SUNDAY MAGAZINE

`Whale' of a story

Magnificent: A humpback whale at play. Photo: AFP  



BY V. GANGADHAR

Hard, fatty substances on the beach could make you a millionaire.



Unlike sharks, whales do not interfere with people and Hollywood has left them alone.

"CALL me Ishamel!" "Thar' She blows!" Unforgettable lines from Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, chosen by Somerset Maugham as one of the ten best novels ever written. On a lighter vein, former Random House editor and humorist, Bennett Cerf wondered if the novel would have become so popular had it been named "Moby Richard".The whale is one of God's mightiest creations and makes news all the time. It is needed for the world's ecology and laws have been enacted to protect it. Yet, nations like Norway and Japan vigorously protest the ban on hunting whales because it is big business for them.

Magnificent creatures

Whales occasionally stray into shallow waters close to the coast. The huge creatures, unfortunately, are not used to shallow waters and most of the time die. Every time a whale dies, the world loses a wonderful creature. Unlike sharks, whales do not interfere with people and Hollywood has left them alone. We have a number of shark movies, most of them on the horror side, but hardly any whale movie. Hollywood director John Huston did film Melville's Moby Dick with Gregory Peck in the lead role, but it was a movie centred on the theme of good and evil. Two whale stories, one sad and the other happy, were recently reported in the media. Millions watched in amazement on TV, the plight of a bottlenose whale which was spotted in the shallow waters of the Thames River. A whale in the Thames! If American President George Bush had stated he had been briefed by the CIA that the arrival of the whale was an act of the terrorists, British Prime Minister Tony Blair would have believed it and ordered the bombing of the whale! Ultimately, the whale died, swaddled in blankets on a rusting salvage barge when attempts to take it to the deeper waters failed. That was the sad whale episode. Now for the happy story. Australian fisherman Leon Wright and his wife, Loralee, came across an unusually solid fatty object weighing around 15 kg while walking along the beach. They ignored the object, which they found again after some days. This time, they took it home in their truck. It turned out that the fatty object was a chunk of ambergris, sought after by perfume manufacturers. Ambergris, in fact, is solidified whale vomit which is thrown up by the huge mammals to get rid of hard objects like squid beaks. Valued at $20 a gram, the Leon Wright discovery fetched the family around $2,95,000. What a piece of luck for the beach walkers.

Looking ahead

I occasionally walk the Juhu Beach in Mumbai and, after reading the ambergris episode, keep my eyes open for hard substances. Of course, whales do not come anywhere near Mumbai beaches. They are so dirty that the mammals will die of pollution. Who knows, if one of the species did turn up, the pollution or the eatables thrown into the sea could make it throw up. I only hope I am there when that happens. Dead or alive, in fact or in fiction, let us salute the whale. Moby Dick is pretty serious stuff but the true story of Leon Wright should inspire us to walk along the beaches and keep our eyes open.