You may be aware of the famous story “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville. The story revolves around a crew of sailors on the hunt for the whale named Moby Dick. The book is a work of fiction, a plot that scientists have doubted was even remotely possible. It turns out that, if the whale were real, it would be able to destroy ships as big as five times its size.
Melville is believed to have gotten the idea for his famous story from a whale attack that happened in real life. A whaler, Owen Chase, had his ship sunk by a very large male whale in 1820. Melville’s novel was published just over 30 years later. One aspect of the whale that made a big impression on Chase was how the shape of its head seemed perfectly formed for attacking objects in this way.
Although scientists have long doubted the feasibility of “Moby Dick,” researchers from the University of Queensland are the first to actually put down in writing their findings to prove the story possible. One of the biggest reasons why scientists didn’t believe the ramming attack in the novel is because important parts belonging to the whale essential for sonar communications are located in the head area. They theorized that a whale would never ram its head in that way due to the danger of harming such a vital part of its body.
One of the researchers at the University of Queensland, Olga Panagiotopoulou, is actually an expert on the anatomy, bone structure, and mechanics of large animals, including elephants and primates (excluding humans), and, of course, whales. In order to get a better feeling of how a large whale like Moby Dick would react to ramming a large ship with its head, Panagiotopoulou and her team created computer models and used engineering principles to test how a whale’s skull would survive attacks using its head.
After their extensive testing, they found that a whale’s skull is a very complex, strange structure vital to its survival. Much like products engineered to absorb shock, whales, of course, have strong skulls, but they also have connective tissue partitions that serve as natural shock absorbers. So, if a whale were to ram a ship with the intent of destruction, as in “Moby Dick,” they would probably get some sort of head damage, possibly a fatal skull fracture. However, the combination of a strong bone structure and shock absorption makes the possibility of destroying a ship with its head a little more believable.
Although the researchers didn’t do extensive testing on the models, they believe that whales today have the skull strength that they do due to evolution. Since male whales fought each other often, it makes sense that stronger skulls would be a bi-product.