⊕ annotations

Stranded Objects / Stranded Whales

Kathleen Coyne Kelly

1. Map

Olof Månsson [Olaus Magnus], Carta marina et Descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum, diligentissime elaborata Anno Domini 1539 Veneciis liberalitate Reverendissimi Domini Ieronimi Quirini [A Marine map and Description of the Northern Lands and of their Marvels, most carefully drawn up at Venice in the year 1539 through the generous assistance of the Most Honourable Lord and Patriarch Hieronymo Quirino].

Two whales, northwest quadrant: one mistaken by sailors for an island, the other pictured as rammed into one of the Faroe Islands (halfway between Norway and Iceland).

2. Animals

Bartholomeus Anglicus, Livre des propriétés des choses (French translation by Jean Corbechon), Paris, 1447. Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 399, fol. 241r.

Alas, depictions of landlubbers only. Still, delightful.

3. A whale of a time

Hokey poster.

What this assemblage-paper isn’t about, but could be: blubber and flense; Moby Dick; Vladimir Putin shooting a gray whale with a crossbow for “research purposes”; the 46 rock carvings in South Korea (dated 6000 BCE) showing people hunting whales; the history of Basque whaling, which is documented as early as the twelfth century, and perhaps earlier, to the seventh century; cetologists; narwhal teeth mistaken for (or deliberately passed off as) unicorn horn; whale oil; corsets made of baleen; declining populations of whales due to hunting; Japan and whales; Minke whale on menus in Reykjavik; the Icelandic Phallological Museum which displays (among other examples, including human) a four-foot sperm whale penis in formaldehyde; the animated narwhal clip that went viral on YouTube; the bestiary; the Physiologus; Jonah; Leviathan; the monstrous aspidochelone; Bryant Austin’s astoundingly intimate and utterly beautiful photographs of whales; whales mistaken for islands; Maori whale riders; compounds with whale in them; a whale of a time.

4. Cartoon narwhals

Ok, here is the animated narwhal clip. Beware this siren song.


Narwhals, Narwhals swimming in the ocean
Causing a commotion cuz they are so awesome!
Narwhals, Narwhals swimming in the ocean
Pretty big and pretty white they’d beat a polar bear in a fight!
Like an underwater unicorn, they’ve got a kick ass facial horn!
They’re the jedi of the sea!
They’ll stop Cthulu eating ye
Narwhals, They are Narwhals! Narwhals! They are narwhals
(Just don’t let them touch your balls)
Narwhals, They are Narwhals! Narwhals!
(Inventors of the shish kebab!)
Narwhals, Narwhals swimming in the ocean
Causing a commotion cuz they are so awesome!
Narwhals, Narwhals swimming in the ocean
Pretty big and pretty white they’d beat a polar bear in a fight!
Like an underwater unicorn, they’ve got a kick ass facial horn!
They’re the jedi of the sea!
They'll stop Cthulu eating ye
Narwhals, They are Narwhals! Narwhals! They are narwhals
(Just don’t let them touch your balls)
Narwhals, They are Narwhals! Narwhals!
(Inventors of the shish kebab!)

5. Cetaceans on the beach

What this assemblage-paper is about: not catching cetaceans, but finding them, rounding a curve on the beach or looking down a cliff and beholding the whale on the strand, stranded. The serendipitous sighting of a dead whale by aventure, as they say in medieval romance, by chance.

This collection is also about stranded objects—decorative objects carved from whale’s bone and whale’s teeth, taken from whales both found and hunted. These objects function as tokens of loss and promises of redemption: exo-remains, they are things left over, things repurposed, translated from the natural world into one’s palm. These dead things nevertheless possess life, have afterlives, not only the life that we project onto them, but also the life with which they weigh in, on their own.

