Tuesday, February 23, 2010

NZ to Australia by sea

First sighting of Brisbane.
February 22

Came off the ship this morning at about 8am, saying goodbye to the captain and crew and thanking them for a comfortable trip. Shared a ride into the city with the other passengers who were going to a hotel and I am now on a train to my aunt’s house north of Brisbane. Coming into port last night was a marathon effort. We seemed to sail up and down the coast a few times before coming in. And then it was a delicate exercise in parallel parking the ship into the wharf between two other ships already berthed. Before that, we waited in Brisbane harbour about 18 hours before being allowed to approach and have a pilot come aboard. For that long period of waiting, I’m lifting the endurance rating to a six.

I haven’t finished reading ‘Moby Dick’ yet. Its a bit boring. 300+ pages in and this is what’s happened: the narrator has gone aboard a whaling ship and since setting out has discovered that the captain is obsessed with catching the particular while that bit off his leg. They have caught one whale (but not the right one). That’s it. For 300+ pages. And this is supposed to be the greatest American novel. Anyway I’m determined to finish, having once before started it and given up several years ago. You might say that Moby Dick, the book rather than the whale, is my white whale. I will not give up until the final page is finished. The book probably deserves an endurance rating of seven.

February 20

We should be reaching Australia tonight according to the captain. Whether we will berth is uncertain. We may have to wait until the morning. Either way, I will probably spend the night on board the ship since it’s already booked and paid for. I’ve fared fairly well on board the Basel. It’s difficult to get exercise and the meals are sometimes a bit stodgy but overall its been pretty comfortable. The biggest hassle has been not completely recovered from flu which I’m certain is partly due to the air conditioning system here. I’ve got it switched off in my cabin but whenever I go to the dining room which has it switched on, I start coughing and spluttering again (I pity the other diners). I’ve decided to give Endurance Ratings to various parts of my trip, measuring how difficult a part was to get through on a scale of one to ten, where one is a bus trip to your local shops and ten is walking through the Saharan desert. Spending nine days on a freighter ship I’d give an endurance rating of five. Its a bit like being in a hotel, only you’re stuck in the hotel and there’s not much to do. On the other hand, taking walks around the ship and sitting up in the bridge are fun. Around 10 days seems to be about the right length - enough to be a real voyage but any more than that would be too monotonous.

February 18

We’re about halfway through the voyage to Brisbane and thankfully its been an uneventful one. No storms, just a slow steady journey to the destination (the Basel travels at about 15 knots which is roughly 30 km/hr). Yesterday we saw the last of New Zealand, the stretch of land between Cape Reinga and North Cape at the top of the North Island. If you look very closely at the photo you can just make it out. The other picture is a typical view from one of the two portholes in my cabin. So far I’ve seen a few whale-spouts in the distance and one whale more closely swimming past us, diving and reemerging every now and then to spout. No dolphins, but my fellow passengers say they saw a school of about twenty. (Some of you may say that ‘school’ is the wrong collective noun since it applies to fish and dolphins are mammals. However, Melville in Moby Dick insists that whales and dolphins are fish, not finding any of the reasons given for classing them otherwise to be convincing. If it’s good enough for Melville then it’s good enough for me.)

Last sight of NZ. If you look really closely you can see some land. It's the stretch of land between Cape Reinga and North Cape at the top of the North Island.


  1. Dolphins have mammary glans and nurse their young. Hence mammal and not fish. Fish have gills and dolphins breath air. There are many other reasons for not classifying dolphins (or whale) as fish.
    I think the details of whaling and the character of obsession and how the others are drawn into the fixed idea is the main attraction to the book. Rather good allegory for current right wing politics in the US.
    Hope you are having fun in the world.

  2. Why are factors like the type of glans, type of nursing, type of breathing such clinchers? Lives in the sea and looks fishy seem more important factors to me. Whales, dolphin, and all other fish are the same basic shape. So they're all fish.

  3. If you never let a whale or dolphin surface they would die. They breath atmospheric air like us, fish will die in the atmosphere, fish need to use their gills in water to get the oxygen they need. And they let you teach...

  4. Not convinced. If you take a whale or a dolphin out of the water and leave it on dry land, it will die. Sure, there is the slight difference between them and other fish that you point out but that difference is insignificant compared to the essential fishiness of whales and dolphins. They let me teach because I see beyond the conventional categories...

  5. Breathing apparatus is a big difference. Laying eggs (fish), and bearing young (dolphins). Another big difference. Not even their skin same, fish have scales.

