Posted by: Rob Viens | January 30, 2013

Right Whales and the Night Watch

On the 28th, Darwin and the others left Woolya Cove and headed back to the Beagle. It was time for the month-long project of settling the Fuegians and setting up the mission to be over, and for the captain to “get back to work”. After a month of anthropological musing, it seems like a good time for me to shift gears a little, too.  (One of the things I love about writing this blog is the ability to research and write about so many different things!)

Darwin began his day with a description of the Beagle Channel (named during the first voyage of the Beagle):

“To everyones surprise the day was overpowringly hot, so much so that our skin was burnt; this is quite a novelty in Tierra del F. — The Beagle channel is here very striking, the view both ways is not intercepted, & to the West extends to the Pacific. — So narrow & straight a channell & in length nearly 120 miles, must be a rare phenomenon. — We were reminded, that it was an arm of the sea, by the number of Whales, which were spouting in different directions: the water is so deep that one morning two monstrous whales were swimming within stone throw of the shore.” (Jan 28)

Based on the numerous whale-watching sites for the region, it would appear that there are a number 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 suggests that although right whales are seen in Beagle Channel today, they are relatively rare.  But a lot has changed in distribution of whales since the 1830’s (i.e., decimation by whaling), so their range may have been quite different in Darwin’s time.  I would guess that based on Darwin’s description of their size, the Beagle was sailing with southern right whales or humpback whales.

Southern right whale by Andrew Howells (from the Australian Museum):

southern right whale

Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) are found throughout the southern oceans, and form a distinctly different species than their “relatives” in the northern seas (the North Atlantic right whale and North Pacific right whale). The tropical waters of the Earth prevent the species from breeding with one another, creating three distinct gene pools that have been isolated for millions of years.

These large whales grow to about 16-18 meters long and to over 70,000 kg. They are baleen whales, meaning they have large plates in their mouth they use to filter plankton out of the water. I have always found it fitting that the largest creatures on the Earth (the baleen whales) survive on just plankton.  If whales can eat low on the food chain, who says human society couldn’t survive on a lentils and greens?

OK, for those trivia nuts out there, the southern right whale is said to have the largest testicles of any animal.  One source states that each one weighs over 500 kg (~1100 pounds)! (And yes, the pun was intended :))

In the 1830’s, hunting of southern whales was in it heyday, and for the next century, more whales were killed each year (sometimes by an order of magnitude) than the estimated population of Southern right whales today (about 3,000-4,000).  (Their name is said to have come from the fact that they were the “right” whale to hunt and kill.) So even though there has been some recovery, these whales are currently considered an endangered species.

Southern Right Whale breaching (from Wikipedia Commons):
southern Right Whale

Whales and spectacular views aside, I am also impressed with how Darwin takes on regular duties of the crew – today describing his time standing watch, keeping everyone safe from the “terrible natives”:

“We sailed on till it was dark & then found a quiet nook; the great object is to find a beach with pebbles, for they are both dry & yield to the body, & really in our blanket bags we passed very comfortable nights. — It was my watch till one oclock; there is something very solemn in such scenes; the consciousness rushes on the mind in how remote a corner of the globe you are then in; all tends to this end, the quiet of the night is only interrupted by the heavy breathing of the men & the cry of the night birds. —the occasional distant bark of a dog reminds one that the Fuegians may be prowling, close to the tents, ready for a fatal rush. ” (Jan 28)

I can picture Darwin up late at night, writing in his journal while standing watch in the cold night air of Tierra del Fuego. (RJV)

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