Posted by: Rob Viens | April 1, 2012

Look, a Grampus!

April 1st – It’s good to know that some traditions are shared across the ages – regardless of social status.  It was April Fools’ Day and the crew was having some fun:

“All hands employed in making April fools. — at midnight nearly all the watch below was called up in their shirts; Carpenters for a leak: quarter masters that a mast was sprung. — midshipmen to reef top-sails; All turned in to their hammocks again, some growling some laughing.” (Apr 1)

April Fools’ Day is celebrated in numerous cultures around the world.  According to Wikipedia, the first reference to April Fools’ Day was in Canterbury Tales in 1392, though there are some who think it originated in the Roman Empire in the 3rd or 4th century AD.

On this day in 1832, even one of the greatest minds of modern history was “taken” by the pranks:

“The hook was much too easily baited for me not to be caught: Sullivan cried out, “Darwin, did you ever see a Grampus: Bear a hand then”. I accordingly rushed out in a transport of Enthusiasm, & was received by a roar of laughter from the whole watch.” (Apr 1)

So I thought this was a made-up name used to fool Darwin, but no.  “Grampus” was the name commonly used for an orca.  It is likely tht Darwin had never seen one before, so was almost certainly very excited when he heard the call from deck.  They truly are beautiful to behold.  I have experienced them a few times, though the most memorable was by kayak.  I was paddling into LeConte Bay in SE Alaska when two orcas overtook us and passed the boat not more than 25 feet from away.  In a kayak, we were of course right at water level, and too excited to do more than just watch in awe as they passed by, continuously breaching.  You could see the hair on their back and almost feel the water spray from their blowhole.  They were almost certainly heading to the head of the bay, were harbor seals kept their pups on top of floating icebergs from LeConte Glacier.

Orca “porpoising” in Hood Canal, WA (from Wikipedia Commons)

Orca porpoising

To be fair, Risso’s Dolphins also occasionally go by their genus name – Grampus – and this part of Brazil is right at the end of their range.  But in Darwin’s time, they were almost certainly referring to an orca.

Kudos to Lt Sulivan for catching Darwin off guard! (See more about Sulivan at Bartholomew J. Sulivan – Dolphin Hunter)

I hope you had some fun today celebrating an 600+ year tribute to fun and games, and if someone played a prank on you, just remember that even Darwin got fooled! (RJV)


  1. […] noted in an earlier post (see Look, a Grampus! from April Fool’s Day), the term “grampus” has been used to refer to a lot of […]

  2. […] of whale species that can be found in the channel – including pilot whales, minke, orcas (see Look a Grampus), Southern right whales, humpback whales, and several species of dolphins.  A recent paper […]

  3. […] trick was not like the American “snipe hunt” where a nonexistent creature is touted. According to another site, Darwin was probably expecting to see an […]

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