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A Peculiar Care: June 15, 1811

June 15, 2011

By the middle of June, it was clear that 1811 was to be a good year for Scoresby and the crew of the Resolution. Scoresby was usually an unsentimental man, but as a scientist his interest in whales went beyond their commercial value. Although he held to the common view that humans had been provided with nature as a bounty to be exploited and enjoyed, he was also curious about similarities he noticed between the creatures he killed, and human characteristics. Decades before Darwin began working on his Origin of Species, Scoresby and others had noticed physical similarities between humans and other species, but they did not understand how or why they might have come about. One example of this is Scoresby’s observation that the bone structure of the fins of the Common Whale resembles that of a human hand; and he was also troubled by the social behaviour of whales. On Saturday, June 15:

Being near a patch of Ice a sucking [baby] Fish came up close by a Boat laid on the Watch they struck it and presently the Mother arose nearly touching them and having got entangled with the line drew it out pretty briskly to 100 Fathoms[.] 5 other Boats were now sent around the spot to endeavour to entangle the mother[.] She was presently seen running furiously and frequently stopping short and returning seemingly in great agony for the loss of her young which it appeared she could not find out[.] For many several times she acted in a similar manner seeming not to fear the Boats which constantly pursued her[.] At length one of the Harpooneers hove at her and drew another struck and shared the same fate another delivered by a boatsteerer held fast and not long afterwards four Harpoons were fast[.] In about an hour after this she was killed thus becoming a prey from mutual affection her young one was all at which she aimed its safety was her pecular care in danger she feared nought nor neglected aught to accomplish its rescue.

While this was not a scientific study of whale behaviour, and Scoresby’s description of the mother whale steers close to anthropomorphism, the observation is nevertheless a pertinent one in the context of recent research into cetacean intelligence and ‘culture’. He reflected further on this episode in his 1820 book An Account of the Arctic Regions, indicating a conflict between the evident suffering of the whale, with which he empathised, and the purpose of the trade. In the end, Scoresby enjoyed the hunt:

There is something extremely painful in the destruction of a whale, when thus evincing a degree of affectionate regard for its offspring, that would do honour to the superior intelligence of human beings; yet the object of the adventure, the value of the prize, the joy of the capture, cannot be sacrificed to feelings of compassion.

 

 

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