ANIMALS IN SEA HISTORY
Bonnet of the Southern Right Whale
By Richard King
In the great American novel Moby-Dick, Ishmael says he is particularly fond of a painting by the French artist, Ambroise Louis Garneray. He believes this work of art accurately depicts the hunting of right whales, and he especially appreciates the details in which “sea fowls are pecking at the small crabs, shell-fish, and other sea candies and macaroni, which the Right Whale sometimes carries on his pestilent back.”
Later in the story, Ishmael describes again the little ecosystem that forms on the right whale’s skin: “Fix your eye upon this strange, crested, comb-like incrustation on the top of the mass-this green, barnacled thing, which the Greenlanders call the ‘crown,’ and the Southern fishers the ‘bonnet’ of the Right Whale.”
What on a whale could look like a frilly cotton cap?
Herman Melville published Moby-Dick in 1851. He had spent over two years as a whaleman himself in the South Pacific. So, when he wrote about whales, he took care to get the biology as correct as he could, both from his own experience and his vast reading on natural history.
Today biologists refer to the patches of hard, dark skin tissue on a whale as the callosities. Naturalists used this word in Melville’s day-but more for calluses and patches of rough skin on land animals. Within the first several months of life, each right whale develops a tough keratinized tissue on his or her lower lip and chin, above the eyes, and from the tip of the upper lip to back around the blowhole. Once formed, the whale callosities are then colonized by small invertebrates, in particular by two kinds that give the callosities color-cyamids and barnacles. Rather than using fluke or fin characteristics, modernday scientists identify individual right whales by photographing this pattern of growth on their heads.
Cyamids, which Ishmael refers to as crabs-and maybe also jokingly as sea candies and macaroni-are creatures that naturalists in the 1800s called “whale lice,” a common name that’s still in use today. Although they do look like tiny crabs or lice, cyamids are amphipods, which are small shrimp-like invertebrates. If they do look like tiny crabs or lice, cyamids are amphipods, which are small shrimp-like invertebrates. If you’ve seen a “beach flea” on the beach, you’ve seen an amphipod. Cyamids, usually pale grey, white, or orange, have five pairs of walking legs. Three of these pairs evolved to function like claws in order to dig and hook into the whale’s skin. Cyamids are roughly the size of your fingernail.
The second type of animal living on the right whale’s crown is a barnacle. Twenty or so species of “whale barnacles” live on all kinds of marine mammals, but the southern right whale is the only one of the three right whale species that regularly hosts barnacles on its callosities. The southern right whale is also the only species of baleen whale that we know with confidence that Melville saw up close during his time as a whaleman. He might have seen the lovely Tubicinella major barnacle, for example, which is common on the right whale. This barnacle builds an accordion-style column of shell that burrows deeply into the callosity so it can hang on. The green color that Ishmael describes in Moby-Dick could be from algae growing on the shells of the barnacles and a tinge of the color of the skin callosity itself.
Herman Melville was not the only person in the 1800s to return from a whaling voyage and write about the living bonnet of the right whale. In 1840 Frederick Bennett, an English surgeon and naturalist traveling on a whaleship, wrote that “the True-Whale [Right Whale] of the South … has its body encrusted with barnacles and other parasites, often to the extent of resembling a rugged rock.” In 1855 a whale man sailing aboard the Clara Bell in the South Atlantic wrote this in his journal:
“The right whale is a very dirty mam[m]al compared to others of the same tribe. I have noticed they are covered with small insects very much resembling crabs-about half an inch in diameter. On the end of their nose is a bunch of barnacles about 18 inches wide. This the whalemen call his bonnet-and when you see a whale just rising out of water it has the appearance of a rock, the barnacles are enormous-as much as two inches deep-the boys often roast them and eat them the same as oysters.”
Right whales seek out enormous patches of zooplankton for food, and the attached barnacles feed off the smaller plankton that float around their hosts, while the cyamids primarily eat flakes of the whale’s skin. Although there’s no evidence that these barnacles and cyamids are actually parasites-meaning that they harm the whale-it is possible that either of these hitchhikers can introduce irritation and, just like on a boat, may, in large concentrations, reduce the whale’s swimming efficiency.
So when Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick of the right whale’s “crown” or “bonnet,” he was writing accurately, if poetically and humorously, about the barnacles and cyamids that colonize the callosities of living right whales. Now, if someone offers you sea candies to eat-you might want to be careful.
For more “Animals in Sea History” or educators.mysticseaport.org.
Did You Know?
The Age of Sail was said to be the domain of “wooden ships and iron men,” but sailing ships also had boys on their official crew lists.
Today, you have to be 14 years old before you can get a job in most states in the US, but in the Age of Sail both merchant ships and navy vessels signed on boys as young as seven years old as regular members of the crew.
What were these kids doing on board sailing ships?