Blue Whale Units


by rkatz — Jul 14, 2010

Apt comparisons are sometimes elusive, but comparing the size of a giant tree to a creature that lives in the ocean and is rarely seen in its entirety is not that useful. How many blue whales do "fit" in a giant Sequoia?

It looms above us, massive and humbling. Each piece of its bark is a cinderblock-sized rectangle, it's branches the size of trees so large I could not wrap my arms around them, even if I could reach. In its branches, I am imagining an entire village of Lost Boys, a Swiss Family Robinson world in which a grove is excessive.

Taking in its immensity, I think to myself, inadequately, "That is a really, really big tree." Somehow more grandiose prose escapes me and I feel even shorter than usual standing in the shadow of California's General Sherman Tree, the most gigantic of the Giant Sequoias.

Lost in thoughts lacking profundity of any sort, I give a startled jump when a park ranger sidles up behind us.

"You see that branch up there?" he asks, interrupting. He's maybe thirty, got a three-day-beard and chops. These combined with a reddish-blond tussle of hair frame a face that has more than a few freckles. His demeanor is cool, like he's about to really blow our socks off with some trivia.

At the moment the ranger arrived Cody was in the middle of figuring out a reasonable angle from which to capture the scale of this enormous creature. Respecting the ranger's presence, he stops his project and looks obediently upward. Daisy, who was blabbing away about other big trees she's seen in northern California, halts her stream-of-consciousness mid-sentence.

Following the ranger's extended arm, we all keen our heads to the side, training our focus on a branch the size of a Giant Sequoia in its own right.

Our attention correctly directed, he explains, "Well, you could hang a blue whale from that branch." His face is earnest, happy he can enrich our experience.

My brow furrows as I consider this. I look over and Alex seems equally perplexed.

No doubt, the West is bedazzled with many impressive things – rich stores of ore that changed the course of human settlement, marvels such as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite's half-dome, the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, Mount Whitney, the Great Salt Lake… The list continues, with a seemingly endless array of impressive flora, fauna, and geological features.

At 275 feet tall, with a circumference measuring 103 feet (and growing), the General Sherman tree is a true western jewel. In fact, it boasts more than just a western United States claim to fame. It is, by volume, the biggest non-clonal tree in the whole world. Pretty darn impressive. We have learned all of this from the informational plaque at the base of the tree.

And now we also know that you could hang a blue whale from its lowest branch.

The five of us are no longer preoccupied with anything other than the tree and the size of a blue whale, wondering individually and silently what exactly hanging a blue whale (definitely by the tail, I surmise) might involve and what the ability to do so means about the branch.

Our informant, clad in his green slacks and beige button-down shirt with an official-looking forest-service badge, continues unabated by our silence and quizzical expressions.

"You could actually fit two blue whales in the General Sherman tree." He says this as though remarking about his own child's straight-A report card as he hangs it on the fridge.

At this point, we are all deeply confused. Cody and Michael smirk, and appear to be suppressing laughter. Daisy looks at me, her eyebrows raised, the right one cocked. I can hear the Scooby Doo noise she is thinking but not uttering.

Finally Alex, who has been silent the entire time, just has to say something. He and his engineering mind interrogate in as geeky but kind tone manageable (the requisite shoving of thick glasses up his nose while snorting is thankfully absent), "Ummm… Excuse me…"

The ranger crosses his fingers over his small paunch and leans back to field the question.

"Is that a unit of length, volume, or strength?"

I am now pursing my lips, letting bits of air escape as I try to contain my laughter, having been troubled by more fundamental concerns than those Alex had so delicately expressed. I was wondering – how big is a blue whale? How many blue whales fit end-to-end on a football field? Or in a swimming pool? I've never see a blue whale. I mean, at the very least, hearing that this tree right in front of me was comparable in size (by some metric) to not one, but two blue whales made me realize, counterproductively, that blue whales are really big animals.

With Alex's question, my thoughts turn to the idea of how blue whales could be used to measure volume. Do they have to be blended? Can they be fit together like an MC Escher drawing? Do they put the whales in water and measure the volume before and after the whale and then put the tree in water (in contrast to the whales, this seems impractical) and do the same calculation and then compare them?

The ranger stops. His hands fall limp at his sides, his shoulders slump, and his chest is no longer in proud papa mode.

"Umm…" he stammers.

He pauses, now equally troubled by statistics he had only moments ago been spouting with gusto.

"Come to think of it," he says, "that's a really strange thing to tell people."