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Inside Nature's Giants: Moby

Dick & Joy, sitting in a tree...

If enthusiasm is infectious, let's hope we all get whale
blubber in our mouths.
It's two a.m. in Kent's Pegwell Bay; "this
woman never sleeps" says Mark Evans - a
small wonder when Professor Joy
Reidenberg spends her evenings hacking
up putrifying road- (or water-) kill in her role
as Channel 4's 'go-to' gal for large

A sperm whale has died half a mile out

from the shore and it’s a tragedy. Yet these
scientists do their best to get the most
knowledge from this mysterious toothed
whale. My head was full of information
about v-shaped rib-hinges, spermy wax
and sonar echolocation by the end of this shockingly educational documentary.
These whales are 20 metres long and 60 tons in weight, necessitating the use of heavy machinery
and chainsaws to saw at and flay the unfortunate sushi. Pitted with cookie-cutter scars from vicious
squid, we witnessed Moby Dick's.. well... dick, his hinged ribs that allow for the pressures of
atmosphere in deep-sea diving and the rarest and possibly most sacrilegious act ever seen:
Richard Dawkins reading from the bible. Yet you can clearly see his reason for appearing: this
programme proves that evolution is truly beautiful.

Mark and aptly named Joy

spent around 20 hours
dissecting this scarred and
wrinkled leviathan and
those who watched were
delighted and disgusted in
equal measure. This was
not a time to eat or even
order your dinner, as Mark
talked about how
'tantalising' the opportunity
to see its heart was. The
blubber itself was around a
foot deep and, with an
almighty thud the first chunk
was off, spluttering into the
monster's blood like a
whale-crouton into tomato soup. Joy was straight in, looking at its rectus abdominus and talking of
how fresh and what great shape the animal was in. But its shape was now mightily altered and it
exploded into her face; "someone get a wipe. I know enough to keep my mouth shut". Understated,
ebullient and excited, Joy was as sharp as the blades she jammed into its quivering hide when
talking to the camera.

We also spent time with the ultimate freedivers who can slow their heart beats down to 35 beats a
minute: a paltry effort when compared to the whales' one or two. When forcing air deeper into their
lungs, they can spend around three minutes underwater, being periodically checked to see if
they've suffocated to death. Whales go around a kilometre deep, with pressures of up to 100
atmospheres. What wasn't fully explained at this point was why whales don't get the bends; but this
was hinted at when Marine Biologist Malcolm Clark, a fan of whales since he was 24, got a hunk of
dark, myoglobin- and oxygen-enriched whale meat out of his freezer and offered to cook up a feast
for the intrepid presenter.

The most incredible and interesting part of this programme was not the joy of Joy's excitement
over the whale's large, prehensile member, or Mark's quip, "Joy, I know you love the penis", but the
etymology of the sperm whale's name. The whale's head is full of spermaceti: a thick, rich waxy
and oily substance, much prized by pre- and post-war hunters. Named for its resemblance to
semen, it helps the animal descend to the dark depths of the ocean, using its body to heat and cool
the spermaceti which acts as a depth regulator, weighting or buoying it as necessary. This
substance was instrumental in the industrialisation of our country, providing lubricant for machinery
and lighting as a lamp oil, important for its smokeless flame. Remember that next time you call
someone a whale: it's a compliment.

Back to Joy. She's now ripping connective tissue off the whale's muscle as casually as you or I
would rip stickers off a new DVD box and she's loving it. She explains how the tendons tightly
close the whale's large nostril; "we can't close our nostrils" she says, prompting my entire family to
snort in unison in a feeble attempt to prove her wrong.

Having shown us every inch of this whale, the tide comes in and out again and the whale is ready
to be consigned to its watery grave once again. "Despite all this, what a privilege", says Mark. I
couldn't agree more.

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