6. Stranded objects

In Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany, Eric L. Santner writes of the “second generation of Germans trying to constitute a viable legacy out of poisoned totemic resources” for whom, he says,

it might yet be possible to discover in the lives, the words, the faces and bodies of the parents traces of another history, another past, that might have been but was not. The “oppressed past” that Benjamin speaks of is, in other words, one that never in fact took place but would nevertheless become available to future generations. This past would be, as Benjamin suggests, a construction. It would be pieced together … These stranded objects would be composed of symptoms.
Symptoms, as Freud has taught, are traces of another, unconscious reality that haunts one’s conscious reality like a revenant being. In the present context, they would be the traces of knowledge denied, of deeds left undone, of eyes averted from pain, of shades drawn, of moments when it might have been possible to ask a question or to resist… For the postwar generations it is … a matter of seizing those chances now, of constructing an alternative legacy out of the archive of symptoms and parapraxes that bear witness to what could have been but was not. It is a matter of reading the “documents” of the elders the way Benjamin looks at a photograph. That “tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject” that Benjamin searches out in the photograph can … be read as an index of a historical opportunity that was left unrealized but that still remains available as a sort of energy potential that continues to dwell in history.

7. Strand

OED: Old English strand (? neuter) = Old Frisian strônd (West Frisian strân, straun, North Frisian strön, strunn), Middle Low German strant (strand-), masculine (whence Dutch strand, neuter, modern German strand, masculine), Old Norse strond (strand-), feminine, border, edge, coast (Swedish, Danish stran).

1. a. The land bordering a sea, lake, or †river; in a more restricted sense, that part of a shore which lies between the tide-marks; sometimes used vaguely for coast, shore. Cf. sea-strand n. Now poet., arch. or dial.

d. the Strand: the name of a street in London; originally so called as occupying, with the gardens belonging to the houses, the ‘strand’ or shore of the Thames between the cities of London and Westminster.

e. Used vaguely (like shore n.1 1c.) for country, region, esp. a foreign country. Chiefly poet.

8. Stoop

The 75th Annual Sanibel Stoop Scoop, 2012.

The beaches of Sanibel and Captiva Islands off Florida’s west coast are sometimes so covered with the exoskeletons of mollusks that one can barely walk for the slide and crunch. These invertebrates are quite capable of cutting the bottom of one’s feet and ruining one’s vacation.

The beaches are also covered with dozens of shell collectors, bent at the waist, hands sweeping the sand, their buckets or huge plastic piña colada cups spilling over with bodily remains, insensible to the sun setting gloriously behind them over the Gulf of Mexico.

9. Shell collecting

Because seashells are important to the islands’ chain of life, and because Sanibel and Captiva are refuge islands where all life is considered precious, the State of Florida has outlawed the collecting of live shells on the island. “Live shell” is defined as any specimen containing an inhabitant, whether or not the mollusk seems alive. The law also protects sand dollars, starfish, and sea urchins. All shelling is prohibited in J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Shellers [sic] are urged to limit even their empty-shell collection. Hauling away seashells by the bucketful diminishes supplies and the value of a single shell. For, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Gift From the Sea wrote while visiting these islands, “One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach. One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few.”

10. Micro shell

>Grains of sand, often bits of shells, at 300x magnification.

And we can get smaller: The tip of a spiral shell has broken off and become a grain of sand. After being repeatedly tumbled by action of the surf this spiral sand grain has become opalescent in character. It is surrounded by bits of coral, a pink shell fragment, a foram (a type of protozoa) and volcanic material.

11. A terrible beauty: a dead whale

Forty-two-foot long dead sperm whale, Long Beach, WA; perhaps female

And we can get bigger. Occasionally, one stumbles upon the gigantic and the outsize on the beach.

12. Dead whale, closer

Close-up of the sperm whale’s jaw, with teeth.

Anthropocentrically speaking, the ratio of a full-grown male sperm whale to a six-foot human is 700:1. The only way for a beachcomber to “collect” such a find is with a photograph. Unless one happens to be carrying a chain saw.

13. Scale

Anthropocentric scales of size:

14. More stranded whales

Wampanoags and a whale, Martha’s Vineyard, 19th c. (Real estate ad, Love Martha's Vineyard Living)
Pilot whales, Donegal, Ireland, 2010 (BBC News)
Pygmy blue whale, Wainui Beach, South Taranaki, New Zealand, 2011 (TVNZ ONE News).

