Five sperm whales have washed up along the east coast of England in the past week, all believed to be from the same pod. The latest was found on the beach at Wainfleet in Lincolnshire, along a stretch of coastline long used by the RAF as a bombing and air-to-ground practice range.
The giant cachalots have unsurprisingly drawn considerable attention from the public, including some mindless clowns who thought it appropriate to desecrate the majestic carcasses with nuclear disarmament graffiti. Others have even harvested parts of the stranded whales as souvenirs in an act so repulsive it does not bear pondering in depth.
Man’s relationship with the sperm whale is long and fraught. For more than a century, this largest of the toothed whale species was hunted on an industrial scale, primarily for its spermaceti, a liquid wax in the creature’s head that was used for oil lamps across the streets of the developed world.
Another prized commodity unique to sperm whales is ambergris. This brackish substance, produced by the whale’s digestive system, was sought after by perfumers as a fixative to allow their scent to last longer.
Whaling soon became a glorified endeavour, with man pitted against beast on the rough and unforgiving seas. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – telling the story of a vengeful Captain in pursuit of an infamous white sperm whale that had been responsible for the loss of his leg – was published in 1851 and added to the mythology surrounding what was effectively the mass slaughter of a species.
Fortunately, the invention of gas lighting and synthetic fixatives helped save the sperm whale, in addition to a belated realisation from mankind that it could not so willingly decimate its fellow inhabitants of the earth.
Since the future of the sperm whale was secured, the sheer majesty and gracefulness of the creature has been recognised and explains the almost primeval excitement when us landlubbers come into contact with these deep-sea dwellers.
It is a pity that such encounters are often only possible because of mass strandings such as that seen over the past week, yet hopefully it precipitates a greater appreciation of a species which the world is much the richer for hanging on to.