The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Where do space whales come from?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It's the perfect painting to find at a garage sale: the 1970s-style space whale, floating through a psychedelic wonderland of nebulae and hippie hopes for world peace. But where did this iconic image come from?

Over at Lapham's Quarterly, Rebecca Onion has a great essay where she explores the strange history of the space whale. At one point, she talks about how the whale went from a symbol of superpowerful, exploitable nature to one of nature's vulnerability — and then, how it became linked in people's minds with space exploration:

The space whale was born at the tail end of two hundred of the worst years in the history of cetacean-human relationships. Like other charismatic megafauna, the whale went from threatened to idolized with dizzying speed. The early-nineteenth-century whaling vessels that were the setting for Melville’s Moby-Dick took whales for their oil, their baleen, and their bones. This process reduced the huge creatures, as biologist Joe Roman observes in his bookWhale, to “a stamp in a [ship’s] logbook, the number of [oil] barrels inscribed on its flank.” No sooner had the discovery of petroleum, the decline in corsets’ fashionableness, and the Civil War’s disruptions combined to relieve the pressure on the whale population than the invention of new kinds of harpoon technology put new populations of whales at risk.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the country’s ongoing fascination with space, which (arguably) began with the popularity of “rocketman” television shows in the 1950s, coincided with burgeoning environmentalism. (Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us was a bestseller in 1951.) Photographers and filmmakers likeJacques Cousteau and James Hudnall published new images of whales in their underwater habitats, and nature writer Victor B. Scheffer had a hit in the popular book The Year of the Whale.

Meanwhile, science fiction increasingly linked space exploration with psychedelic mind-expansion—a theme that fit with the implications of the new research on dolphin and whale communication. In 1971, Roger Payne and Scott McVay published the results of ten years of research into the patterns of humpback whale songs, and the public heard their recordings for the first time—the album of these recordings sold more than 100,000 copies on vinyl throughout the 1970s.


And obviously this trope has continued into the present day, as we learned in the Doctor Who episode about the abused space whale.


This could have been a plotline ripped right out of that 1970s moment that Onion describes. Read more of her fascinating essay on the history of this science fiction trope over at Lapham's Quarterly.