15. Gulls and dunes

One June day about ten years ago on Martha’s Vineyard, I kayaked over Chilmark Salt Pond to the barrier beach on the Atlantic. I saw dozens and dozens of gulls wheeling over the high dunes.

16. Close encounters with a dead whale

Pilot whale on Lucy Vincent Beach, Chilmark, 2012 (Alas, I didn’t take a picture. This photograph is from the same beach several years later, in the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette)

It wasn’t until I climbed over the dunes that I saw what was attracting the gulls’ interest. A huge, dead, stinking, rotting, whale.

The Environmental Police of Massachusetts (and mostly everyone else) have four options when it comes to disposing of dead whales (after they have been examined and catalogued): leave them be, bury them, tow them out to deep water, or detonate them. Really.

17. Whale find I, 20th c.

Maori traditionally treasured stranded whales for their jawbones, which were used for carving. When three sperm whales beached and died at Paekakariki in March 1996, Maori from the region removed the jawbones from two of the three. The third whale was washed out to sea.

In some parts of the world, finding a dead whale is a major boon: the meat may be too rotten to eat, but the whale can still be repurposed for oil, bones, and teeth.

18. Whale find II, 7th c.

In his Life of the abbot Philibert of Jumièges (c. 608–684), Ermantarius of Noirmoutier recounts that the abbot had prayed for oil for lamps and that “a monk came and announced that the sea had left a dead fish … on the shore; from its flesh the brothers drew thirty modii of fat for light” (c. 860; qtd. in Jim Chevalier, “Whaling in Medieval France”).

19. The medieval Norwegian Gulaþing and whales, 13th c.

The Gulaþing was an annual parliament held at Gulen on the west coast of Norway from c. 900-1300 C.E. The Gulaþinglova (law), legislation compiled over the centuries and extant in the Codex Ranzovianus (1250), contains this:

A hauld or a man of higher rank, [if he comes upon a whale that is no more than] eighteen ells in length, has the right to the entire whale; any other man [has the right] to one half as long. If a man comes upon a whale, he shall cut it up before witnesses, or let him leave the backbone, the head, and the tail fin; then these parts, if he has no witnesses, shall testify for him. He shall cut it up in the water and shall not carry [the parts] up on the green sod; if he does bring them up, the owner of the land shall have one-half of the whale, unless he [the finder] shall redeem it with the fine for trespass, thinking the whale of greater worth. If a man proceeds to cut up a whale where the grass is sufficient to feed a ewe and a lamb in the summer, he shall redeem the parts with the fine for trespass if he brings them up [on the land]. (126)

20. The stranded whale in Grettir’s Saga, 14th c.

“At that time in Iceland there came such a hard famine that another like it has never happened. Almost no fish were caught, and nothing drifted ashore. This lasted for several years” (19). So begins the episode known as “The Battle at Rifsker” in Grettir’s Saga (or The Saga of Grettir the Strong [Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, 14th c.]). Various factions fight for driftage rights to a finback whale. Some carried “proper weapons,” while others used the axes and cleavers that they had brought with them to cut up the whale. It is said that a Viking killed another with a whale-rib. The following was composed to mark the encounter:

I’ve heard how steely
weapons were used,
when whale-blubber was wielded
at Rif Skerries. The fighters kept exchanging
lethal whale-meat missiles.
That’s how these boors
play the game of battle. (20)

Here, a stranded whale, Ellen Szabo says, “serves as nothing more than a pretext for the human drama that ensues. In fact, the whale is quite literally the stage for the drama—serving as the platform upon which the battle is fought, while its bones and blubber become weapons and missiles” (12).

21. The whale in Eirik’s Saga, 14th c.

In Eirík’s Saga [Eiríks saga rauða, 14th c.], one of the two Norse accounts of the settlement of Vinland, we’re told that Eirík and his crew spend the winter at Straumsfjord, and “it was a harsh winter.” Desperate, “they entreated God for something to eat … Shortly afterwards they found a beached whale and flocked to the site to carve it up” (42).

