#b#The Monkey-Rope#/b#

Moby-Dick: or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville is the book that changed my life, a grail of what was possible in literature and in the life of the seas. The work was read closely in a course taught by Lawrence Thompson, who cautioned us not to neglect chapters on “the whale stuff.” Professor Thompson was the lead scholar on the book, having written Melville’s Quarrel with God (1952), which contended that the work was essentially heretical — anti-Christian — as would be seen as the epic tale unfolded. Young Melville had dedicated his opus, “In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Thompson pointed out that when Melville sent the book to Hawthorne, a note was affixed, “I have written a wicked book and feel spotless as a lamb.”

Thompson was Robert Frost’s biographer, but after seeing the way Thompson took apart the quest for the white whale by careful dissection and analysis, the poet began to distance himself. Thompson told me later that he thought maybe the only way to convey the nature and life of the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Frost was to begin with the letters (volume one) of what became a three-volume acclaimed biography.

Moby-Dick is a tremendous yarn, brilliantly told, and it was a tragedy that it bombed in Melville’s own lifetime. This is a little like van Gogh, who sold only a a few paintings out of 2,000 works of art, or Emily Dickinson, publishing fewer than a dozen poems in her lifetime from more than 1,800 found and published by her sister after her death.

Also, seen in the light of subsequent whale science (or cetology), Melville’s account of what we knew of whales then was accurate. Consider only the dazzling definition of the “Hump Back” whale in chapter 32, “Cetology:” “He is the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any other of them.”

That thought prepares one, if you will, for our discovery of the six-octave songs of humpback whales (Science, 1971). If by some miracle, we could bring Melville back for an hour, we would play those tapes that have inspired so many musicians, scientists, and conservationists.

If I go to only one chapter, chapter 72, “The Monkey-Rope,” might well be a point of relevance for this book. Picture the situation. Queequeg, the lead harpooner, is on the back of a slippery mostly submerged whale stripping off the blubber. In Ishmael’s voice we learn, “It was a humorously perilous business for both of us. The monkey-rope was fast at both ends; fast to Queequeg’s broad canvas belt, and fast to my narrow leather one. So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake. So, then, an elongated Siamese ligature united us. Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother; nor could I any way get rid of the dangerous liabilities which the hempen bond entailed.”

Ishmael continues, as any of us might, “I saw this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion [sic] with a plurality of other mortals.”

The depth of this insight carries through this volume, and whale stuff keeps coming up for air throughout the larger narrative.

The interstitching of whale science and writing about the whales is reflected, for example, in an invitation received years ago to speak at Kent State University when a distinguished scholar of Moby-Dick (two books!) was retiring and a three-day conference was convened in his honor. My challenge, as the last speaker, was to describe the accuracy of Melville in depicting the whale against current knowledge of what we know of this still-unknowable tribe. The preparation was fun and the response of Melville scholars encouraging. I learned that Melville, like Aristotle on the dolphin, was surprisingly accurate about the whale in the absence of very little science.

In 2011, on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick, British cetologist Philip Hoare kindly invited me to be a reader of the chapter “The Fountain” from the book. It was an honor since it was an imaginative salute, and each reading was released on a different day and accompanied by a particular original artwork.

As recently as May 30, 2013, as part of the World Science Forum, under the model of the great whale — designed and built by Richard Ellis — at the American Museum of Natural History, I gave a talk on Arctic whales after three women scientists spoke of narwhal behavior, bowhead whale songs, and the challenges of underwater filming in the Arctic.

None of this, and more, would have happened without Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick being woven into my spirit and impelling me first to seek to understand the phonations of the bottlenose dolphin, then writing a piece for Scientific American that became the underlying rationale for whale protection. This led to me serving on the U.S. delegation to the International Whaling Commission, discovering the humpback whale’s song, and leading two expeditions to the Alaskan Arctic to film, observe, and record the majestic bowhead whale, the second documented by the National Film Board of Canada.

Each undertaking propelled the next with the words of Melville in his twenties ringing in my ears, such as: “Can leviathan long endure so wide a chase and so remorseless a havoc?”

