Monday, July 29, 2013

Apple #645: Where do Fish Go in Winter and in Drought?

The park where I like to go walking has a little walking bridge that goes over a stream.  I like to pause there and look into the stream because after a while, I usually see a few small fish in the water.  I find it a hopeful sight.  So much so that I usually wait until a fish or two swims into view.

The fish I see in this particular stream are rather small and non-descript, kind of like this lady here, who is a chub.
(Photo from Rugbymadad's Blog)

But lately, I haven't been seeing any fish in that stream.  There were some rainstorms that changed the configuration of the shallows and deep spots, so I thought maybe the fish had moved to some other location in the stream.  But it's also been quite dry lately.  In fact, much of the stream these days seems so shallow, I wonder if it's even enough water for those fish.

All of which made me wonder, when the water gets shallow, where do the fish go?  Do they hide in the mud until the water comes back?  And for that matter, where do the fish go during the winter when the water that is their habitat freezes over?

It turns out, what fish do during dry weather and what they do during winter are very similar.  Let's start with the winter situation first.

Winter Cold & Ice

  • As a river or a pond freezes, the ice forms at the surface first.  As the weather gets colder, the ice gets thicker from the top down.  The warmer water is at the bottom or deepest parts.  So the first line of defense against ice is for the fish to go to the deepest waters.
  • If you're ever able to see through the ice to spot fish in the water, you'll probably notice that they're grouped together.  You might be tempted to think they're huddling together for warmth, but since they're cold-blooded creatures, that concept doesn't really apply to them.  They're close-packed like that because that deep, warmer spot isn't that big and they're all trying to fit themselves in that little space.

Koi just below the surface of the ice. Since they're hanging out together, I'd guess they've found a warm spot.
(Photo from Silver Pines Lodge. This page tries to launch an application that you're probably better of refusing to allow.)

  • So now you've got a cluster of fish packed into a small space.  Kind of like a lot of people stuck in a small closet--after a while, you'll notice that everybody's been breathing up the oxygen.  The same thing happens to fish under the ice.
  • Not only are they packed together in those deeper pockets, but the ice at the surface is also cutting off the supply of fresh oxygen to the water.  There are also fewer water plants doing their photosynthesis thing, so there's less oxygen coming from the plant source, too.  
  • Because fish are cold-blooded, their body temperature drops when the water temperature drops, and they become less active.  So they don't need as much oxygen in the winter as they do in the summer.  

More koi under ice.
(Photo from Koi Fish Care)

  • However, if the ice gets too thick or too expansive, the oxygen level can drop to a point that is problematic enough that the fish have to find other solutions to the problem of winter.
  • Some fish migrate.  They go to warmer waters, or deeper waters, or they go to places where the water is more turbulent -- near rapids or other incoming streams or springs, or even near waterfalls.  The churning water keeps ice from forming and also allows the water to be replenished with oxygen.
  • Other types of fish enter a state called torpor, or diapause.  It isn't true hibernation because they can be roused, but the concept is similar.  Everything drops to a state of very low activity -- respiration, heart rate, digestion, growth -- pretty much everything slows way down or even stops.  This further reduces the amount of oxygen they need to survive and helps them get through the iciest, lowest-oxygen part of winter.
  • Some fish, like carp, do bury themselves in the mud, as well as going into diapause.
  • Still, in spite of their efforts, fish sometimes just can't hold out in such oxygen-deprived icy waters, and they die.  When lots of fish die in the winter, it's called winterkill. It can take 3 to 4 years for a fish population to recover from a severe winterkill.

A school of fish struggling to get to the oxygen bubbles in the ice in a pond in St. Petersburg.
(Photo from AtBreak)

  • Don't be too alarmed, though.  Some amount of winterkill is par for the course.  As one fish expert says, "In some waters, partial winterkill is just a natural and beneficial process that results in faster growth rates for the survivors."
  • Even though some fish have to take lots of measures to survive winter's cold and ice, other fish are so well-adapted to cooling temperatures that their big feeding time is the beginning of winter.  Lake trout, brown trout, whitefish, and panfish take advantage of the fact that their summertime competitors have moved to deeper waters, or they have less vegetation to hide in, or they have slowed down so much that they become prey.  Put simply, these cool-friendly fish dig winter.
  • Here's one last thing about what can happen to fish during winter: they can get "drunk" on oxygen. After the first ice has formed on a body of water but before enough snow has fallen to block the sunlight, the plants growing in the water are still using that sunlight to photosynthesize and produce more oxygen.  The ice traps that extra oxygen so the water becomes saturated with it.  So some fisherman occasionally see fish just below the clear ice, swimming sort of goofily on their sides, as if they're drunk.  In fact, they've imbibed too much oxygen. 

