Belfast Telegraph

Why do we gather to stare at a dead whale? Because they're incredible

It might appear ghoulish, but Laurence White says it’s no great surprise we want a glimpse of this wonder of the world laid low

What was it that brought hundreds of people to Portstewart beach to view the remains of the huge fin whale?

Certainly they were not there like those rubbernecking motorists who slow down at the scene of a motorway pile-up simply to gawp at an unfolding tragedy.

Rather, they were, in the main, drawn by a sense of affinity with and wonder at a majestic marine mammal that most, if not all, had never seen in the flesh before.

Sure, many of us have marvelled at the wondrous creatures which inhabit the deep viewed through the lenses of programmes produced by naturalists like Sir David Attenborough. But those beautifully shot explorations of the natural world, rather than sate our desire to know more about the other species which inhabit this planet, simply increase our inquisitiveness.

The fin whale - the second largest after the blue whale - is a true leviathan of the ocean which can grow to around 89 feet in length and weigh nearly 74 tons. This was a juvenile, a mere 43 feet long, but still an incredible sight.

It took three diggers working in harmony to drag it onto a low loader to be driven away and disposed of.

Could there be a more unfitting end to its existence than to be unceremoniously dumped in a landfill site after rendering?

A magnificent sight in its natural home, it was reduced in death to so much blubber, left to rot among the detritus of our own human existence.

The cause of its death is still a mystery, but then so is so much of the life of whales, who spend their time alternating between their feeding grounds and their safe breeding grounds.

Each year they undertake marathon migrations from one to the other. What we do know about them simply endears them to us.

They are truly gentle giants - if you forget the orcas (killer whales) - who belie their enormous size with astonishing grace as they play on the surface of the waves, even performing astounding leaps out of the water which seem to defy the laws of physics.

Like us, they are inquisitive, and their interaction with humans is seldom if ever threatening. In some respects they are like super-sized dolphins.

Little wonder that in every holiday resort bordering the seas where they are prevalent, the demand for whale viewing boat trips is an ever constant.

It helps that they are hard to miss even from afar and, of course, everyone wants to see them surface and spray water from their blowholes.

Like us also, they are also highly social and intelligent mammals. They swim in family units, with mothers gently coaxing their young along as they take part in their annual migration.

And then there are the strange sounds that they make. Recordings of so-called whale songs are hypnotic and calming, the perfect antidote to the constant hubble and bubble of modern life which forever fills our senses.

The question is not what we like about whales, but rather what's not to like about them.

They have been around for an estimated 55 million years. The blue whale is the largest creature that ever lived, and even whale calves, which are born from 13-16 feet in length, are bigger than most other animals we ever get the chance to see.

They are quite simply a wonder of the world, so it's no great wonder that so many turned up at Portstewart beach to see one of those giants of the deep that had been laid low.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph