Nonfiction by Kea Krause
Aboard the Calypso Jacques Cousteau searches for the sperm whale in the Indian Ocean. Frenchmen roam the ship’s deck, shirtless, in European speedos waiting for a spout on the horizon. The leviathan seems close. Cousteau’s log:
“May 20, near the Maldive islands:
Floating on the surface, we have discovered a piece of giant squid. A deep living creature, the squid is common game for the sperm whale. The backs of the whale are often scarred by the horny beaks of the squid and by the suction cups of its tentacles. What we have found is the debris of battle.”
A spout of water spotted through binoculars sets off a tide of activity on deck and the crew comes alive in a blur of red knit caps, sinewy muscles and shouts of French. The footage from 1975 shows grainy images of the water with the whale’s bulbous back, followed by fin and fluke, cutting through the ocean’s surface in a dive. Even with the lens zoomed in as far as it will go, the whale’s full figure remains an enigma. Our cameras and radar and submarines that put sharks on the Discovery Channel and whales on the BBC haven’t been invented yet. The beast shows itself for only a moment and then glides back into an underworld humans still had yet to conquer.
“Of all the whales of the sea, the Spermaceti Whale has most captured the imagination of sailors and land lubbers alike. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a Sperm as were all the savage whales of fiction. Their huge foreheads give them a majestic and fearful appearance. They have been said to ram ships with this forehead, battering them until their hulls cave in,” Cousteau regales as if telling a ghost story around a campfire.
The octopus’s beak is shaped like a parrot’s and made out of chitin, a long chain polymer that also makes the shells of crabs and other mollusks. Whales and dolphins evolved from a four-legged scavenger and still have small pelvises that never disappeared. Tuna can swim seventy miles per hour, a faster knot than the cheetah can run on land. Ocean sponges lack nervous, digestive and circulatory systems, yet they are still alive. Jellyfish spawn daily. An oyster’s blood is colorless. A narwhal’s tusk is a tooth. A shrimp’s heart is in its head.
Once when I was seasick aboard a sailboat, I sat on its bow and pictured what was beneath me: snake-like fish hidden in forests of kelp, sharks the size of dogs and sharks the size of cars, whales by the hundreds directly beneath the boat, capable of capsizing us. I imagined their whole world as busy and complicated as my own. For a split second, leaning over the onyx-tinted water, I wanted to let go of the railing and slide into brine. Perhaps a whale would mistake me for her calf, feed me and take me in or a shark might eat me and I would finally know what their sandpaper skin actually felt like. But even if I could get down there among them, I could never open my eyes to actually see.
Melville was of the same mind when he wrote, “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.”
I was not the first person who wanted to be a whale. Our boat was off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest where Native American tribes spent generations in worship of the divine mammals. Members of the Makah tribe would emulate whales in the ocean, swimming and diving, spouting water from their mouths. It was the same as wanting to be someone with fabled powers like dressing up as a witch on Halloween.
In a dispatch from the Calypso, Cousteau tells us that sperm whales travel in herds characterized by one male and several females – his harem. Sometimes a young male will challenge the standing male and if he wins, he takes over the harem. The defeated male is left to cruise the depths of the ocean alone for the rest of his life. Cousteau calls these lone whales Emperors.
A flying fish’s wings are actually pectoral fins that they’ve learned to angle into updrafts. Hammerhead sharks have 360 degree vision of vertical planes. Lobsters, like insects, have a thorax. A walrus uses its tusks to form holes in the ice. Sea lions remember more than any other animal in the ocean. There are Type A orcas. There are no leg requirements for a starfish. Not all stingrays sting. Plankton has no control over its own destiny.
From the deck of the Calypso, Cousteau tells us about his “kitoon.” He has discovered a harem of whales and is eager to give chase. “To find a whale is tricky, to keep track of him is even more difficult,” he muses. The kitoon is part kite, part balloon. It is a blinding white zeppelin that Cousteau attaches to the whale’s dorsal fin. The adventurer does this carefully explaining a vulnerability of the sperm whale: “The monarch of the deep suffers from the legendary disease of European royalty – hemophilia.”
