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Warm Whales

April 24, 2023

There are 17,500 people participating in searches for theoretically predicted elementary particles at CERN.[1] There's a smaller number of literati who search for the conjectured Great American Novel, a novel whose narrative captures an essential aspect of being American. This is a moving target, since what was American in the 19th century is different from that of the early 21st century.

An early candidate for the Great American Novel was Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). Another is Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1819-1891), published in 1851. Moby-Dick has 136 chapters, plus an epilogue, and it's fundamental plot is known by all. Perhaps one CERN physicist or another in his/her quest for some elusive particle can be compared with Captain Ahab in his quest for the sperm whale, Moby Dick. One aspect of this book is that it's presently read just by students as a required school assignment. The reason for this is that it's a boring book.[2]

Captain Ahab on his hunt for the elusive WIMP

Captain Ahab on his hunt for the elusive WIMP, a weakly-interacting massive particle thought to be a possible origin of dark matter.

In chapter 113 of Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab asks a blacksmith to make a harpoon, not using water as a quench, but blood.

(Wikimedia Commons image by Pete Simon, modified. Click for larger image.)

Moby-Dick is boring, since the well known plot is intermixed with too much detail about the 19th century whaling industry. It's assessed that 75% of the book is filler material.[2] As if motivated by being paid by the word, Melville writes about whale anatomy, including the skull shapes of sperm whales, the history of whaling, and whaling techniques and equipment.[2] Moby-Dick is first on a list of five classic novels not worth reading.[3] A Google search for Moby-Dick is boring yields more than two million results.

To decide for yourself, Project Gutenberg has a free download of Moby-Dick in various formats.[4] In the past, when brick and mortar book stores were prevalent, it was easy to flip to random pages of a book to get an idea of its content. I've written a short C language program (source code here (browse.c)) that gives random sentences from a book text file. The program is compatible with the UTF-8 files at Project Gutenberg. Here's one such snippet from the 2701-0.txt file of Moby-Dick.

There are those this day among them, who, though intelligent and courageous enough in offering battle to the Greenland or Right whale, would perhaps - either from professional inexperience, or incompetency, or timidity, decline a contest with the Sperm Whale; at any rate, there are plenty of whalemen, especially among those whaling nations not sailing under the American flag, who have never hostilely encountered the Sperm Whale, but whose sole knowledge of the leviathan is restricted to the ignoble monster primitively pursued in the North; seated on their hatches, these men will hearken with a childish fireside interest and awe, to the wild, strange tales of Southern whaling.

southern right whale

Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis).

One distinguishing characteristic of the southern right whale is the absence of a dorsal fin.

Photo by the University of Auckland southern right whale Auckland Islands research team

The unusual weather that's plagued the United States last winter should be enough to convince the skeptical that climate change is upon us. Sea temperatures are rising as a consequence of global warming, as evidenced by rising sea level caused by thermal expansion of seawater.[5] Many sea creatures are sensitive to this temperature rise, and the more mobile are migrating to cooler parts of the oceans. Ocean foragers, including whales, have been forced to move to the areas to which their food sources have migrated.

Evidence for this is found in a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences authored by a huge international team from more than thirty research institutions, including the University of Groningen (Groningen, The Netherlands), the University of Auckland (Aotearoa, New Zealand), the University of Tasmania (Hobart, Australia), the British Antarctic Survey (Cambridge, United Kingdom), the Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires, Argentina), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, Seattle, Washington).[6-7] The lead author of the paper was Solène Derville of Oregon State University.[6-7]

Southern right whales are a a wide-ranging marine predator, living from about 30°S latitude up to Antarctic ice, more than 60°S latitude.[6-7] They are large, slow-moving whales of mostly black color with no dorsal fin, a V-shaped blowhole, and a white callosity on their heads.[7] They eat the small crustaceans, krill and copepods.[7] Right whales were hunted to near extinction, and their global population fell to a low of 500. The species recovered, somewhat, and by 2009 there were an estimated 2,200 in New Zealand waters.[7]

The right whale study examined contemporary whale skin samples and whaling records back to 1792 that show how southern right whales have altered their feeding habits.[7] A total of 1,002 skin samples from six genetically distinct southern right whale populations were analyzed for carbon and nitrogen isotopes in a methodology that accounted for both spatial and temporal variation in the Southern Ocean phytoplankton isotope distribution.[6] The historical isotope distributions were compared with the contemporary distributions during the same seasons.[6] This analysis revealed changes in the whales' feeding patterns in recent decades.[7]

The foraging grounds have shifted in the past thirty years, particularly in high latitudes, and this shift is likely caused by climate-associated changes in prey availability; that is, the whales were forced to relocate to where their prey could be found.[6-7] In the last thirty years, the southern right whales increased their foraging of mid-latitudes in the South Atlantic Ocean and southwest Indian Ocean in the late austral summer and austral autumn.[6] They likewise slightly increased their high-latitude (greater than 60°S) foraging in the Southwest Pacific Ocean.[6] As the authors state, such monitoring of marine predators may enable the tracking of anthropogenic effects on aquatic ecosystems.[6]


  1. 2017 statistic from CERN Website.
  2. liz larsen, "Why 'Moby-Dick' is Awful," The Junction Journal, February 24, 2020.
  3. Rachel Hall, "5 Classic Novels Not Worth Your Time," studybreaks.com, June 30, 2018.
  4. Herman Melville, :Moby-Dick; or The Whale," Project Gutenberg. The Plain Text, UTF-8, file (1.2 MB) is found here.
  5. Understanding Sea Level - Thermal Expansion, NASA Website.
  6. Solène Derville, Leigh G. Torres, Seth D. Newsome, Christopher J. Somes, Luciano O. Valenzuela, Hannah B. Vander Zanden, C. Scott Baker, Martine Bérubé, Geraldine Busquets-Vass, Kris Carlyon, Simon J. Childerhouse, Rochelle Constantine, Glenn Dunshea, Paulo A. C. Flores, Simon D. Goldsworthy, Brittany Graham, Karina Groch, Darren R. Gröcke, Robert Harcourt, Mark A. Hindell, Pavel Hulva, Jennifer A. Jackson, Amy S. Kennedy, David Lundquist, Alice I. Mackay, Petra Neveceralova, Larissa Oliveira, Paulo H. Ott, Per J. Palsbøll, Nathalie J. Patenaude, Victoria Rowntree, Mariano Sironi, Els Vermeuelen, Mandy Watson, Alexandre N. Zerbini, Emma L. Carroll, "Long-term stability in the circumpolar foraging range of a Southern Ocean predator between the eras of whaling and rapid climate change," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 27, 2023, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2214035120
  7. Centuries of whaling data highlight likely climate change effect, University of Auckland Press Release, March 1, 2023.

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