19 November 2010


(The whale within the iceberg. 1884. By George R. Halm. From the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.)

Believe it or not, whales sometimes end up frozen in glaciers, some of which may then calve out with icebergs to float around the ocean for a spell. 

The illustration above, by New York artist George R. Halm (1850-1899), tells a visually compelling story—though the words to this tale have been forgotten, as best I can tell.

So what could the picture be about? Well, the engraving includes images of men at work on the sea. Maybe whalers.

Handwritten at the bottom of the print is the word "Whaling"—perhaps a catalogue notation from an early librarian.

The detail in the lower left might be an image of a sunken ship. Maybe a whale-wrecked ship. With nothing left afloat but the crow's nest? I'm not sure. Was there once a story of a wronged whale and a haunted iceberg on an intercept course with a few doomed sailors?

Moby Dick was published 33 years before George R. Halm's engraving—priming the public mind for tales of vengeful behemoths.

moby dick intro from Carys Banks on Vimeo.

Interestingly, in his description about the the blubber of sperm whales, Herman Melville included an eerie reference to ice seamen:

For the whale is indeed wrapt up in his blubber as in a real blanket or counterpane; or, still better, an Indian poncho slipt over his head, and skirting his extremity. It is by reason of this cosy blanketing of his body, that the whale is enabled to keep himself comfortable in all weathers, in all seas, times, and tides. What would become of a Greenland whale, say, in those shuddering, icy seas of the North, if unsupplied with his cosy surtout? True, other fish are found exceedingly brisk in those Hyperborean waters; but these, be it observed, are your cold-blooded, lungless fish, whose very bellies are refrigerators; creatures, that warm themselves under the lee of an iceberg, as a traveller in winter would bask before an inn fire; whereas, like man, the whale has lungs and warm blood. Freeze his blood, and he dies. How wonderful is it then—except after explanation—that this great monster, to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it is to man; how wonderful that he should be found at home, immersed to his lips for life in those Arctic waters! where, when seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued in amber.

For another ice whale story only slightly less mysterious, I found a 1959 paper in Nature, about the 1958 discovery of a whale entombed in a glacial moraine beyond which the glacier had retreated in Svalbard (also known as Spitzbergen), north of mainland Norway.

(The Isefiorden, Spitzbergen, Norway, c. 1890-1900. From the Library of Congress' Flickr photostream.)

Disappointingly, I can only read the abstract, since even with my exorbitantly expensive personal subscription to Nature I am not entitled to read back issues from 1959. (O, ♥less policy.)

The abstract is tantalizing:

THE preservation of Pleistocene or Recent land mammals in the Siberian permafrost has long been known, but the literature does not appear to include mention of marine mammals preserved in ice. Particular interest, therefore, is attached to the discovery in 1958 of part of a whale carcass entombed in the ice-cored moraine of Sveabreen, Ekmanfjord, in Vestspitsbergen. The north-eastern lateral moraine of Sveabreen projects into the fjord about two miles beyond the ice-front, and the find was made by members of the Birmingham and Exeter Universities Spitsbergen Expedition near the seaward tip.

(Bowhead whale. Photo by Ansgar Walk, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

 What species of whale was it? Were they able to determine? 

There was a huge whaling and walrusing industry in Svalbard beginning in 1604—a piratical affair between British, Dutch, Danish, and French mercantile companies, who built forts to defend their commercial interests.

(Photo from the BBC.)

Their primary targets were bowhead whales—the real ice whales.

(The whale-oil factory of the Amsterdam Chamber of the Greenland Company on Amsterdam Island near Spitzbergen. 1639. Cornelis de Man.)

In 1996 a bowhead whale melted out from another Svalbard glacier, bringing with it a few juicy clues about its past... including a death date circa end of the Little Ice Age... perhaps from the time of the earliest commercial whalers.