22. Dead whale watching, 16th c.

Albrecht Dürer, who apparently longed to see a whale, noted that on November 24, 1520:

At Zierikee in Zeeland a whale has been stranded by a high tide and a gale of wind. It is much more than one hundred fathoms long and no man living in Zeeland has seen one even a third as long as this is. The fish cannot get off the land; the people would gladly see it gone, as they fear the great stink, for it is so large that they say it could not be cut in pieces and the blubber boiled down in half a year. (As quoted by Jim Chevalier, “Whaling in Medieval France.”)

23. A gam of whales (or a float, gam, herd, mob, pod, run, school, shoal, troupe)

OED: gam. Perhaps < English regional gam, variant of game n. (see gam at game n. ß. forms). Borrowing < a cognate of game n. in one of the modern Scandinavian languages is perhaps also possible (see forms at game n.), although there is no evidence for this particular use.

Alternatively, perhaps shortened < gammon n.4 2.

1. colloq. Originally: a social meeting among whalers at sea. Later more generally: a social gathering, a ‘get-together’; a chat, a gossip. Chiefly U.S. regional (New England) in the extended sense.

Depictions of stranded whales—and, often, of the crowds that gathered to examine them:

1. Olof Månsson [Olaus Magnus], Carta marina (1572 edition) (detail).
2. A whale being flensed on the Faroe Islands. André Thevet, Cosmographie Universelle (1575). Woodcut.
3. Jan Wierix, Three Beached Sperm Whales (1577).
4. Hendrick Goltzius (1598), sperm whale on the beach near Berkhey. Victoria Sears Goldman notes: “Goltzius’s drawing reveals some anatomical inaccuracies, such as mistaking the whale’s fin for an ear” (Goldman, “‘Omen and Oracle’”).
5. Anonymous after Goltzius (1598+), The Stranded Whale On the Beach at Zandvoort.
6. Matham Jacob after Goltzius (1598+), Baltimore Museum of Art.
7. Jan Saenredam, Stranded Whale near Beverwijk, 19 December, 1601 (1602). Engraving. New Bedford Whaling Museum, Kendall Collection. Victoria Sears Goldman writes:
Jan Saenredam’s Stranded Whale near Beverwyck of 1602 … surpasses all other prints of the subject in its sense of spectacle, with its great marching throngs of curious spectators, high panoramic viewpoint, and dramatic sky. Saenredam went to great lengths to assure the viewer of the accuracy of his reporting: the Latin inscription at the top provides the date and location of the event, as well as the whale’s measurements, and states that the artist has reproduced the whale’s proportions and parts with geometrical exactitude.
While observers were careful to prod, probe, and measure the helpless creatures, beachings were not merely zoological and arithmetic exercises: they were viewed as significant historical events that did not merely cause concern for the animal’s struggle; many sought and saw deeper meaning, viewing them as “oracular signpost[s]” or portents of impending disaster. (Goldman, “‘Omen and Oracle.’”)
7.a. Detail, Stranded Whale near Beverwijk. Julia Whitty writes: “The scene heaves with the industry of Lilliputian townsmen scaling the impromptu mountain with hobnails, hands, and knees. In this close-up you can see two men probe the whale’s eye with a sword” (“Two Whales, 400 Years Apart”).
8. Italian broadside on the stranding of a whale near Ancona, Italy (25 February, 1602). Engraving. Barthelmess Whaling Collection, No. 846. Klauss Barthelmess writes: “This broadside was possibly sold by the owners of a travelling exhibit featuring the skeleton of this whale” (“Stranded whales in the culture and economy of medieval and early modern Europe”).
9. Woodcut illustration, of a pilot whale near Katwijk, Holland (20 September, 1608).