Also, I thought, perhaps naively, that greater knowledge of whales and other nonhuman forms of life would lead to more restraint in our exploitation of the living systems that comprise this Earth.

#b#A Pivotal Date#/b#

People ask me, how is it that I, an English major, became so intimately involved in working with whales and their preservation? They may ask, too, was this an extension of my fascination with cetaceans sparked by Melville’s Moby-Dick? Probably. These are fair questions since many of these sketches or tales or anecdotes are about whales.

On December 7, 1961, John C. Lilly MD, came to Princeton to speak in Eno Hall at the invitation of Jack Vernon, a professor of psychology. Lilly had written the first of ten books, Man and Dolphin, in which he postulated a big idea — namely, that the bottlenose dolphin may possess a level of cognition and awareness not dissimilar to us, a notion that was immediately challenged the way most new ideas are. Indeed, Lilly went even further by suggesting that this ubiquitous aquatic mammal may exceed us in range and level of awareness, despite lacking an opposing thumb and forefinger.

After Lilly’s talk, I waited until everyone had left. Then I asked him,

“Where are you going now?”

“New York.”


“By train.”

“May I ride in with you? I have a number of questions.”


I had typed out 83 questions about the book, impelled by my fascination with the dolphin’s quick wit and resilience in dealing with the manifold challenges of captivity, and we got through 51 or 52 of them. Lilly later invited me to come to work with him at his Coconut Grove laboratory, Communication Research Institute. I demurred, saying that I was a literature major who had read Moby-Dick closely, and that many young scientists were pounding on his door for the chance to work with him. He replied that I was the “most curious.”

Lilly kept pushing me. In the summer of 1963, my wife, Hella, and I with the girls traveled to New Orleans and the Southeast for the express purpose of exploring the possibility. Some weeks later I took the job and stayed nearly two years.

It is quite a coincidence to note that in 1968 in the basement in Eno Hall — directly below where Lilly spoke — in Mark Konishi’s laboratory, I did the spectrographic analysis of the humpback whale tapes that led to my discovery, description, and analysis of their songs.

Footnote: The last time I was with Dr. Lilly was on January 26, 1996, at the Fourth Annual Whales Alive Conference at the Four Seasons Resort on Maui.

I had just given the keynote address, “When Will We Crack the Whale Code?” when I was asked to have a conversation with Lilly. The organizers had asked that the interview occur standing up. Why? They were afraid that Lilly might veer into talking about sleep tanks or LSD. He was wearing a white Navy cap with “CETACEAN NATION” handwritten on it, and he appeared in fine fettle, answering all questions posed.

Shortly thereafter, Lilly sold his papers to Stanford University. He died in 2001 at the age of 86.

#b#How Many Words in English?#/b#

In April, 2008, I met Aimee Morgana at the New York Public Library at the launch of David Rothenberg’s eighth book, Thousand-Mile Song. Among scientists and musicians who spoke or played that day were Roger Payne and myself, authors of the cover paper in Science describing the long, complex six-octave songs of humpback whales.

Morgana invited me to visit her home and laboratory. That did not happen for several months, but when I did visit my initial surprise was that N’Kisi, the African grey parrot she had worked with for 15 years, was immediately part of the conversation. He occupied a perch above us. When Jane Goodall first visited, N’Kisi asked, “Where is your chimp?”

Morgana maintains meticulous, extensive records of N’Kisi’s evolving active use of the English language, plus many videotapes, revealing interactions that can only be considered participatory conversation.

I visited a second time in 2011 with my grandson, Matthew, then 15 years old, and we stayed for five hours.

Since I worked with a precocious dolphin, Elvar, on a one-on-one basis in Lilly’s Communication Research Institute in Coconut Grove, Florida, for two years doing experiments morning and afternoon, six days a week, to “teach” Elvar English, I am aware of the challenges. For well over half a century, I have been fascinated by the voices of whales and dolphins.

