A note on whales and silence from The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin

“But on the voyage itself none of Brendan’s  crew guessed what was about to happen, not even Trondur, who had a great deal of experience of whales and whale-catching. Day after day Brendan was visited by whales, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups. It was uncanny. The conditions were always the same: if the weather was gentle and the sea calm, we could virtually guarantee the appearance of whales close by, emerging from the depths with a great sigh of air, and a spray of water from their blowholes. Then they would stay in our vicinity for half an hour or more. For some reason the whales were drawn to Brendan. In all his experience Trondur had seen nothing like it. The great animals seems to be almost as fascinated by Brendan  as we were by them. Even when the whales came very close there was more a feeling of companionship than of risk, and it was noticeable when we finally entered an area of shipping how the whales would dive when the ships were in the area, perhaps frightened by the sound of their engines. But when the ships had gone, the whales reappeared around us, rolling and wallowing in sight of Brendan, who was also slopping around on the cold water.”

Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage, 1978. P. 130 of Gill and Macmillan edition published 2005.

In Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence there are various examples of the impact of sound on the natural world given. Later in the same chapter Severin realises that the story in the Navagation Sancti Brendani Abbatis of Brendan and his companions making landfall (and a fire) on what turned out to be a whale has to be understood in the context of a leather-made ship, the first ship these whales had ever seen, in an ocean far more whale-rich than 1976’s.

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