Cousteau’s kitoon trails behind the whale at the end of 2,800 feet of rope. Along the rope, he has attached aluminum foil bow ties making the kitoon’s tail visible to the naked eye. “To study the unknown,” the voiceover explains, “untried tools must be used.” The whale swims far from the boat with a circus-like science project trailing behind him in the air.
From the adventurer: “The men of Calypso are explorers and as venturing where no man has before, there is no man to tell him how. Others came to the sea to kill the leviathan, plunder his riches, chase him to the brink of extinction. Now the task is to save him but we cannot put this beast under a microscope or fashion an aquarium that can hold him. So we must grope for methods and construct crude pieces of apparatus to help.”
But the kitoon only lasts for a short time. Though the sperm whale migrates at the ocean’s surface, he conducts the rest of his life at its depths. The whale dives and the kitoon is pulled from the sky, downward toward the bottom of the ocean. Its 2,800 feet of rope is not long enough, the line snaps as the kitoon hits the water. Cousteau’s apparatus can no longer chase the whale and now floats peacefully skywards as if finally freed to do whatever it pleases. In Cousteau’s generation a whale’s life went deeper than what he could observe at the surface, he could only know what those surface acts were willing to tell him.
“The maddest challenge of all is in our desire to film the whale underwater,” Cousteau says presciently.
Salmon know instinctively the rivers in which they were born and return to them to die after years in the open ocean. Sharks are the only fish with eyelids. The male seahorse carries his babies to term. Cuttlefish can still change their patterns accurately to camouflage themselves despite being colorblind. Whales have brain lobes solely for registering emotion. Whales have body hair. Whales enjoy flight. Whales care about other whales.
Along the back of the sperm whale we see beak scrapes and suction rings,
evidence of the giant squid. Cousteau got glimpses of the whale, but today we can see the full thing on high definition, right in our living rooms. We see the serrated teeth and the human eyes. Perhaps the only thing that remains unknown about the beast is the perpetrator responsible for his battle wounds.
This is what I like most about the giant squid. We know that catfish have 27,000 taste buds and that dolphins only sleep with half their brains, we know every inch of every inch of everything, but the giant squid lurks just out of scientific grasp and thus must still live in our minds. Beachcombers occasionally stumble upon tentacles or a body of one might be dragged in with a fishing net, but otherwise scientists spend lifetimes in search of the fleeting creature. Lore still surrounds the species. In David Grann’s piece The Squid Hunter he writes, “it has been said to be larger than a whale and stronger than an elephant, with a beak that can sever steel cables.” That no one knows for sure, our imaginations are left to decide the true identity of this beast.
In January, an unmanned submarine off the coast of Japan in the North Pacific Ocean filmed the first footage of a giant squid. It seemed that another odyssey had come to its end, and that the giant squid, like the sperm whale, could join the ranks of the real. I resisted the footage for nearly a month before I realized I was being a curmudgeon. Had Cousteau been alive for this, he would have clicked the link immediately. I braced myself for disappointment and opened the Discovery Channel’s website.
A light is cast in pitch black water and is useless save for illuminating the submarine’s glass front. A bundle of white tentacles float in from the bottom of the frame, suspend and curl in the shot for a brief moment. The silhouette of the suction cups on one of the tentacles looks like the teeth of a zipper. The squid hovers like a ghost and then sails away back into the darkness, in the end allowing the world just a glimpse of its secret life. Just a glimpse, like what Cousteau was so accustomed to from the deck of the Calypso, Ahab from the Pequod. I closed my computer satisfied that the giant squid could still exist as capable of falling whales and submarines. Just as Melville wrote about the elusiveness of Queequeg’s home, “it is not down on any map; true places never are,” this beast was still mine in my mind.
Kea Krause is a second year MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels, www.ebbartels.com.