These fish are hiding out under a dock in Long Lake, MN.  It's a whole different world under the water, one that fish know very well.
(Photo from Fargo-Moorhead Dive News)

Summer Heat & Drought

  • In the summer, fish are not so much bothered by the heat directly as they are by the heat's effects, which is to say the heat causes the water to evaporate, which means less water in which to swim and breathe. That's a much bigger deal for fish than air temperature.
  • Well, warmer air temperature eventually becomes warmer water temperature, and the fish that like the cold waters don't do well when the water gets warm.  Some coldwater fish such as brook trout can become stressed from warming waters.  They may not grow very large, or they may not reproduce in their usual numbers, or they may die.
  • Warmer temperatures do mean less oxygen, and the reduction in oxygen is the real problem for fish.  But just as fish seek out deeper waters in the winter, they also seek out deeper waters in the summer.  Where the deep water was warm in the winter, in the summer, the deep water stays cooler.  So the fish will move to deeper, cooler waters if they need to when the temperature rises.
  • These deeper, cooler waters may be little pools within a stream, or waterholes lining a streambed, or eddies along a riverbank.

Rivers have all sorts of geographies to them.  The fish know the lay of the land and where to go when it's too warm, or too cold.  Fisherpeople study diagrams like these so they know where to go to catch the fish.
(Diagram from Wikibooks)

  • Again, a few species of fish bury themselves in the mud and wait for the waters to come back.  The mud-minnow is uniquely adapted to low-water situations.  It can either extract oxygen from water through its gills as all other fish do, or it can also get oxygen from the air.  

Mud minnows or mudfish are really common, and lots of fisherpeople use them to catch other, larger fish. But perhaps the reason they're so common is they're able to cope with adverse conditions of all sorts, and produce plentiful offspring.
(Photo by blackmagic on 2CoolFishing)
  • But when the air temperature climbs so high that the water doesn't just get warm but starts evaporating (or if a dam has been constructed that blocks the flow of water), then the fish have a real problem.  Not only do the oxygen levels drop, but the shallow areas turn completely dry, so rivers and streams that used to be connected to each other can get broken up by dry patches (or made impassible by dams).  
  • Thus the fish may not be able to get to important places like bountiful feeding grounds, or they may not be able to reach the place where they go to spawn. Or sometimes fish lay the eggs in one place, counting on the current to carry the eggs to another place where food for the young is plentiful.  But with the river broken up, the eggs can't get there.  The eggs hatch in a less friendly environment and the young starve or get eaten.
  • Also during a drought, the vegetation that some species of fish use for hiding may recede, which means the fish are more exposed and thus more vulnerable to their predators, a.k.a. they get eaten.  
  • Conversely the vegetation underwater can grow so thick on a glut of sunshine that sunlight eventually can't penetrate deep enough to reach them anymore.  Throw in a few warm, still, and cloudy days, and you've got no sunlight reaching those water plants at all.  They can't do their photosynthesis thing, which means they're producing less oxygen.  With no wind or motion in the water to stir things up and aerate the place, the oxygen levels drop, and pretty soon the fish are gasping for breath.  If that situation continues for too long, the fish will die.

This is what you want a riverbank to look like, if you're a fish. Some vegetation that reaches into the water and provides cover and oxygen, but not too much. Also enough wind and current to make ripples and keep the water nicely aerated.  This is in Devon, England.
(Photo from Barry's Musings and Family News)

  • In fact, if any of these low-water situations continues long enough or is pervasive enough, the fish will die.  Just as winterkills can happen, so do summerkills.  A partial summerkill is not uncommon.  But widespread, large-scale summerkills are more of a concern.  
  • Places in Nevada in recent years have seen summerkills as high as 20,000 fish.  Recent droughts in the Plains states have resulted in the die-off of enough fish that some native species of fish such as the silver chub have all but completed disappeared.

