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Monday, 8 August 2011

Inside Nature's Giants: Moby Dick & Joy, sitting in a tree... K.I.S.S.I.N.G

If enthusiasm is infectious, let's hope we all get whale blubber in our mouths.

It's two a.m. in Kent's Pegwell Bay; "this woman never sleeps" says Mark Evans - a small wonder when Professor Joy Reidenberg spends her evenings hacking up putrifying road- (or water-) kill in her role as Channel 4's 'go-to' gal for large mammals.

A sperm whale has died half a mile out from the shore and it’s a tragedy. Yet these scientists do their best to get the most knowledge from this mysterious toothed whale. My head was full of information about v-shaped rib-hinges, spermy wax and sonar echolocation by the end of this shockingly educational documentary.
These whales are 20 metres long and 60 tons in weight, necessitating the use of heavy machinery and chainsaws to saw at and flay the unfortunate sushi. Pitted with cookie-cutter scars from vicious squid, we witnessed Moby Dick's.. well... dick, his hinged ribs that allow for the pressures of atmosphere in deep-sea diving and the rarest and possibly most sacrilegious act ever seen: Richard Dawkins reading from the bible. Yet you can clearly see his reason for appearing: this programme proves that evolution is truly beautiful.

Mark and aptly named Joy spent around 20 hours dissecting this scarred and wrinkled leviathan and those who watched were delighted and disgusted in equal measure. This was not a time to eat or even order your dinner, as Mark talked about how 'tantalising' the opportunity to see its heart was. The blubber itself was around a foot deep and, with an almighty thud the first chunk was off, spluttering into the monster's blood like a whale-crouton into tomato soup. Joy was straight in, looking at its rectus abdominus and talking of how fresh and what great shape the animal was in. But its shape was now mightily altered and it exploded into her face; "someone get a wipe. I know enough to keep my mouth shut". Understated, ebullient and excited, Joy was as sharp as the blades she jammed into its quivering hide when talking to the camera.

We also spent time with the ultimate freedivers who can slow their heart beats down to 35 beats a minute: a paltry effort when compared to the whales' one or two. When forcing air deeper into their lungs, they can spend around three minutes underwater, being periodically checked to see if they've suffocated to death. Whales go around a kilometre deep, with pressures of up to 100 atmospheres. What wasn't fully explained at this point was why whales don't get the bends; but this was hinted at when Marine Biologist Malcolm Clark, a fan of whales since he was 24, got a hunk of dark, myoglobin- and oxygen-enriched whale meat out of his freezer and offered to cook up a feast for the intrepid presenter.

The most incredible and interesting part of this programme was not the joy of Joy's excitement over the whale's large, prehensile member, or Mark's quip, "Joy, I know you love the penis", but the etymology of the sperm whale's name. The whale's head is full of spermaceti: a thick, rich waxy and oily substance, much prized by pre- and post-war hunters. Named for its resemblance to semen, it helps the animal descend to the dark depths of the ocean, using its body to heat and cool the spermaceti which acts as a depth regulator, weighting or buoying it as necessary. This substance was instrumental in the industrialisation of our country, providing lubricant for machinery and lighting as a lamp oil, important for its smokeless flame. Remember that next time you call someone a whale: it's a compliment.

Back to Joy. She's now ripping connective tissue off the whale's muscle as casually as you or I would rip stickers off a new DVD box and she's loving it. She explains how the tendons tightly close the whale's large nostril; "we can't close our nostrils" she says, prompting my entire family to snort in unison in a feeble attempt to prove her wrong.

Having shown us every inch of this whale, the tide comes in and out again and the whale is ready to be consigned to its watery grave once again. "Despite all this, what a privilege", says Mark. I couldn't agree more.

Posted by Tannice for the custardtv.blogspot.com.  Follow Tannice on Twitter

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