Whales have probably always fascinated humans due to their incredible size, their mysterious lives in the depths of the sea, and their unusual intelligence.
Whales have probably always fascinated humans due to their incredible size, their mysterious lives in the depths of the sea, and their unusual intelligence. These things have made whales important to the tourist industry, as well as an inspiration to writers. Many have been thrilled by the tale of Moby Dick, the enormous white whale who dragged his hunters deep below the waves.
But whales are also of interest to scientists, including Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir, adjunct lecturer at the University of Iceland. Scientists look at whales from a very wide range of perspectives, and Edda Elísabet's research focuses on the behaviour of the animals. Whales have undoubtedly been living in the sea around Iceland for thousands of years and have been considered a resource ever since the settlement. It is likely that the settlers of Iceland were able to hunt whales, since there is considerable mention of whales in ancient sources. 17 Icelandic Sagas include descriptions of the relationship between humans and whales in the early years of the settlement period. 'Beached whale' is still a term in Icelandic used to refer to a great windfall – in the old days it would have meant an entire larder of food washing up on the beach. The way people used a beached whale, therefore, was once of critical importance and the Jónsbók law codex of 1281 contains a section discussing beached whales. Incredibly, these ancient laws on beached whales still form the basis of current law in Iceland.
Whales are mammals who are extremely well adapted to life in the sea and can be divided into two categories: baleen whales and toothed whales. There are around eighty species of whale and scientists believe they are probably descended from a common ancestor who returned to the sea 55 million years ago. Whales can range from just under one and a half metres long and roughly 50 kilos up to 34 metre long, 190 tonne behemoths like the blue whale, the largest animal on earth. The humpback whale, the subject of Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir's research, is no shrimp either. Humpback whales often exceed 13 metres in length, with the female weighing up to 40 tonnes and the male a little lighter, but still up to 35 tonnes. Humpback whales are also our superiors when it comes to longevity, able to reach almost a hundred years old entirely without medical care.
Continue reading at University of Iceland.
Image via University of Iceland.