The mystery of washed up whales

In the photographs of the 17 sperm whales washed ashore on beaches in England, Germany and the Netherlands this week, we are confronted by a fascination with the unknown. Despite warnings to stay clear of the area, crowds gathered around the bodies of these deep-sea mammals, and much has been made of people posing for selfies with them.

Whale strandings are not uncommon, and the number has been on the rise since the 1980s. They have been reported in Britain as far back as 1762 and across Europe have long provided a subject matter for artists. In 1602 the Dutch painter and printmaker Jan Saenredam made an engraving of a whale that had been washed ashore near the town of Beverwijk, about 20km northwest of Amsterdam.

In Beached Wale Near Beverwijk, Saenredam depicts a strangely familiar scene. Groups of onlookers crowd around the massive body of the whale led by Ernst Casimir, the Count of Nassau-Dietz, who holds a handkerchief over his nose.

Four men climb atop the whale, two of them investigating the giant left eye, while in the foreground we see Saenredam himself, producing a sketch of the body. The Latin text notes accompanying the engraving give us the precise dimensions of the Beverwijk whale.

What both the recent photographs and Saenredam's engraving show is our curiosity with the ocean and its inhabitants. In his 1994 book, The Lure of the Sea, Alain Corbin describes how, before the 18th Century, the ocean was seen as a fearsome wilderness, capable of re-enacting the biblical Flood, and patrolled by sea monsters.

But by the Enlightenment it was precisely this fearsomeness that drew people toward the ocean, so that it gradually became a place of wonder and pleasure.

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