The monstrous whale known as aspidochelone was characterized by two distinctive behaviors. First, the whale possessed the ability to entrap its prey, usually fish, through the emission of a sweet, seductive odor released from its mouth. Unsuspecting fish were attracted by the scent, only to be devoured when the whale’s cavernous mouth snapped shut.
“Bad to the bone”?  The Unnatural History of Monstrous Medieval Whales 

This poem is so fun to say aloud and it nearly is sensible:

Cethegrande is a fis, / The moste that in water is. / That thu wuldes seien get, / Gef thu it soge wan it f let, / That it were a neilond / That sete one the se sond. / This fis that is unride, / Thanne him hungreth he gapeth wide; / Ut of his throte it smit an onde, / The swetteste thing that is o londe. / Therfore othre fisses to him dragen. / Wan he it felen he aren fagen. / He cumen and hoven in his muth; / Of his swike he am uncuth. / This cete thanne his chaveles luketh, / Thise fisses alle in suketh. /
– Middle English Bestiary (British Library Arundel MS 292) [13th century]



When whales were monsters…

In medieval society, animals served as “scapegoats, mirror images and representations of human reality.
– "Bad to the bone”?  The Unnatural History of Monstrous Medieval Whales


teratology now means a study of deformity, in the olden days it referred to monsters

writhing sea monsters of the deep… whales were monstrous

hell lay inside their mouths (jonah’s experience)

they were often depicted with horns and scales.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 6:6): Whales (ballenae) conceive through coition with the sea-mouse. (Book 12, 6:7-8): Whales are immense beasts, with bodies equal to mountains. They have their name from emitting water, for the Greek ballein means emit; they raise waves higher than those of any other sea beast. They are called monsters (cete) because of their horribleness. The whale that swallowed Jonah was of such size that its belly resembled hell; as Jonah says (Jonah 2:2): “He heard me from the belly of hell.” – medieval bestiary



Hexavalent chromium (chromium-6) is a toxin found in tissue samples of sperm whales. It’s a known carcinogen, mutagen and teratogen (”makes monstrous”). A compound used in the pigment and metal industries, it can easily make its way into water sources and out into the ocean if industry’s proper waste disposal methods are sloppy or ignored.



“hexavalent chromium is a major baddie for whales, corroding the genetic material in their cells and increasing their risk for cancer and reproductive problems. I didn’t realize that we all cross hexavalent chromium’s path pretty much every day. It’s in rust inhibitors, paints, dyes and inks. The yellow lines on our roads have hexavalent chromium in them. It’s even cast in the movie Erin Brockovitch as the antagonist.  Still, listening to Wise tell me about his research on it, it’s remarkable to learn that in the entire big blue sea there’s enough hexavalent chromium to make its way into sperm whales and endanger their health.”
– Ocean Alliance Toxic Gulf sperm whale research 2010-2015

Tissue biopsy is a commonly used technique of obtaining skin and blubber samples from cetaceans at sea. A crossbow is used to fire purpose-made darts, with special tips, at the side or back of the animal. The darts are designed so that on impact with the animal they penetrate through the skin and a couple of centimetres of blubber and then pop back out. They do not penetrate anywhere near the muscle of the animal. The dart has a float attached to one end so that when it pops out of the whale it floats and can easily be retrieved from the sea. Tissue biopsy with a crossbow is used throughout the oceans of the world to obtain these samples, and animals rarely show any response, besides the occasional flick of the tail, to being darted. The overwhelming majority of animals that have been darted continue behaving as they were before darting and re-approach the small boat or ship.

Here is a very detailed account of sperm whale darting using a compound bow, to obtain biopsies, (1990)

A video of biopsy sampling using a compound bow

why whales?

Some backstory on this project.

in 2015, I was participating in a class exercise about false mythologies. As in: take an issue, and come up with a speculative fiction to explore it. I was interested in whales, and something I’d read a long time ago, about beluga whales in the St Lawrence river, who lived in the effluence of aluminum factories, which  is very toxic. These whales were described as “mobile superfund sites.” Then in 215, i had started looking into ship containerization, and in this class exercise, which was about 20 minutes, connected the size and shape of whales to containers. 

What if… OK: there’s one more piece of this: at the time of the class exercise I was reading James Nestor’s book DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves, and in it is a chapter on some wild scientists and free divers who are working in the Pacific to learn more about whale language. So I asked: what if we had cracked the language code of a species of whales (roughly 40 feet long, rather container-shaped), and strike a global accord or convention wth them? A select few whales would carry some of our impossible toxic waste (the way that garbage barge couldn’t land to offload) in exchange for complete protection at a species level from hunting or environmental degradation of large areas of the oceans. 

I’m not sure it’s such a great idea, but it got me started. It’s a dark story yes, but one in which non humans get to have some kind of legal agency. And it works on some kind of system of sacrifice which should be familiar to any human who sends their young to war or to become martyrs. And so here I am. 

This 40 foot whale would be either a sperm whale (the largest toothed whale), or a right whale or a humpback whale (both of which are baleen whales meaning they have baleen plates instead of teeth and filter their food out from the water they take into their mouths). I decided to focus on sperm whales for reasons I hope will unfold in future Days of Making. Most superficially, they are a bridge between deep and shallow ocean depths, where they do hunts as long as an hour long, for animals like the Giant squid. In addition, they were hunted heavily, and have had a really strong recovery. So the animal you see in the rubber stamp image is a sperm whale.