It is out of this context that Aimee Morgana’s steady yet staggering results with N’Kisi strike me as singular and at the outer reaches of all efforts to date to train a being other than a human to converse. Consider for a moment that the five most successful deliberate efforts with animals (Koko the gorilla, about 1,000 words; Kanzi the bonobo, about 400 words; Washoe the chimp, about 130 words, Nim Chimpsky the chimpanzee, about 125 words; and Alex the parrot, about 100 words) do not all together come to N’Kisi’s vocabulary to date (February, 2015), namely 1,983 words, plus 165 words of his own making.

As impressive as these results are, the undertaking is extremely frail when one considers that N’Kisi almost died when he was bitten by another parrot a couple of years ago and nearly bled to death, and Morgana herself had a serious life-threatening experience in 2012.

The next step is the writing of a book, the elements of which are in hand from the rich, amazing exchanges that have taken place and are thoroughly documented . . . Two frames occur to me in considering the ultimate merit of Morgana and N’Kisi’s work and play. This first is the iconic essay written by Loren Eiseley, “The Long Loneliness,” in 1960 in the American Scholar. The second is Morgana’s laboratory.

Eiseley wrote that as children we speak to animals. As we grow older and think the animals are not responding verbally, we may stop talking to them. The early work of John C. Lilly on the bottlenose dolphin, as initially described in Man and Dolphin, reported a creature with a formidable brain and elegant, supple neurological wiring. The hypothesis offered was that this marine mammal may have a level of cognition and awareness akin to ours, however alien. This startled our species in a way that Copernicus and Kepler stunned our flat Earth ideas, or the way Darwin and Wallace described a theory of evolution in 1859 when our ideas ran to a hierarchy among the animals that put us a little below the angels, or the way Freud and Jung broached the notion of a powerful unconsciousness in our minds that underlies seemingly conscious lives.

Eiseley wrote of the prospect of our ancient longing to communicate with the natural world as something now within the realm of possibility.

The singularity and import of Aimee Morgana’s work with N’Kisi will, we trust, influence our treatment of not only African grey parrots but also other life forms that share our Earth.

#b#Cetaceans In Captivity?#/b#

In September, 1997, Mitchell Fox of Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) of Seattle organized an effort to release Lolita, a female orca in captivity for 27 years in the Miami Seaquarium, to her home waters in Puget Sound. The undertaking was backed by governors and members of the House and Senate.

In my essay making the case in the Autumn 1997 issue of PAWS, I wrote, “the gathering evidence suggests that at least the larger creatures, like orca, are not appropriate for confinement, and that their days in captivity must be lonely and boring in contrast to the life they have known as animate members of a pod, probably a ‘residential’ pod.”

Through the indefatigable and practical leadership of Dave Phillips, an orca called Keiko had been removed from desperate conditions in Mexico City where he was the inspiration for and star of the Free Willy movie. Keiko was transported to a halfway facility in Oregon and nursed back to brimming good health before he was returned to the waters off southern Iceland where he was netted years earlier. The exercise led to mixed results, since Keiko was not able to reintegrate in the home pod.

Worth emphasizing are the unflagging efforts of Paul Spong and hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens to release Corky from SeaWorld in San Diego. In 1993, Corky, who had been in captivity for 28 years and had become lethargic in her small tank, was played a recent recording of the sounds from her original pod (A5) near British Columbia, which she had not heard in a quarter century.

An immense shudder rocked her body as she recognized her family’s voices. I have seen the film shot of this painful cognitive event.

As one reflects on the predicament of Lolita in the Miami Seaquarium, one conjures up that moment in time when Lolita actually returns to her large resident group of pods in Puget Sound (pods commonly referred to as J, K, and L based on early work by the late Michael Bigg and pursued by Ken Balcomb and others).

The first thing to remember about cetaceans is that they are profoundly acoustic animals. I once participated with John Lilly in the capture of a bottlenose dolphin in Biscayne Bay in 1964. We placed the seemingly relaxed dolphin in a sling in a box with water so that the internal body organs would be less depressed by gravity. Even so, during the first hour, the dolphin seemed to go through its entire sonic repertoire, trying to solve the problem of captivity acoustically. The bottlenose dolphin’s acoustic nerve is eight times larger than ours.