Here's the abstract of the 1997 paper in Polar Research:

An 8 m long carcass of a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) melted out from remnant glacier ice in the lateral moraine of the Jemelianovbreen glacier in August 1996. Folded and sheared sediment bands in the ice suggest that the whale was incorporated during an advance of the glacier. The whale's longitudinal axis was oriented parallel to the direction of the ice-flow, with the thinnest posterior part dipping upflow. The posterior section was best preserved with muscles and blubber, although the entire skin surface was strongly decomposed and only a thick fibrous surface was left of the blubber. The abdominal wall was holed, most likely by marine organisms, and partly filled with a compacted mixture of well-sorted gravelly beach sediments and fat. the whale seems to have been incorporated into the glacier together with glaciomarine sediments and carried by the flowing ice to an altitude of ca. 15 m. Jemelianovbreen is a tidewater glacier with two known surge-episodes. The first and most extensive of these occurred ca. 1900 AD and reached ca. 7 km outside the present coast-line. Radiocarbon dating of a fragment of a caudal vertebra yielded 345 ± 40 14C years BP (1535-1660 cal. AD), suggesting that the whale lived some time during the last part of the cold period known as the Little Ice Age.

(Antarctic toothfish, Dissostichus mawson, a Nototheniid. Photo by Paul Cziko, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Whales aren't the only mysteries trapped in ice. A 1962 paper in the Polar Record recounted all kinds of entombed marine life found by early Antarctic explorers. The abstract:

In February 1902, members of Scott's Discovery expedition found the remains of a fish 18 in. long on the surface of the "pinnacled ice" near the ice front of the Ross Ice Shelf in McMurdo Sound. In 1903, a party under Wilson found three Nototheniid fishes, sponges, shells, and seaweeds among similar ice on the floating section of the Koettlitz Glacier. The fishes, which were up to 48 in. in length, were all headless. They resembled a specimen caught in a seal blow-hole near the Discovery winter quarters, whose head was bitten off by a seal before it could be landed, but whose body weighed 40 Ib. and was 46 in. long. This fish was a Notothenia, close to N. colbecki Boulenger. In 1911, a party under Taylor found another large headless fish, which may have been as much as 4 ft. long, embedded in the ice of the Lower Koettlitz Glacier some 5 miles from its seaward end, and among the pinnacled ice near the Dailey Islands the same party found corals, shells, sponges, patches of sediment, and about a dozen small fish. The ice in this region was so rich in sponges that it was difficult to get spicule-free ice for cooking.

(The pinnacled ice of McMurdo Sound, photographed by Reginald Skelton for the British National Antarctic Expedition—aka Scott's Discovery expedition—1901-1904. From the Royal Collection.)

A news story out of Greenland in 1985 aroused the mystery again, along with a new round of theorizing:
A dead whale frozen in an iceberg 13 feet above the surface of the frigid waters off south Greenland is mystifying scientists and curious residents of a tiny Greenland settlement. No one can figure out how the 59-foot sperm whale died or how it ended up in an icy grave high above the water drifting a few miles off the tiny settlement of Alluitsup. First came speculation the beast was a prehistoric creature buried for eons in the ice cap that makes up 85 percent of Greenland. But examination showed that the whale, the size of which indicates it was a male, was identical to contemporary sperm whales. And it emitted a rank smell, making fossilhood unlikely... Close inspection reveals the whale may have been the victim of a hunter`s harpoon. In its neck is a cylindrical hole 15 inches in diameter and three feet. But that does not explain how the beast came to rest in an icy grave bobbing 13 feet above the water. One theory is that it sprang into the air and landed unluckily on a large iceberg, perhaps stuck in a narrow crevice. Marine biologists in Greenland theorize the whale may have been attacked by killer whales, or, stranded in a shallow area, became disoriented and died. They believe the whale, weakened or dead, could have drifted over the submerged portion of an iceberg and become an involuntary hitchhiker when the iceberg separated and a submerged portion rose under the whale.

Cutting Room Floor: "Deep at Sea" from Tristan Bayer on Vimeo.

(The filmmaker describes: "This cut is made with unused footage that we shot in Dominica which would otherwise be left on the 'Cutting Room Floor.''')

The papers:

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