decides to give it one last try. He wheels around to attack and grabs the beast in his toothless jaws. He needs to kill it inside his stomach, which he does by sucking the squid down his throat. The biggest predator on the planet has triumphed over one of the greatest monsters of the deep.

Prime Time and Beyond

After about 30 years of age, the young whale finally hits his prime. He’s learned to master his alien world. He’s ready to travel further and dive deeper than any other creature on Earth. For the next few decades, he will become the apex predator of the deep.

At 55 years of age, his skin will be almost white with battle scars. But his sonic clangs will remain as powerful as ever, strong enough to stun a human diver.

At 80 years old, he’s an old veteran of the deep ocean.

In the depths of the Antarctic, there’s a creature that remained undiscovered until recently. At one time, the giant squid was believed to be the biggest of its kind. Scientists had to come up with a distinct name for the new monster they discovered, so they called it a “colossal” squid. It’s not just larger than its giant cousin. It’s a more active predator, too. Its tentacles are armed with rotating hooks, each capable of slicing a two-inch gash deep into whale blubber. This is the beast of sailor’s legends. The body alone can be more than 15 feet long. Inside is the most ferocious beak in the animal kingdom. But there is one creature even bigger. The female. She can grow to almost 50 feet in length and over 1,600 pounds – a formidable match even for a mature sperm whale.

The whale’s huge, streamlined bulk is designed to cope with marathon dives to extreme pressures. It takes 10 minutes for him to take in enough oxygen for a deep dive. The blood in his veins transports the precious gas around his body. His muscles turn black as they store enough oxygen to stay under for up to 90 minutes. It’s time to dive deep into the world of giants.

In the eternal darkness of the deep, his sonar locks onto targets 500 yards away – a female colossal squid. In no time, the two are clasped in battle. The squid’s hooks display their ferocious power. A slash to the whale’s eye and the squid breaks free…

But not for long.

The whale pursues and catches the squid in his mouth, but the squid has wrapped its tentacles around his head. The whale turns and flips his massive body until the squid arches headfirst into his mouth. The battle between the two biggest predators on Earth is over.

For the victor, it marks the final chapter in an epic ocean odyssey. In his 80 years, he’s made over half a million deep dives. From the tallest underwater mountains to the deepest aquatic canyons, he’s taken on the greatest monsters of the abyss. His life has been about conquering a world we can barely enter, but these victories have not been without cost. Every environment has left its mark.

Where does this ocean odyssey end? At the threshold of our surface world. For the first time, he can feel his own weight, but his bulk is crushing the life out of him. Every odyssey must end somewhere, even the greatest on the planet.

Caution: Exploding Blubber

When whale carcasses fall into the ocean’s dark depths, they can form mini-ecosystems sustaining countless deep-sea species for decades. Strange creatures like the zombie worms devour everything from the blubber to the bones.

Sometimes, whales end up washed up on the shore and attract bystanders. The chance to safely gaze at one of these giants and even inspect them up close is something that people don’t want to miss out on. But in actuality, it’s not as safe as it might seem. At any time, the putrefying gases inside whale’s body can explode and jettison several tons of internal matter outward at a speed of up to 45 MPH over 30 yards across the beach.

In 2013, a sperm whale exploded in a spectacular session while a marine biologist was cutting it open in an attempt to release the pressure inside the carcass. Another notable instance occurred in 2004 in Taiwan as a sperm whale exploded while being transported through the center of a city, splattering cars, shops and bystanders with blood and guts.

 

The Great Taninim

Rav Avigdor Miller, as he usually does, hits the nail on the head in how to view whales (see his commentary to Bereishis 1:21):

“Why, of all the sea-species, are the great Taninim mentioned specifically? This is because the purpose of all phenomena is to testify to their Creator. There is nothing in the sea more conspicuous and spectacular than these huge animals. Even a little fish, as it sails through the water, is a grand testimony to the Great Designer that perfected such a marvel. A creature that breathes in water, maintains its flotation and even speeds through water is not permeated and waterlogged by the sea brine, finds its sustenance and even mates and reproduces in the sea, and travels unerringly over great distances to precise locations to its breeding-places is the loudest testimony to its Creator’s endless wisdom. But when the mariner sights a huge beast suddenly emerging from the water (the whale is much larger than any land-animal), he is immensely moved and is excited to an awareness that no other living creature could achieve. Of all the testimonies that the waters offer, ‘the great Taninim’ are most spectacular, and they are therefore specifically mentioned.”

Mah rabu ma’asecha Hashem – how literally true it is when it comes to whales: “How great are Your deeds, Hashem; You made them all with wisdom” (Tehillim 104:24).