Dolphins live in an acoustic world. They use sound to travel, navigate, and find food, and with companions plumb the depths by sound. Putting a dolphin in a small tank is, as the late William Schevill would say, like putting a human in a telephone booth who gets all wrong numbers.

These reflections bring to mind Easter evening 1966, when I spent the night beside the tiny pool containing a 15-foot female orca at the New York Aquarium on Coney Island. The concrete pool was only nine feet at its deepest spot. That meant she could never rest at the surface, since her flukes would touch the bottom, a position intolerable to her. She had to keep stroking continuously to keep her tail up. No awning was provided. The top of her head was blistered from the sun. A Pacific white-sided dolphin swam figure eights beneath her. I had recording gear and a sleeping bag, but she made few utterances through the night, and I didn’t sleep. At dawn I whistled once, and she replied with two whistles. I answered with three whistles, and she with four. I tried five, and she was silent.

Imagine for a moment the reunion that will occur for Lolita in Puget Sound with her extended family, especially if we manage to make those waters safe and secure and an adequate flow of salmon can sustain their appetites. Imagine, if you will, that very first hour when Lolita is placed in some sort of temporary pen in her home waters when possibly some siblings or nieces or nephews or cousins turn up and she first hears the sounds that were the stuff of her childhood.

Imagine for a moment eavesdropping unobtrusively on the sonic exchange, the immediate bursts of whistles and clicks and squawks and bleats that will etch the euphoria of this reunion after such an immense chasm of time. That first hour will be revelatory because these resident pods typically make seventeen different kinds of sound. The variety of sounds they produce are more than sufficient to convey information about their world and their responses to being in it. How rarely we are granted a Rosetta stone moment to begin the decipherment of these exchanges.

In 1968, I put the last sound spectrogram in place after thousands that I made over many months. I understood for the first time that the humpback whale makes a song that repeats like a bird song, only for much longer — say from 12 minutes to half an hour. I was depressed. The song, which unfolds over six octaves, is hauntingly beautiful, and it became the anthem for whale conservation, selling over 500,000 records. We learned later that the song is produced by the male, perhaps to register his presence and availability (what else is new?). But I was depressed. Why? Because I was hoping for some give and take, some real conversation. I was looking for something more.

The yearning or longing for another sentient form of life on this watery orb may, conceivably, begin to be answered in that first hour when Lolita enters her home waters for a long-awaited reunion that will be carefully prepared step by step in the most humane manner we can envision. Therefore, let us do it carefully and well, and then be open to the lessons we will learn once we understand better the ways and wiles and wonders of the orca-societies apparently based on long-standing relationships. Mature, thirty-foot males still prefer not to take a breath apart from their mothers (who are up to a “mere” fifteen feet).

That campaign did not succeed. Lolita was not released — she was too much of a moneymaker.

Postscript: In the spring, 2014, issue of the AWI Quarterly, is a somewhat hopeful article, “Parole Possible for Oldest Captive Orca.” Lolita, now almost 50 years old, was a member of the Southern Resident distinct population segment of orcas when she was captured off Whidbey Island, Washington. Under the Animal Welfare Act, she had been held and displayed in an enclosure long believed to be noncompliant. Comments submitted to the Fisheries Service by the Animal Welfare Institute could lead to her retirement to a sea pen in her native waters where she would once again feel the ocean currents, be well cared for, and not be made to perform or be exposed to loud, artificial music and noise. Here she would finally find peace.

What is at stake here is nothing short of whether we are able to assume the stewardship of life on Earth now that we have, quite unwittingly, found ourselves in that odd and difficult situation. What we may learn from this experience could well affect how we live and how we think of ourselves in relationship to other forms of life in the watery and natural landscape.

