Above is a nineteenth century whaling scene drawn from observation. A casual observer may see nothing but mayhem, but to me it screams out for further research on whaler logs and diaries. Here’s what I see.
From scale considerations alone, the larger whale featured on the left can only be a giant male, the smaller a baby. Mature males are not a natural part of these pods, nor of parental care, but even today they are occasionally seen partaking in an unusual ‘ritual’ where they gently cradle a baby in their mouths then carry it some distance. This behaviour would be pointless unless it impressed or intimidated the females into granting those males future favours. The only way I could see it impressing is if it was a ‘sacred’ promise of protection. In the above watercolour that depicts a supposedly typical whaling scene, I see the male picking up the baby at great personal risk and attempting to carry him off to safety. An attempt at real rescue whose method exactly parallels those rituals known to twenty first century science.
Once the calf is free, and seen to be in safe ‘hands’, the rest of the female pod would no longer be psychologically bound to it, and so immediately free to dive and swim free. In this way, the male’s actions have the potential to save the entire pod.
Because this wouldn’t have endangered the nineteenth century whalers themselves, they would think nothing of it. They would not tell grand tales of it to outsiders, and they would only mention it among themselves to the degree that avoiding it might help them in becoming more efficient in their lethal task. I have even found hints that this behaviour was once rather common.
Whalers of the time of Herman Melville seemed to be confident that the natural social structure of sperm whales was for each female pod to be accompanied by its own permanent giant male. This implies that whalers of the nineteenth century observed two huge differences from the behaviour seem today. Firstly that the rate of male-female interactions were an order of magnitude more common during that first commercial sperm whaling period than after. Secondly, that the approach of the whalers to those pods caused those males to linger on in the company of a single pod till the end.