the moon by whale light

Whales have the largest brains on earth, brains every bit as complex as our own. They have culture, and they have language. They sing songs that obey the kinds of rules one finds in classical music. What does a creature with the largest brain on earth use it for? Why does it sing? What do the songs mean? Almost everything about whales is a tantalizing mystery. We ache to know about other forms of equally intelligent life in the universe, and yet here are creatures as unknown as extraterrestrials right among us, moving in a slow-motion ballet under the oceans, hidden from our view.
—  Diane Ackerman, “The Moon By Whale Light” in the eponymous collection
The right whale is one of the rarest whale species, and it has a special distinction in the history of human affairs. Every species of animal that we have brought to extinction has occupied a limited area–an island, an archipelago, a continent. We have never in our tenure on earth brought to extinction a truly cosmopolitan species, one with a worldwide distribution. ‘The closest we’ve ever come is with the right whale,’ Roger [Payne] explained over dinner, 'and we came so vanishingly close. It would have represented a new benchmark, a new low, the lowest, the most careless, the most outrageous thing that humanity had yet done to the planet. The fact that our generation is now making the effort to prevent that extinction is evidence that we’re waking up at last. In that sense, the right whale is an important bellwether of the human condition.’
—  Diane Ackerman, “The Moon by Whale Light”