Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

The North Pacific wrong whale is an often-overlooked cetacean. Photo by Mel Hermanville
The North Pacific wrong whale is an often-overlooked cetacean. Photo by Mel Hermanville

The Wrong Whale In All The Right Ways

New research reveals how the North Pacific’s wrong whale escaped exploitation during whaling’s heyday.

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by Amorina Kingdon

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The slaughter of whales in the North Pacific in the 1800s was unprecedented in human history. Whalers targeted humpback, minke, fin, and blue whales for their profitable blubber and baleen, but new research suggests that they left one species unscathed. In the recently released book The Wrong Side of History, College of the Northeast Pacific biologist Kim di Georgio introduces the little-known North Pacific wrong whale and details how at least 50,000 of them escaped exploitation.

Like its cousin, the North Atlantic right whale, the wrong whale’s name comes directly from descriptions of it in ship logs. The right whale was described as the “right” whale to take because of its superior blubber and baleen. The “wrong” whale, in contrast, was considered inferior for a variety of reasons, says di Georgio.

Oil rendered from the wrong whale’s blubber, for instance, was useless for lamp fuel. Once lit, the oil produced a corrosive smoke that severely irritated the eyes. “It was basically like being pepper sprayed every time you tried to read a book or do some sewing by lamplight,” says di Georgio, who attributes the caustic gas to a unique acidic compound in the blubber that allows the whale to dive to an extreme depth and remain there for days. “By 1830, you couldn’t give away oil from a wrong whale.” But the whale wasn’t just a commercial flop on account of its faulty flab—its baleen was equally insufficient.

In the 19th century, manufacturers created hundreds of goods from tough, yet flexible, whale baleen—from billy clubs, to collar stays, to corsets. But as di Georgio explains, the wrong whale has a parasite called a plateworm living in its baleen. The parasite tunnels through the plates and makes tiny, invisible holes. “This weakened baleen was prone to sudden bursting, and wrong whale corsets quickly became unpopular with the ladies,” di Georgio says. Allegedly, Queen Victoria once attended a state dinner in a corset that popped after just a few bites of roast, and she was forced to excuse herself. Scientists suspect the Queen was wearing the wrong whale.

Because of its long deep dives, no complete photo of the North Pacific wrong whale exists. This artist’s rendering, based on a compilation of sailors’ reports, offers a clue. Illustration by Moe B. Dix

But perhaps what sealed the wrong whale’s exclusion from the lucrative whale trade was its stench. The wormholes in the baleen accumulate bacteria that in turn create an unbearable funk in the air, detectable for kilometers each time the animal surfaces to exhale. This likely played a big role in keeping it safe, according to Paul Chang, curator at Portland’s North Pacific Whaling Museum. “Think of the dumpster behind a brewery and then add a couple of port-a-potties from a music festival,” he says with a grimace. “Even tough, seasoned whalers couldn’t stomach it.”

Di Georgio hopes that with The Wrong Side Of History the wrong whale will finally get the recognition it deserves. “Everyone thinks ‘survival of the fittest’ means strongest or fastest,” di Georgio says, “but it just means the best suited to the environment.” The stinky whale with the weak baleen that surfaces only once every few days might have been all wrong for consumers, but those very traits helped deter hunters and make sure the whale was all right for the long run.

(And, yes, this is fake news. Check the publication date.)