t f p g+ YouTube icon

Humpback Whales

Bookmark and Share

February 19, 2012 Tags: Worship & Arts
Humpback Whales

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

“And God created great whales, and every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:21)

Of all the earth’s creatures, few deserve the description of “awesome” as do whales. Counting among their kin the largest creatures that have ever lived, whales exist in a world that remains mysterious and remote, as most of the specifics of their comings and goings in the deep are fully known only to themselves. Furthermore, though both the history of their exploitation by humans and the contemporary attention to stewardship at the ecological scale reminds us of their vulnerability and need for protection, from Biblical times to the present, tales have been told of whales rising from the depths to upend the boats and expectations of men upon the sea. Indeed, even today, part of the thrill of whale watching is the implicit knowledge that the creatures’ sheer size and physical power carries the possibility of danger to those who dare get close to them in the whales’ own element. We know that despite their reputation for gentleness, they are not tame, or ultimately “safe.”

The “great whales” of the King James Bible then, are well-suited to be emblems of the complex way we engage with the created world and with its Maker—the way we desire to know both the world and the Lord, are fascinated by their mystery, are both drawn to and repulsed by the knowledge that there resides so near us power that is beyond our control. So over the next few weeks (not quite a BioLogos “Whale Month”) we’ll look at several different creative responses to whales as embodiments of the persistent mystery of Creation, beginning today with poet Sørina Higgins’ account of a few minutes of fleeting intimacy with feeding whales.

At first glance, Higgins’ poem “Humpback Whales” seems to give a straightforward story of the experience of whale watching from a small boat—of drawing close, but not too close, to a pod of humpbacks—in order to experience the mixture of fascination and fear that is ‘awe,’ rightly defined. But almost from the beginning, Higgins gives clues that her meditation is about the creatures not merely as things to look at, but as a kind of speech to hear, corporeal words bearing witness to their speaker. In the third line we begin to see the imagery of speech and language emerge—the whales becoming the very mouth of the sea, forming the circle of a “yawn” that makes “vowels” in the sea.

But what kind of language can this be? is it law, or instruction, or story? And is it the whales’ own story they’re telling, or something else? In the second stanza Higgins describes the spouting humpbacks as blowing off “spumes / in great inspired huffs.” In her choice of “inspired” she literalizes the root meaning of breathing in air, but also connects that meaning to the more mysterious and spiritual sense that “to be inspired” is to receive meaning and wisdom from outside oneself. In the next line the whales are arcing through the sea in “unconscious curves.” Together these words raise the question, if there is divine meaning in these creatures and the course they inscribe in the world, are they, themselves, aware of it? Do they see the meaning the poet (or biologist) sees in them, or is it the peculiar task of Adam’s race to listen intently and then to speak for the creation: interpreting its speech back to the creation itself, to our fellow men and women, and ultimately back to God whose language is written in the world?

There is no definitive answer given here as to what the whales “know” themselves, or whether such interpretation by us is possible. Instead, as Higgins moves into the last few lines of the poem, she collapses the word and the world into a single phrase: the whales become a “rhyme-and-meter topography of terror.” The “rhyme-and-meter” are the stuff of poetry, of course, and applied to a topography—a landscape whose contours are mapped out precisely because it is mute and does not tell its own story—we seem on the verge of an affirmation of the power of interpretive speech, but for that last word: “terror.” With that word and the following description of the creatures as “Sweet and menacing” come a reminder that the physical creation retains its ability to bring us up short, a recognition that we will not demystify the world merely by understanding its workings.

So how do we synthesize these two parallel lines of thought and imagery in Higgins’ “Humpback Whales”? Perhaps the poet is helping us see that the reason we are so drawn to what also makes us afraid—especially when awesome power is wrapped in a fearsome and fluid beauty—is that we innately recognize that there is One speaking to us through such moments of tension and delight, one who also defies easy categorization and refuses to be confined by our expectations. Perhaps, like poetry, the natural world as given to us by its Creator is not so much a declaration as it is an invitation to keep looking and keep listening. Perhaps the point is not the specific vowels that are uttered, but our growing trust in the One who speaks through all things, whose word goes out in all the earth.