What You Can Do

  • People who have ponds stocked with fish can do a lot to prevent winterkills or summerkills by aerating their ponds.  That means basically stick a fountain in the middle of it and keep it running summer and winter. 
  • Or if you don't have a fountain and you see fish acting sluggish at the surface of the water and visibly gulping at the air, that's the equivalent of the fish calling 911.  You can aerate the water yourself by using a 2- to 3-inch pump, like a pump you might carry on a bicycle, and pumping and spraying water back into the pond.  That's not an ideal solution because the aeration needs to continue until the oxygen levels are restored, and that usually takes at least over night.
  • There are a ton of websites that say their aerators are the best.  For some background information on types of aerators and how aerator performance is measured, check out the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center's information sheet on Pond Aeration.

There are lots of different types of aerators that make the fish happy. This one happens to be a floating fountain.
(Photo from

  • You could also do what we used to do when we were kids, which is dig little trenches to connect one body of water to another.  We were just playing in the creek when we did that, but it turns out that's pretty important.

[Edit:] In the days since I put this post together, it's occurred to me that when I go swimming in a lake, splashing and kicking around, I'm actually doing the fish a favor.  All that splashing is aerating the water. That's nice to think about.

You might also be interested in: Where Birds Go When it Rains; Rivers

Alisa Santiesteban, Wisconsin DNR, A cold world with an icy ceiling, December 2009
Minnesota DNR, Fish in Winter, 2010
The Ohio State University School of Natural Resources, Winter and Summer Fish Kills in Ponds
eWater Australia, Where do fish go in a drought?
Environment Agency UK, How does drought affect fish? April 2012
Full Service Aquatics, What Happens to Pond Fish in Winter? January 25, 2011
Rob Neumann, Department of Natural Resources Management and Engineering, University of Connecticut, Impacts of Drought on Fish
Drought, heat lower reservoirs, impact boating, fish in Northern Nevada, Reno Gazette-Journal, June 24, 2013

Drought, River Fragmentation Forcing Endangered Fish out of Water, Biologist Finds, Science Daily, June 6, 2013

Monday, July 15, 2013

Apple #644: Tour de France

You may have noticed that the Tour de France is on every freakin' NBC channel practically all day long.  When Lance "Uniball" Armstrong was competing, I never had much interest in it because, duh, who's going to win?  Now that he's out of it, I find myself kind of curious.

But as I'm watching the horde of men riding their bicycles, none of them apparently that much faster than the others, I realize I understand nothing about this event.  They all travel in a pack, so how is this a race?  How come the guy leading the pack today isn't the guy they're talking about as the race leader?  When the guys at the front of the pack switch off taking the lead as if it's all choreographed even though none of them are on the same team, I ask again, how is this a race?

With all these questions going unanswered even while I watched NBC's coverage, I thought it was time to find out for myself how the Tour de France works.

The Tour de France peloton. That guy adjusting his chin strap doesn't seem to be working very hard.  Neither do many of the other riders.  So what's going on here?
(Photo by Graham Watson from Cycle Sport Online)

The Course

  • The Tour de France is a series of races that total in the neighborhood of 3,550 km (2,200 miles).  The race lasts for 3 weeks, beginning in early July and ending in Paris on the Champs Elysses at the end of the month. 
  • It's considered one of the most grueling -- er, athletically challenging sports events in the world. That's like riding your bike from New York to Las Vegas, but with more mountains.  The race is so long and challenging, it would be impossible to complete it without teammates.
  • I thought the race followed one path from point A to point B, start to finish, but no.  The race course stops and starts and moves and jumps all over the place.  The course also changes from one year to the next.

Tour de France course map from 2011
(Map from Le Tour de France

Here's the course in 2012
(Map from Le Tour de France)

This is the course in 2013.  This year, the race started on the island of Corsica.  You know, where Napoleon was born.  And as you can see, sometimes the distance from one stage to the next is so large that the competitors have to fly to get there.
(Map from Velo Peloton)

  • The course travels over a mixture of types of terrain.  This year, there are 7 flat stages, 5 hilly stages, and 6 mountain stages with 4 finishes on the summit.  There are always 21 stages, but the number of them that are flat or hilly or mountainous varies from year to year.  (My numbers don't add up to 21, but I'll get to the parts I'm leaving out in a bit.)
  • There are also 2 rest days.
  • Each stage is timed.  The winner of the Tour de France is the person with the lowest time of all the stages added together.  
  • This is why one person might be leading the pack on one particular day, but the guy the broadcasters are talking about--the overall leader--may be somewhere else in the pack.  If current overall race leader has a huge time lead from previous stages, it might not matter if he's a ways behind in a current stage.