Barthelmess Whaling Collection, No. 241. Note the rotted guts spilling out. In the pamphlet, the condition of the carcass is compared to a “rotting” peace treaty between the Netherlands and Spain (Barthelmess has catalogued 145 European broadsides and pamphlets about whales stranded between 1531 and 1792):

A large whale, thrown up out of the blue sea (gods, let it not be a bad omen!), washed up on the beach near Katwijk. What a terror of the deep Ocean is a whale, when it is driven by the wind and its own power on to the shore of the land and lies captive on the dry sand. We commit this creature to paper and we make it famous, so that the people can talk it about it (Goldman, “‘Omen and Oracle.’”).
10. Esias van de Velde, Stranded Whale (1617). Collection of the Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon, Mass.
11. Jan Jonston, Historiae Naturalis de piscibus et cetis libri V, cum aeneis figuris. Illustrated by Caspar and Matthias Merian (1657; 1660). Copperplate.
12. James Sowerby, Minke whale found floating dead on the Doggerbank, North Sea (9 January, 1787). Pencil and watercolor drawing. Barthelmess Whaling Collection, No. 709. It was then exhibited at the Lyceum, Strand, London. This drawing is probably the second oldest depiction of this whale species (Barthelmess, “Stranded whales”).

24. Very like a whale

Otis finds a piece of driftwood on Crane Beach, MA, reminiscent of a whale.

Also very like a whale … a drumlin. Usually described as egg-shaped or as upside-down spoon-shaped, a drumlin is a deposit of glacial till; they often occur in “pods” (my word). One can identify the direction of a given glacier flow by the distinctive shape: high in front, lower in back. To see a drumlin on the horizon reminds me of a whale’s sloping back. Here’s one I see often, White’s Hill at Stavros Reservation near Crane Beach, Essex, MA.

Drumlin like a whale

25. Now you don’t see it

Hendrick van Anthonissen, View of Scheveningen Sands (1641), Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, U.K., before restoration.

Look at the people in the painting. They gaze into the distance, their backs to the viewer. What are they looking at?

26. Now you do

Hendrick van Anthonissen, View of Scheveningen Sands (1641), after restoration in 2014.

After conservator Shan Kuang took a scalpel to the painting (its varnish was terribly yellowed), the reason for the beachcombers’ interest was revealed. A stranded whale.

Why cover it up? Kuang, who thinks the whale was painted over in the eighteenth century, says: “Today we treat works of art as entities, but in the previous centuries paintings were often elements of interior design that were adapted to fit certain spaces – or adjusted to suit changing tastes” (Kennedy, “Restoration reveals hidden whale in 17th-century Dutch painting”).

27. Antique shopping

At Jane Slater’s Oversouth Antiques.

Another June day on the Vineyard, I walked into an antique shop in Menemsha and was immediately drawn to two carved whale’s teeth in the shape of penguins. I bought them.

28. The whale’s tooth turned penguin

I emailed the New Bedford Whale Museum, inquiring about my penguins. Senior Maritime Historian Michael P. Dyer kindly replied:

Thank you for inquiring of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The ivory penguin carved form is peculiar to the modern whale fishery of the 20th century. The Whaling Museum in Sandefjord, Norway has a quite a good collection of them. Penguins being native (mostly) to the South Polar regions where the bulk of 20th century factory whaling took place, the teeth were carved into this common form given their natural shape… . So few of the penguin carvings have any clear provenance that it is challenging to date them. We are fortunate in having an ensemble crafted by a Soviet whaleman in 1961 that includes a sperm whale tooth inscribed with a scene of a catcher boat and a sperm whale ivory penguin. While it’s clearly art, it’s also clearly too young to be considered a 100+ year old antique. Who knows exactly how old your pieces may be? They are certainly 20th century and almost certainly artifacts of the modern whale fishery. As you know, the laws surrounding ivory sales are stringent and it is entirely up to you to determine the age and provenance of your pieces before you can sell them, or, I believe, transport them across state lines. I believe that they may be donated within your state.

29. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972

According to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, antique teeth can be sold and shipped across state lines in any form. Pre-act teeth can be sold and shipped across state lines so long as they are carved. Any other teeth cannot be can be sold and shipped across state lines, but can be carved and sold within a given state.

The sperm whale is protected as a threatened (downlisted from endangered) species under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. It is illegal to import or export sperm whale ivory and bone. As collector’s items, whale teeth are now classified as: 1) antique; that is, anything verified as dating to 1872 or older—that is, a hundred years before the Marine Mammal Protection Act went into effect, or as 2) pre-act; that is, teeth dated between 1872 and 1972 and accompanied by a U.S. government certificate. All other whale teeth must be accompanied by a notarized statement from the seller that the teeth were in her/his possession before 1972 (See Robert Weiss, “About Ivory” and James Callahan, “The Ins and Outs of Ivory Law”).