#b#When Should One Be Oneself?#/b#

When I returned home in November 1958 after nearly three years’ service in Berlin [with Army Intelligence], I read The Organization Man (1956) by William H. Whyte (1917-1999). I was looking for work and needed a little guidance. The book was a best seller then and has become a classic in the meantime since Whyte defined corporate conformity and warned against its growth.

The book contained tips on applying for a job and handling the interview situation. For example, when asked on the application form, “Do you daydream?” Whyte advised that one should not be so naive as to say yes. And therefore, he suggested in effect that you lie. And so on.

I wrote Whyte a letter commending him on the book, but inquiring when should one be oneself? If hired, one would certainly want to get along, picking up on the signals in the environment — fitting in. At what point, sir, should one trust oneself and say what one thinks? When does the adaptive behavior stop, if ever? There was no reply.

Years went by. In 1974, when I was in New York at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, I signed up for an excursion with other grant-makers to a distant point in Brooklyn. Upon arriving at the point of departure, I saw a list of participants and noted that “Holly” Whyte was among them. When he boarded the bus, I sat beside him.

I should note that Whyte led an exemplary life and had a strong influence then and now on shaping the configuration of urban spaces, for he believed in their sanctity and importance. He was a mentor to Jane Jacobs, the great critic and champion of cities. So too he inspired Fred Kent to found and lead as president the Project for Public Spaces, and Fred counted on his guidance down the years.

Even though 16 years had passed since I wrote Whyte that letter, I was still puzzled by the questions I posed to the author and by the fact that he did not acknowledge it, as busy as he was.

When I identified myself and mentioned the letter, Whyte said he remembered it and, indeed, carried it around with him for months, since the question continued to confound him, too, and he found no right way to reply to it.

Yet we have to keep asking the tough questions.

About the author: Scott McVay needs not one but two introductions. On the one hand he is the longtime champion of the arts and education. A member of the Class of 1955 at Princeton, where he majored in English, McVay served for 11 years as recording secretary and assistant to the president at Princeton. As executive director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, he oversaw the creation of the biennial Dodge Poetry Festival and led an initiative in teaching Mandarin in high schools. More recently McVay served as president of the Chautauqua Institution.

He currently serves on the boards of New Jersey Network for public television and radio and the Storm King Art Center. He and his wife, Hella, were instrumental in creating the poetry trail at the D&R Greenway headquarters on Rosedale Road in Princeton.

On the other hand McVay is an avocational researcher and advocate of whales and other wildlife. From 1963 to 1965, he was special assistant to the director of the Communication Research Institute in Miami, Florida, studying the cognition and awareness level of bottlenose dolphins. He has published 25 papers and articles on research involving whales in such journals as Scientific American, Natural History, Audubon, and others. He was co-author of a 1971 article in Science magazine on “Songs of Humpback Whales.”

McVay was the leader of two Arctic expeditions to study the rare bowhead whale. The National Film Board of Canada made a one-hour documentary of the 1973 expedition, “In Search of the Bowhead Whale,” which received first prize at the American Film Festival in 1975. He has been a member of the board of the World Wildlife Fund and currently serves on the boards of the World Wildlife National Council, Earth Policy Institute, the Bat Conservation International, and the Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), focussed on health and environmental problems caused by low-dose and/or ambient exposure to chemicals.

“All my life I’ve been deeply curious,” says McVay, whose mother came from a long line of educators and whose father was a General Electric engineer who could have been a history teacher, McVay says. After college McVay enlisted in the Army, where he was trained as an interrogator. The questions have been coming ever since.

McVay’s 590-page memoir, published October 1 by Wild River Books (www.wildriverpublishing.com), includes more than 150 vignettes of encounters McVay has had with scientists, poets, politicians, educators, philanthropists — from around the world as well as close to his home in Princeton.

As poet Jane Hirshfield says, “Entering into Scott McVay’s memories, and life, is a bit like entering one of those collections that used to be called a Cabinet of Curiosities, in which art married science, beauty married oddity, and factual married fantastic — except that everything in these pages’ stories, photographs, and poems is grounded in the real.”

Says McVay: “I see the arts and poetry and science as being very close to one another. They all involve close observation.”

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