Races within the Race

  • So there's the overall prize, which is to win the entire race by having the lowest cumulative time.  Race officials keep track of who has the lowest overall time from one day to the next, and that person gets to wear the yellow jersey.  If someone else has the lowest overall time the next day, that person gets the yellow jersey.  And so on until the end of the race.  
  • The person wearing the yellow jersey at the end of the race / the person with the lowest overall time wins € 450,000 (~$588,000).  Traditionally the winner splits the prize money with his teammates.
  • The yellow jersey for lowest total time isn't the only thing you can win in the Tour de France.  Because the race is so long and contains so many challenges, there are lots of mini-races.
  • You can win a stage of the race.  You get  € 22,500 (~$29,400) and bragging rights for winning a day's stage.  It is possible to win a stage, or even several stages, and not be the overall race winner.
  • In addition to the flat, hilly, and mountainous stages, there are also time trials.  In French, these are called contre le montre, or CLM, stages.  Most time trials are about 35-50 km, and the riders compete against the clock, riding special aerodynamically-designed bikes.  Usually the time trials are individual events, so you could win a time trial.  There are also team time trials, in which case your personal time would only matter in the sense that it's added to your teammates' times, and your team's overall time is used to determine the winner.  
  • This year, there are 2 individual time trials and 1 team trial.  Time trials could be held on flat or hilly or mountainous ground.

  • Within certain stages, there are areas designated as sprint sections.  Points are awarded on the basis of who finishes the sprint sections in what order, meaning the first sprinter to finish the mini sprint section wins the most points and so on.  The sprinting sections could occur in the middle of a very long 100km+ section, so all of a sudden the racers will bust out the speed and start cycling like mad, jockeying for position and trying to pass each other to finish the sprint first.  The points leader of the sprint sections wins a green jersey. At the end of the race, the rider wearing the green jersey is awarded € 25,000 (~$32,600).

  • Similarly, in the mountain sections, points are awarded to the people who are the first to reach the summit of a mountain section.  The "king of the mountains" wears the polka-dot jersey.  The final polka-dot jersey winner is also awarded € 25,000 (~$32,600).

  • The white jersey is awarded to the best rider under 26 years old.  Like the other jerseys, the wearer of the white jersey may change from one day to the next.  Since relatively few riders can compete for this, it's not as highly coveted as some of the other jerseys.  The white jersey winner is awarded € 20,000 (~$26,135).

  • There's also an award for combativity. This distinction is a little harder to define.  It's been described as "most effort," "puts on the best show," or "most aggressive."  The winner of the combativity award is determined by a jury of 8 cycling experts at the end of each stage.  The combativity winner may or may not be the stage winner.  This person is awarded a race number with a red background and a white number, and at the end of the race is awarded € 20,000 (~$26,135).

  • Your team can also win awards.  Most teams start out with 9 people, but some or many often drop out as the race progresses.  So the team award recognizes the best 3 riders of a team in each stage (team time trials excepted; those get a different award).  Team winners get a race number with a yellow background and a black number.  The winning 3-person team at the end of the race gets € 50,000 (~$65,345).
  • There's also a joke award called the Lanterne Rouge (red light).  The very last man in the stage gets called this, after the red light on the caboose of a train.  The name is a joke, but if the last rider falls too far back from the pack, he can be eliminated from the Tour. Some also say that there's no dishonor in being the red light, since many riders never finish the Tour at all.  So even being last, but finishing, is still a remarkable achievement.
  • Leave it to the French to come up with a sport where the prizes are clothes, eh?

 Strategy Basics

  • By now you're getting the picture that the Tour de France is more complicated than just a bunch of guys racing their bikes from one point to another.  Some people are sprinters and are hoping only to win the green jersey.  Some people love the mountains best and only want to win those stages.  Some people have a goal of winning a certain number of stages -- like, maybe one.  There's a whole lot of stuff going on in that pack of bicyclists.
  • But knowing that different people are shooting for different goals doesn't really help interpret what's going on when you see a pack of riders all bunched up and maybe four or five guys strung out at the front.  So what is going on in that pack of riders?