“Humpback Whales”

by Sørina Higgins

Distant black snouts like mammoth mussel shells
loomed into view beneath a speckle flock of bright white gulls.
The pod drew ponderous circles, great vowel holes
in the yawn of gray bay-water under clouds.

They rose and blew off spumes
in great inspired huffs,
rolling their boat-long bulk in huge unconscious curves:
warm-blooded, deep-water, rhyme-and-meter topography
of terror. Sweet and menacing, in a single glide,
they ignored a little open tin can
packed with waving, shouting bipeds.

Having other messages to bring, they moved on.

From Higgins’ book Caduceus, ©2012. Photo also courtesy of Higgins.

Sørina Higgins is an adjunct faculty member in English at Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published one poetry chapbook, The Significance of Swans (Finishing Line Press) and a the new, full-length collection entitled Caduceus (David Roberts Books). Her poetry and other writing has appeared in several journals, including Comment, Radix, Stillpoint, Relief, Studio, and Windhover. She is the Book Review Editor of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal, a staff writer for Curator, and blogs about the arts and faith at www.iambicadmonit.com/blog. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina and her husband live in Kutztown, PA, in a home they built themselves.

Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68103

February 19th 2012

I was curious about whales, and why they’re so big even though they eat such little things (plankton, I think).

I did a search and found this:

Dr Erich Fitzgerald, Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Museum Victoria and a co-author, said changes in whale size occurred at twice the rate of land mammals. “This is probably because it’s easier to be big in the water – it helps support your weight,” Dr Fitzgerald said.” http://www.monash.edu.au/news/show/mouse-to-elephant-just-wait-24-million-generations

I wondered, why isn’t Michael Phelps a lot bigger than other people? But then I remembered. ‘He just needs more time.’

[Evolutionists sure do seem to have a good time, though. Note the nice smile of Dr. Alistair Evans in the article.]


melanogaster - #68131

February 20th 2012

“I was curious about whales, and why they’re so big even though they eat such little things (plankton, I think).”

Really? How can you be so ignorant about something that is so basic? How can you claim to be curious when it is so obvious that you are anything but curious?

Dolphins are whales. They eat fish.

Killer whales are whales. They eat fish and seals.

This is important because baleen vs. non-baleen is the major division among whales and helps us to understand their evolution.

Of course, denying something so obvious is essential to your misrepresentations of evolution as a ladder instead of a tree.

What are you afraid of? Why would you falsely claim to be curious and do something so lazy as to cut and paste a mined quote?
dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68137

February 20th 2012

dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68138

February 20th 2012

BioLogos bloggers out there:

I’d like to take a break right now. Take a break from facts, logic, science and historic Christian teaching.

I’d like to have some fun. I’d like to indulge in speculation (e.g. the way some others here at BioLogos like to guess about me.) To make it more interesting and fun, I’d like to bet money on the speculation!

Unfortunately, I don’t think placing a bet, or at least having the bet fairly administered/adjudicated, is possible here.

But IF it was possible, I’d bet $100 that melanogaster believes in ALL of the following:

1) Abortion rights

2) Contraceptive “access” (meaning subsidization of the pill purchase)

3) Homosexual marriage

4) Global warming (including the anthropogenic flavor)

5) The U.S. Constitution being a “living” document

6) Tax increases for the wealthy, because they aren’t paying their “fair share”

I could go on, but I’ll leave it at half a dozen.

Would anyone else out there bet with me?

You have nothing to fear or be embarrassed about if, like melanogaster and me, you have an anonymity-protecting username.

Come on. “You deserve a break to day”, even if you can’t get to McDonalds.

Even for $1?

Uncle Bonobo - #68142

February 20th 2012

You’re on for $1.

melanogaster - #68184

February 21st 2012

“But IF it was possible, I’d bet $100 that melanogaster believes in ALL of the following:”

Here’s a much more interesting bet: I’ll bet that you can’t debate anything in your list (plus, of course, evolution) with me without grossly and deliberately misrepresenting my positions.

My hypothesis is that at some level, you understand that your positions are rationally unsupportable, so engaging in such blatant deception becomes absolutely necessary.