    You are basing your taxonomy on the most superficial of all, general and not specific appearances. Rather than functional differences, that place an animal in a relational evolutionary context. Which is the point of true biological taxonomy. Not to class an animal how it looks because it adapted to the same environment (the sea). Science is not based on "it looks like, therefore it must be", but deducing what similarities are important and having a good reason for believing this is important (i.e. shows what part of the family tree it is from). Dolphins and whales are not fish because their common ancestors are far back enough that a dolphins ancestors went through a separate evolutionary course that means we are more closely related than fish.

  6. By the way, Linneaus saw beyond the conventional catagories of "it looks like, therefore it must be" beliefs of his day, Darwin saw beyond this too, we now have classifications that reflects true similarities, not superficial ones.

    If you want to return to "it looks like, therefore it must be" science, I have a lump of chalcopyrite that looks like gold that you may have, perhaps you could sell it for the price of gold to industrial industry because it surely must perform the same function, based on its appearance.

  7. Melville wasn't a botanist/zoologist of any description, was he? In which case I'm unsure why his opinion's worth more than those who study these things for a living. Perhaps he was seeking to justify the bad treatment of whales in his day (though it wouldn't be very good grounds on which to do so and they probably didn't see the need to do so much then). A gorilla looks a bit like a bear at a stretch - why have different classifications for them? Why call a fox something other than a dog? Anyway Lauri Lee puts it better than me, I would readily concede

  8. Because I'm verbose, I have more to add, even though I agree that I would not trust the opinions of Melville on science.

    A whale or dolphin will die out of water because their bodies are not equipped for the difference in atmospheric pressure and support that water would give them. Basically their lungs crush under their body weight on land, not because they are not adapted to breathing air unlike fish. Both dolphins and whales communicate with sound/sonar, as far as we know fish do not communicate. Their group behaviour is different. Dolphins/whales are social (give family and group support) and live in pods, fish may swim in schools but as far as we know, this type of swarming behaviour is a mechanism that is defensive against predators, its mathematically calculatable uniformity is different from the more individual movement of marine mammals. Dolphins/whales are warm blooded and fish are cold blooded and as such have different requirements on their metabolic systems. Dolphins/whales skeletal structure has more mammalian features than fish ones. Even their
    tails are also on a different plane. Fishes tails are vertical as is their sideways "wriggling" movement. Dolphins/whales have horizontal tails and up and down body movement that is determined by their mammalian body structure. They swim like we would if our legs were fused together, or like a seal. All of this suggest an inherent unfishiness to me.

    However there are ways of looking at organisms that fill the same function in a biome that may not be in the same phylla (or other grouping), which may give credence to your views of similarity. However, I don't think this dynamic should get muddled for a classification system based on evolutionary relationships.

    In case you hadn't noticed, it bugs me a little that an academic can be adhering to medieval notions ;-O

  9. Lauri,
    Your best comment so far is 'functional differences, that place an animal in a relational evolutionary context ... is the point of true biological taxonomy.' This gets us to the heart of the matter which is to find out the purpose of a taxonomy. We can give similarities and differences back and forth but none of it gets us anywhere unless we have some background principles to guide us about which are the important ones. In short, we need a theory to tell us which are the relevant similarities and differences.

    You suggest evolution as the theory. However:
    1) It's not clear that this helps you. Show me the evolutionary tree that classes whales and dolphins as more closely related to humans than to fish. Of course you can show me a tree that classes them as, like humans, mammals, but it's that classification I'm questioning. Functional differences could go either way. You point out some, but also important would be 'lives in the sea' and 'mostly swims through water' which would put whales and dolphins with fish and apart from humans.
    2) Why accept the evolutionary account as authoritative? Not that I'm doubting evolution. It's true of course but truth is only a necessary though not sufficient condition for a background theory. Possibly a more plausible theory is a utilitarian account that would classify animals according to their purposes such as whether they are a source of meat or fur, can be used for particular types of tasks, are companionable for dangerous, are nice to look at, etc. Sounds anthropocentric I know but I'm not sure what other approach can plausibly be taken. To disprove this you'd have to either a) show that utilitarianism is not a good theory for this task even if it is generally true, or b) disprove utilitarianism generally. Philosophers have tried the latter for 300 years and not succeeded, but you might. Good luck with that.

    Your point about classifications being driven by moral concerns is a good one but I think you get it backwards. The strong reactions of some people to the suggestion that whales and dolphins are fish are underlaid by the worry that if its true it means we can treat them as badly as other fish. That's a non-sequitor of course. If wholphins are fish that doesn't reduce their moral status. Moral status depends upon capacity to feel pain and complexity of mental life. Whales and dolphins rate more highly on those criteria than other fish, so it is worse to treat them badly.

  10. http://dcproof.com/DolphinsAndFish.html