The peloton.  Egad, I hope none of those riders tips over and knocks someone over that ledge.
(Photo from The Epoch Times)

  • First of all, the pack is called the peloton (the word means "herd").  "Peloton" can refer to the main bunch of riders, or it could be used to refer to the entire field of competitors.
  • In general, especially in the flat sections, the peloton tries to stay bunched together.  This helps the riders reduce drag and thus conserve energy.  Riding in the middle of a peloton can help a rider conserve as much as 40% of the energy required to keep pace.
  • The peloton will shift shape to adapt to shifting headwinds or crosswinds.  It's kind of like how a flock of birds will change direction on the fly. 

This gives you some idea of how the line of riders can move and shift as they're drafting, or compensating for wind resistance.
(Photo from Zimbio)

  • A disadvantage to sticking with the pack is that sometimes a rider will crash, and in that packed peloton which can be shoulder-to-shoulder, it's likely that a falling rider will take others down with him.  
  • An advantage to sticking with the peloton is that when the whole pack crosses the finish line, it's too difficult for the race officials to figure out who crossed exactly at what millisecond, so every rider in the pack is awarded the same time.  If you're at the very back of the bunch, you get the same time as those in the middle of the bunch.
  • The only exception to this rule is that the first three in the pack will get a time bonus, or deduction, from their individual cumulative times. This encourages people to break away from the pack, especially toward the finish of a stage.
  • But often it's not just one person who breaks away, but his entire team, or maybe a few people from different teams.  When this happens, the drafting technique changes, but still operates with the goal of conserving energy.  Members of the same team will allow one person to ride in front for a while, then drop back and let another person move forward, and so on.
  • If the breakaway pack is comprised of people from different teams, one team may still cycle through the different leaders, but they will do so in a way that tries to trap the members of the rival team so they must slow down or can't assume the lead.  
  • Sometimes a breakaway pack will allow one rider to zoom ahead while the rest of his teammates stay with the breakaway pack and trap a rival team, thus allowing their team leader to gain a significant time advantage.
  • (If you want to see a visual representation of these drafting & trapping strategies, check out this super-informative animated video about the Tour de France. The explanation of drafting methods starts around 5:19.)

So far, a lot of the photos I've posted make it look like these rides are like strolls in the park. But riders can reach speeds in excess of 100 km/hr -- 60 to 65 mph -- on mountain stage descents.
(Photo from the Winnipeg Free Press)

  • The one rider who zooms ahead of the pack gets a lot of glamor and glory, but he wouldn't be able to do that and stay there without help from his teammates (domestiques).  The teammates often ride at the front for the majority of a stage, essentially doing the grunt work and allowing the team leader to conserve energy until the end of the stage.  Teammates can also drop back to the cars that are following, collect water & food, and bring it up to the team leader.  If the leader crashes and ruins his bike, the domestique will give the leader his bike.

One of the many things the domestiques--helper teammates--will do: drop back to collect water or food from the team car, then zip up to where the team leader is riding and give him the water.
(Photo from Bike Radar)

  • All the work that the supporting teammates do is yet another reason why the winner of the Tour de France, if he's any kind of decent person at all, splits his winnings with his team.
  • Then there are the mountains.  Simply and crassly put, the mountains kick people's ass.  Riders who specialize in sprinting tend to drop out of the race in the mountains.  Riders who have trained long and hard for the Tour may still overextend themselves in the mountains, "hit the wall" as runners say, and find themselves simply too burned out to continue.
  • Many Tour winners in the past dominated the mountain sections, building up enough of a lead in those stages to compensate for slower times in the time trial stages.  Lance Armstrong was known for blowing away his competitors in the mountain stages, and he was also fast in the time trials.  Now we know how he managed to do that, but this tells you how dominant he was in the sport, that he excelled at both.