But what does your repeated use of deception say to you? Let’s start with your use of the verb “believe” to introduce your list, shall we? It’s the most ironic one.
beaglelady - #68222

February 23rd 2012

“I’d like to take a break right now. Take a break from facts, logic, science and historic”

You’ve been on that break your entire life.

dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68140

February 20th 2012

And guess who Wally Whale’s great granddaddy is?

Billy Goat!



And Billy’s great grandma was actually more like a fish which swam in the…

Hey, “The Office” is on!


melanogaster - #68161

February 21st 2012

“And guess who Wally Whale’s great granddaddy is? Billy Goat! http://wsogmm.h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/A1283186”

Have you considered reading? There’s nothing at all at that link that implies that goats were the ancestors of whales.
dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68165

February 21st 2012

So sorry. I forgot to use melanogaster-speak.

How about Wally Whale’s great granddaddy is…

Uncle “Ungulate”!

(Sounds so much smarter, sophisticated and and scientific!)

[“Ungulates (meaning roughly “being hoofed” or “hoofed animal”)… Commonly known examples of ungulates living today are the horse, zebra, donkey, cattle/bison, rhinoceros, camel, hippopotamus, tapir, GOAT, pig, sheep, giraffe, okapi, moose, elk, deer, antelope, and gazelle.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ungulate]

And from the article: “More intriguing evidence for the land-based ancestors of whales arrived with the discovery of the Mesonychids, an extinct type of mammal that flourished between 60 and 30 million years ago. Mesonychids were ungulates (hoofed animals)…”

Yada, yada, yada…


melanogaster - #68180

February 21st 2012

Yada, yada, yada…”

And what’s your explanation for the patterns of shared and non shared characteristics?
dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68187

February 21st 2012

Similar template used by common designer.

melanogaster - #68205

February 22nd 2012

That doesn’t explain the patterns at all. A non-cowardly answer that addresses my question won’t contain the word “similar.”

melanogaster - #68206

February 22nd 2012

Do you not realize that pointing out that goats are ungulates in no way falsifies the fact that there’s nothing at all at that link that implies that goats were the ancestors of whales?

dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68169

February 21st 2012


Your silence speaks volumes. Did I win my bet above?

I did, didn’t I!

Intuition can be a marvelous mutation!


melanogaster - #68181

February 21st 2012

“Your silence speaks volumes. Did I win my bet above?”

No, but you did demonstrate that you aren’t curious about whales. Why did you make the false claim?
dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68188

February 21st 2012

dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68189

February 21st 2012


Two questions: 1) If I didn’t win my bet, which one(s) did I miss?   And 2) What claim of mine about whales was false*?

* I said they eat “little things (plankton, I think).”  And I thought right! I didn’t realize they also eat herring and other fish. But I would say these are also little things, especially in relation to the size of the humpback. So did these guys: “Humpback whales (like all baleen whales) are seasonal feeders and carnivores that filter feed TINY crustaceans (krill - mainly Euphausia superba, copepods, etc.), plankton, and SMALL fish (including herring, mackerel, capelin, and sandeel) from the water.” http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/whales/species/Humpbackwhale.shtml

So, I was right again!  What was false?



A mouthful of whatever I eat is probably bigger, relative to my size, than what a humpback “gulps” down. Why am I nowhere near Humpy’s size?


Regarding Dr. Fitzgerald’s comment, I have a new idea and marketing pitch for body-building:

“Hey, guys! Want to bulk up? Get a hot tub!”


beaglelady - #68193

February 22nd 2012

“So, I was
right again! 
What was false?

Seals aren’t little.

beaglelady - #68217

February 23rd 2012

Don’t_blame is even more wrong than previously thought! 
Killer whales will attack and eat gray whales.  Pilot whales will attack and eat sperm whales.  In both cases the predator is smaller than the prey! (Both killer whales and pilot whales hunt in packs.)

melanogaster - #68207

February 22nd 2012

“2) What claim of mine about whales was false*?”

Your claim of curiosity, “I was curious about whales,” because you aren’t curious.
beaglelady - #68223

February 23rd 2012

You’ve got to admin that the “don’t_blame” troll is a curiosity—how could any one person be so wrong about so many things?

dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68141

February 20th 2012

Of course, denying something so obvious is essential to your misrepresentations of evolution as a ladder instead of a TREE.”

