Heartbeat of the Whale, 1956

“Human hearts beat 50 to 90 times a minute.  But the heart of a large whale pumps very slowly- perhaps fewer than 10 times a minute.  No one knows exactly, for the pulse of earth’s most ponderous creature never has been taken satisfactorily.  To do so has been my dream of 40 years.”

So begins Paul Dudley White M.D., cardiologist to President Eisenhower, in his expedition account as published by National Geographic Magazine, 1956, a magazine that sat undisturbed in a shelf at my parents’ house for another twenty-five years after I brought it home from the middle school library. There were a few of us who sought refuge as library volunteers, and we spent hours sorting and discarding old magazines.  The National Geographics were the most favored, and we spent considerable time assembling personal collections of the most promising- for example, a photo essay on the personal effects of King Tut, an article on the desert-warriors of Oman including a photograph of a young Sufi boy skewering his own shoulder with a stiletto, and “Hunting the Heartbeat of the Whale.” National Geographic: a magazine of Otherization at a time when nearly everyone in the world was an Other.

I know for a fact that I saved it for the whale heartbeat article.  I know because I would do the same thing now.  It was a gift from my twelve year-old self to my present self, a twelve-year old self I have often disparaged, a self who proves wiser than I remember.

“..in setting forth with such an aim, we were really searching for the mysteries of the human heart.”

I do not think of 1956 as the Year of Plumbing the Mysteries of the Human Heart in America, nor was my thirteenth year such a time.  Some stories wait, encapsulated, to burst on the tongue and tell themselves.  Twenty-five years later I am caught again by Paul Dudley White’s forty-year dream, by the foolhardiness, the single-mindedness.  By the utter romanticism which will get me every time.

If I judge by this article, the science of the fifties was personal, poetically descriptive, schmaltzy.  I am invited in to the slow and powerful pulsing of the whale heart, perhaps ten beats a minute, sonorous, resonant.  I can imagine dancing to the pulse of the whale, and then the human, the hummingbird.  It is the dance of the whale heart that appears most beautiful this morning, the slowing and drawing out of the human gesture.

Here is a human gesture.  Paul Dudley White and team of scientists and engineers took their boat into a lagoon in Baja California to try to measure the heartbeat of the gray whale.  Thirteen men, several boats, cardiology instruments and several harpoons were on board an 83 foot expedition boat called the Dorado.  The Dorado and all thirteen men returned, but they paid their price.

“Medical science searches for deeper understanding of the heart, not only in quiet laboratories but in distant and dangerous places.”  Some would say, especially the romantics amongst us, that the heart itself is a difficult and dangerous place. I am either in search of a deeper understanding or in flight from it.  Sometimes just by standing still I can experience flight.  The story of the whale heart is not the story of love, except that it is.  I believe a forty-plus year story is a love story.  Even a twenty-five year story, a message from my former self: love.

“The whale charged into the keel, sheared off the rudder, bent the propeller, and left the fragile craft with a gaping hole smashed in the bottom.”

Yes.  It is most certainly a love story.

The whale who smashed their boat- which was the small craft being used for the actual operation, not the large boat- was a mother whale defending her calf.  The scientists had chosen the lagoon because it was calving season, and in the narrow and shallow waters the whales would have little room for evasion.  They would be backed into a corner.  The scientists believed that the wire barbs they shot into the gray whale’s flesh would “Inflict Little More Than Pinpricks.”  Here is a description they provide of the whale’s reaction to the pinprick: “The upright whale gave a massive shudder and fell away to one side in a white thrash of water.”  The whale then took off with all of their equipment in tow.

In some ways I see this story as bumbling, unqualified failure, a manly failure to live in the world as it is.  These men have missed/forgotten/failed to attend to some basic facts, such as:

  1. A mother whale will protect her calf at all costs.
  2. A barbed wire shot into a living creature causes pain and terror.
  3. A gray whale in flight is stronger than bits of wire and metal.

The mysteries of the heart, human or otherwise, are dependant on these basic realities that we live with.  They are powered by the heart, in fact.

Paul Dudley White writes, “We are not downhearted.  We had failed, but it was a profitable failure, for we knew now where our shortcomings lie.”  His solution involves better technology, helicopters, perseverance at all costs.

I envy his attitude.  I spent much of last year writing about how people construct their life stories and that of Quest has been the notable male narrative. Setbacks are simply part of the narrative, vital to it, in fact.  The elemental truths which may cause these setbacks are challenges to be overcome. I envy the perseverance, but not the disconnection.

I don’t read many stories of failures in the newspaper, in magazines.  I don’t think we tell those stories these days, possibly because our entire ecosystem is experiencing massive failures.  Maybe if I read scientific journals I would read more of them.  Paul Dudley White, MD renders an account of failure, epic if you throw in those forty years.  Recently I have been telling my own stories of forty-year failure, ungenerous in spirit.  He begins with the mystery. He has not left that behind, even though the beginning of his telling is simultaneous with the ending of his failed attempt. Can you still hear the slow pulse?  It has not stopped.

In 1916, forty years earlier, he saw a whale heart from the last whale caught by a whaling vessel from New Bedford, Massachusetts.  He describes the delicate tissues; the size would “overflow a bushel basket.”  Though he does not name it as such, this is the root of his story; Paul Dudley White MD meets Whale Heart.  New Bedford, 1916.

I take heart from this.  I eagerly read for failure, irregularity, and for the bones of the real world that hold me up.  I read for the normal abnormalities.  Parting words from the undaunted cardiologist: “What might seem at first glance to be a malfunction may be due merely to a heart larger than average.”

This essay is based on the article “Hunting the Heartbeat of a Whale,” written by Paul Dudley White, M.D., Samuel W. Matthews, and J. Baylor Roberts, as published in The National Geographic Magazine, July, 1956.  All quotes are excerpted from the article.

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