Graphical depiction of the changes in elevation of one of the mountain stages, from the race in 2006. Yeah, it's only 182 km (113 miles) long.  Piece of cake.
(Graph from Climb by Bike)

OK, so now these guys are working hard.  This is the first of several mountain stages.
(Photo from

One Last Question

  • Why is the winner's jersey yellow?  
  • Answer: The Tour was originally conceived as a way to promote the French newspaper L'Auto.  At the time, that newspaper was printed on yellow paper.  The yellow jersey reinforced the idea of the yellow paper.  Branding, ladies and gentlemen, in 1903.

Where are the Riders Now?

  • As I type this, the Tour has completed its 15th stage.  Only 6 more to go.  British cyclist Christopher Froome is currently wearing the yellow jersey.  He's been the race leader since the 8th stage, though he's only won 2 stages.  He's been either 1st or 2nd in the competition for the polka-dot jersey, which you now know means he was killing it in the mountain stages.  Which you also now know means this guy may turn out to be the Tour's winner.

Christopher Froome in a polka-dot jersey in 2012.  There are lots of photos of him wearing the yellow jersey, and that may be how he appears after the finish this year.  So I thought I'd give you this one for some variety.  Froome is 28 years old, and he was born in Nairobi, but he rides for Great Britain (his father is British).
(Photo from the Telegraph)

Oh, there are also the many nutjobs who line up along the course, ready to cheer on their favorite athletes.  These are some of the more sane ones.  You don't wanna see the Swiss guys in the green sling Borat-bikinis. Or maybe you do.
(Photo from Total Pro Sports)

Now that I know all this, I want to watch it.  What about you? 

Le Tour de France, 2013 Route, Sporting stakes / rules
Cathy Gellis, UC Berkeley, The Tour de France Explained
Infobytes.TV, Tour de France animated video
BBC Sport Cycling, Tour de France
BBC Sport Academy, How does Lance stay ahead of the pack?
Bike Radar, Tour de France glossary 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Apple #643: There She Blows

I have a request! Daily Apple reader Matt Kish* asked me the following:

My question is, why did whalers shout "Thar she blows!" when sighting a whale, regardless of the actual gender of the whale itself? To the best of my knowledge, both male and female whales were hunted and killed. This question was brought up at a Stump the Scholars panel at the Moby-Dick Marathon in New Bedford in January, and even the collected Melville scholars were unable to come up with a decisive answer.
I'm shaking in my apple-shoes a bit at this question because if even the Moby-Dick scholars don't know the answer, I'm guessing I might have a hard time finding it out.  But who knows? Maybe I could get lucky and come across something obscure.

[*normally I change the names of people who ask me questions to protect their identity and also have some fun with giving my friends exotic names. I didn't in this instance because Matt's book is really cool, and I wanted to give you a little nudge about it and tell you that there is no way I ever would have finished reading Moby-Dick without it.]

I have some theories about why it's "she" in "There she blows," but as any good English lit student knows, the best place to start is with the text itself.

Here's the passage in Moby-Dick where the phrase occurs:

[chapter 133] while but two thirds of the way aloft, and while peering ahead through the horizontal vacancy between the main-top-sail and top-gallant-sail, he [Ahab] raised a gull-like cry in the air. “There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”
Ahab knows Moby Dick well enough to know that he's male.  So why say "There she blows?"  Why not say "There he blows?"

The spray, or blow, from a sperm whale.  This is what the whalers would keep their eyes peeled to see, even before the body of the whale might be visible.
(Photo from Whale Spotter)

Theory 1: It's Only Because Ahab is Insane; Then Everyone Copied Him

Could this be a peculiarity of Ahab's or Melville's or anyway of this book's?  Could it be that Moby-Dick gained such popularity that we now think that every nineteenth-century whaler said this, when in real life nobody else said this?

Answer: No.  It was a common phrase at the time.  Here's some evidence.

In Reverend Henry Cheever's The Whale and His Captors (1853), they use the same cry:
"For the first time in our now ten weeks' passage from the Hawaiian Islands, on this New Zealand Cruising Ground, we heard, day before yesterday, that life-kindling sound to a weary whaleman, THERE SHE BLOWS! The usual questions and orders from the deck quickly followed.  
'Where away?'
'Two points on the weather bow!'
'How far off?'
'A mile and a half!'
'Keep your eye on her!'