Actually, I thought evolution’s iconic “Tree of Life” was chopped down some time ago.




melanogaster - #68162

February 21st 2012

“Actually, I thought evolution’s iconic “Tree of Life” was chopped down some time ago.”


Actually, you’re not reading in addition to being incurious about the real evidence:

“Dr Doolittle, of California University, said: “We should relax a bit on this. We understand evolution pretty well it’s just it is more complex than Darwin imagined. The tree isn’t the only pattern.”
dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68166

February 21st 2012

“The tree isn’t the only pattern.”

Then how about the word you used: ladder?

melanogaster - #68179

February 21st 2012

The additions to the tree are horizontal. You’d know that if you read what you cited, but you’re afraid to.

Ladders are vertical, you know.
dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68167

February 21st 2012

Oh, and about my ‘mining quotes’.

Now that I think about it, I hardly need to go far afield to find evolutionary elocutions which could be classified as gems.

Your posts supply plenty of nuggets all by themselves. No urgent need to mine elsewhere.

But the fact is, I DO like to get out in the field -  to read, and get the words right from the horses’ mouths, so to speak.  (Mr. Ed is our relative, after all.)


BioLogos bloggers out there:

You too can mine for crazy quotes! It’s FUN and it’s EASY!

Get my “Crazy Quotes Mining Kit”! It’s only $19.99.

Yes, it’s fun. And with just a little bit of effort, you’ll strike GOLD just about 100% of the time!

Order now and I’ll throw in another “Crazy Quotes Mining Kit” for FREE. That’s right, two (2) Mining Kits for only $19.99. (Plus S&H, of course.)



melanogaster - #68182

February 21st 2012

“Now that I think about it, I hardly need to go far afield to find evolutionary elocutions which could be classified as gems.”

You’re making my point for me, thanks!

You are afraid to look at the evidence for yourself. You shield yourself from the evidence by conflating evidence with hearsay. 

Both the Bible and our court system go to considerable lengths to protect us from the evils of hearsay. Why does your position depend entirely on it?

Why do you falsely claim to be curious, when it is obvious to all that you are not?
beaglelady - #68123

February 20th 2012


I really enjoyed this post as well as the poem.  I especially enjoyed the line,

“they ignored a little open tin can

packed with waving, shouting bipeds.”

I’m looking forward to this series on whales. 

btw, PBS will


beaglelady - #68124

February 20th 2012

Oops, I need to finish my post! 

PBS will be airing a 3-hour show on whales this Wednesday:


Mark Sprinkle - #68152

February 21st 2012

Thanks, beaglelady!  I had no idea I was being timely, but as several artistic works on whales had come (back) to my attention lately, it seemed a good time to look at how rich and varied our associations are with the creatures, and what those representations and associations tell us about our attitudes towards ourselves and creation and even science.  Maybe we’ll get to have “shark week” someday, too. . .

Dennis Venema - #68196

February 22nd 2012

Mark, you’re reading my mind as well - one of my upcoming posts will look at converging lines of evidence for the evolution of whales.

beaglelady - #68198

February 22nd 2012


That will be great!!! 

Everyone should take a look at the “Inside Nature’s Giants”  episode on the whale (which includes a discussion on its evolutionary past):



btw Dennis, you promised us (a while ago) a walkthrough on the evolution of the human brain.




And don’t forget you promised us long ago a walkthrough on the evolution of the human brain. 


beaglelady - #68200

February 22nd 2012

sorry about the repetition there.

Dennis Venema - #68201

February 22nd 2012

I think you must be remembering something I’m not, BL - when and where did I promise such? 

beaglelady - #68202

February 22nd 2012

Hi Dennis,

It was a while ago.  I just sent you an email.


dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68170

February 21st 2012

Since I mentioned the topic above, and we talk about “science” here:


beaglelady - #68197

February 22nd 2012

Well now, I see the delusional troll is gone. The question is, why was he given free rein to hijack every discussion for so long? 

Ashe - #68218

February 23rd 2012

haha that was kinda funny to watch. 

beaglelady - #68221

February 23rd 2012

Yes, the troll was amusing in a way, but the problem is that he derails every discussion.

Page 1 of 1   1