30. Decorative ivory, mainly whale’s teeth, serendipitously encountered—and a common medieval simile

As part of this project, I’ve been collecting random examples of decorative ivory (including elephant ivory) and whale parts. Here’s where I’ve taken photographs, in chronological order, from fall 2012 to fall 2014:

  1. American Museum of Natural History, New York: exhibit, “Whales of the Deep”
  2. Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Edgartown, MA
  3. Vineyard Haven, MA: traveling exhibit of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, built and launched in 1841 and restored
  4. Brimfield Antiques Show, Brimfield, MA
  5. Essex, MA, antique shop
  6. Reykjavik, Iceland, shops along Laugavegur
  7. Bucharest, Romania, antique shops in Old Town

A common simile comparing the white perfection of a lady’s skin was often deployed in religious and love lyrics and romance. Some examples:

“His wyfe as white as whale’s bone” (Sir Isenbras)
“A mayden as white as whales bone” (Sir Eglamoure)
“Her skin as white as whales bone or milk” (Stephen Hawes, The History of Graunde Amour and la Bel Pucel, conteining the knowledge of the Seven Sciences and the Course of Mans Life in this Worlde, or, The Passetyme of Pleasure, printed 1509).

31. Whale bone repurposed as dwellings and furniture

Olaus Magnus writes:provident Nature has taken thought for the inhabitants [of Norway] and enabled them to construct houses and all the requisite furniture within the gigantic ribs of [whales] … it is a known fact that the bones which remain are so strong and enormous that people can produce from them entire homes: walls, doors, windows, roofs, chairs, and even tables. The ribs are twenty to thirty feet long, or even more, while the spinal vertebrae and the forked bones of the colossal skull are themselves of no small magnitude. (Qtd. in Szabo, “Bad”)

Actual building with whale’s bones gives way to fancy: the poet of the fifteenth-century lyric “Lovely lordyngs ladys lyke” hopes to convey a luxe exoticism when he describes an allegorical birdcage with a door framed in whale’s bone (4):

32. An Anglo-Saxon treasure: The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket (early 8th c.).

The Franks Casket is a small whalebone casket (9” l x 5” h x 7” d) carved with scenes taken from Christian lore and Roman and Germanic mythology. Running around the front panel is an alliterating runic inscription that most scholars describe as a riddle, or, at least, riddling (the answer is provided). It is thought to be of Northumbrian origin, though it was found in Auzon, France. Collector and curator Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97) bought it from a Paris antiquities dealer and then donated it to the British Museum. The right-side panel is in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (see Leslie Webster, “The Franks Casket”).

33. The runes on the Franks Casket

The runic inscription on the front of the Franks Casket, transcribed:

The runic inscription on the front of the Franks Casket transliterated into Anglo-Saxon:

Fisc flodu ahof on fergen-berig
Warþ gas-ric grorn þær he on greut giswom
Hronæs ban.

Note: one could also begin with hronæs ban. It’s an infinite loop.

Anticipating eighteenth-century “thing” narratives, the casket-once-a-whale tells the story of its own stranding.

Two translations of the runic inscription on the front of the Franks Casket:

The flood cast up the fish on the mountain-cliff
The terror-king became sad where he swam on the shingle.
Whale’s bone
. (Hough and Corbett, 106)
The fish beat up the sea on to the mountainous cliff. The king? of terror became sad where he swam on to the shingle. Whale’s bone. (Webster, Making 101)

34. Found poems, now stranded in this collection

John Hollander famously said that “anyone may ‘find’ a text; the poet is [s]he who names it, ‘Text’” (215). I beachcombed the Web, using the search term “stranded objects.”[37] Here are a few of the resulting “texts”:

Stranded IT objects.
A stranded object pushed by waves. The Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London.
Stranded objects blown up by torpedoes.
A stranded object turns out to be a dead girl. William Henry Thomes, A Whaleman’s Adventures in the Sandwich Islands and California. 1890.