From J. Ross Browne's Etchings of a Whaling Cruize (1846) quoted in Moby-Dick  
“There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head. “Where away?” demanded the captain. “Three points off the lee bow, sir.” “Raise up your wheel. Steady!” “Steady, sir.” “Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?” “Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!” “Sing out! sing out every time!” “Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there- there- thar she blows -bowes -bo-o-os!”

In this instance, they've spotted a whole bunch of whales (a shoal of them), yet the cry remains "she."

In this rendition, the spray from the whale is pretty enormous.  The people in the whaling boats are having a rough time of it.
(Image from the National Archives of Canada, from the Canadian Museum of Civilization)

I found other examples (see Sources below), but for the sake of not beating the point to death, I think it's safe to conclude that it wasn't just Melville or Ahab being weird, but it really was what people actually said at the time.  I also think, since my first example followed Moby-Dick's publication by only 2 years and my second preceded the book by 5 years, that they weren't simply mimicking Moby-Dick, either.

So I'm ruling out Theory 1.  My next idea comes from how the feminine gender is used and when the masculine gender is used to refer to the whale(s).

Theory 2: The Spout is Female, the Whale is Male

A book by James Cooper Wheeler called There She Blows! A Whaling Yarn (1909) provides some especially good examples in support of this theory.  As in Moby-Dick, the whalers also use the feminine to give the signal:
"Jonas, is that a whale?"
He caught it like a flash, and answered:
"Of course it is! Sing out quick before the officers catch on and get the credit."
"There she blows!" I yelled, and I think the whale must have been deaf if he did not hear me himself.
Here, the hero yells out "There she blows" after seeing the spray, and then refers to the whale as male.  Only a few lines later, someone else on the whaling ship does the same thing:
[T]he Old Man stiffened to an attitude of intense attention:
"Thar she blows! Thar she blows! Thar she blows! Thar she white waters!"
This last wad a wailing screech, and the Old Man called, his voice eager as a terrier's whine:
"What do you make of him, Mr. Stoddard? That sounds to me like sperm whale, sir!"
"It's a long bull, sir! And sperm all right."
A pattern seems to be developing: when referring to evidence of the whale, the feminine pronoun is used.  But when the whale itself is discussed, the masculine pronoun is used.

The same thing happens again a bit later.  The whale has been identified as male, but when he surfaces to breathe and shoots up the tell-tale spray of water, the feminine is used again:
The whale disappeared now, and Jonas said he had sounded, but would come to the surface again before long. I held my breath and searched that stretch of black water as though I was looking for gold. Again I was the lucky one--I guess I had the best eyes--and I caught the black spot and the mist spray of the spout before the others:
"Thar she blows! Thar she blows! Thar she blows!"
The immediate referent of the "she" is the spout.  So maybe it's only the spray of water, the signal, that's feminine, while the whale itself is whatever sex it was born with.

In this engraving depicting Dutch whaling in the Arctic, everybody's circling to get the whale, whose spume of spray is clearly visible.
(Image from Wikipedia)

If that's true--and I'm not saying it definitely is, I'm only proposing a theory--why?  Could it be that the spray-spout was given a feminine gender in the same what that, say, ships used to be referred to as feminine?  (They're not anymore, by the way.  Most navies around the world have agreed that it's outmoded to do that, and it is now official policy to refer to ships using the neuter gender.)  Perhaps there are some similarities between the rationale for calling ships "she" and calling a whale's breathing-spume "she."

Sub-Theory A: Just as Ships are Feminine Because of Grammar, So Also is the Spout

  •  If we're going to go with this idea, then it will be helpful to know why ships are referred to as female.  Then we can see if the same concept applies to the spout.
  • As with many old habits of grammar, nobody is quite sure where the practice of referring to ships as female originated.  
  • But some very educated guessers surmise that in the languages which were forerunners to English, the word for "ship" was feminine.  However, the OED says that ship most likely came from the Old High German word schiff.  I don't know what gender that word had then, but in today's German, schiff is neuter.
  • On the other hand, the wiseGEEK says that "In most Indo-European languages with grammatical gender, the word for 'ship' is feminine."  So maybe my supposition about German being the best source of ship is off-target, and maybe the true root of the word does have a feminine gender.  
  • So I'm not ruling this explanation out, but I don't think it's a hard and fast, absolute answer.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, it was popular to put figureheads on the prows of ships. The ship-bound statues were supposed to ward off bad luck, and if the crewmates did drown, the spirit of the figurehead would lead the sailors' spirits to heaven.  Very often the figureheads were female.
(Photo of the 1877 Elissa from Ahoy - Mac's Web Log)

  • But let's pretend that's right, and let's pretend that the root-word for spout influenced the gender in English.  What is the gender of the word for "spout" in other European languages?
    • spout
      • French bec or jet both masculine
    • spray
      • German Sprühnebel masculine
    • fountain
      • French fontaine feminine
      • German Fontäne feminine
      • Latin fons masculine
  • This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, but it sure isn't looking very conclusive in any particular direction.  I think I'm going to conclude that if it's only the spray-spout that's regarded as feminine, it probably isn't for any reason having to do with the gender of some root word.

Engraving from J. Ross Browne's Etchings of a Whaling Cruise
(Image from Ten Pages [or More])

Sub-Theory B: Just as Ships are Feminine Because of Male Bias, So Also is the Spout

  • Another possible reason for why ships were called "she" back in the day may have had to do with the fact that only men were working on them.  
  • It was even considered bad luck to have a woman on board ship -- though sometimes the captain's wife sailed with the ship, and it was even noted in some instances that women made better navigators.  But on the whole, it was nearly always men who crewed the ship.  So they decided the gender of the ship, and they generally decided it was female.
  • Various readings of this practice have been offered, such as that "the ship was the only woman allowed at sea and was treated with deference and respect," or that ships were expensive and required a lot of maintenance just like a woman, or that a ship was given a feminine gender "to show a certain kind of sympathy with or affection for the thing." 
  • Regardless of the rationale, one thing that does seem to hold true is that the ship was regarded as "other."  It's not one of us men, but different, but it has more personality than an "it," so therefore it's female.

Currier & Ives print of whaling
(Image from somewhere on this Tumblr page)

  • If the whale is male--and it seemed that since female sperm whales tend to hide out at lower depths where they protect their calves, most often the whales that were encountered were male--and if the spout is the first sign of the whale, the thing that identifies the male whale and is therefore in a kind of allegiance with the men onboard the ship, and is therefore something they have a kind of affinity with yet are also apart from because they're not out there in the water with it, then the spray-spout is given a feminine gender.
  • Or that could be a lot of hoo-hah.
  • (Russian ships, by the way, were masculine.)
I think I'm going to sum up Theory 2, that the spout is feminine even while the whale may be masculine, by concluding that while that theory might be accurate, I can't put my finger on a particular reason that seems to be a hard and fast explanation of why that might be so.  So I'm not going to say that's definitely the deal.

Watch out for that tail.
(Image from Full Stop)

People who want to give Moby-Dick a thorough gender-based reading might have a lot of fun playing with the concept of the sea being feminine and the spout being more of the sea than of the whale.  Or you might want to play around with the idea of the whale being the male whalers' prey, and so even if they know the sex of the whale to be male, the spray-spout which is its harbinger could be whatever gender they want, and since they want it to be "other" and therefore easier to hunt and kill, they settled on feminine.

Those concepts are for other folks to duke out in literary circles.  Not for your Apple Lady who tries to deal in verifiable fact as much as possible.  So I'll leave those possibilities right there, as only possibilities (which could also be a bunch of hoo-hah). 

Theory 3: It's Easier to Say

  • You try shouting "There he blows!" and then "There she blows!" and you'll see what I mean.
  • It might come down to something as simple as that.

The Real Answer

In case you haven't figured this out already, the real answer is "I don't know for sure, and nobody else seems to, either."  (Sorry I couldn't do better for you, Mr. Kish.)

The End.

(Image from the NY Review of Books)

Related entry: Ambergris

Reverend Henry T. Cheever, The Whale and His Captors (1853), at EyeWitness to History

James Cooper Wheeler, There She Blows! A Whaling Yarn (1909)
Capt. John A. Cook and Samson S. Pederson, Thar She Blows (1937)
New Bedford Whaling Museum, Whales and Hunting
Long Island History, Whaling & Fishing
Columbia County Historical Society, Whaling Terms and Phrases
Glossophilia, Why is a ship a she?, Naming Ships
Steve Krause, Gender in German
Reverso, spray in German, and other words in other European languages
Timeless Myths, Women on Board Ship - Bad Luck