On Their Own Behalf

©1998, Jim Nollman

From the Interspecies Newsletter

  What good is a used up world,
And how could it be worth having? –Sting

No matter how luminous the relationship between humans and whales may seem today, it is the dark, festering topic of whaling that dominates our historical relationship with cetaceans. Until a mere thirty years ago, human beings were involved in a mass slaughter of whales that left several species at the brink of extinction, a precipice from which several of them have never fully recovered. Today, the clamor to resume whaling remains loud in the halls where resource policies are legislated.

The actual holocaust of the great whales is an historic event that began in the middle of the fifteenth century. Before that time neither the technology nor the will was of a sufficient capacity to pursue such large animals on the open ocean. Nonetheless, human beings have killed cetaceans for thousands of years, although ancient whalers like the Arctic Finns sought their prey only when they ventured close to shore, or were stranded to provide a local windfall. Coastal tribes ate whale meat and burned the oil in their lamps. Northern people used the rib cages as framing material for house construction. The baleen plates in the whale’s mouth provided a durable material that was springy and light. Beluga whale skins provided a high grade of white leather, and raw blubber was the primary source for vitamin C in the far North. The Arctic narwhal provided a spiraling ivory tooth up to ten feet long which upheld the medieval myth of the unicorn.

To understand the rush to industrial whaling, it is essential to recognize that oil derived from petroleum products only became generally available after the middle of the 19th century. Before that time, people relied on vegetable oil to light their lamps. Whale oil burned just as well, but it was far more expensive to acquire. This changed after the Basques people of Northern Spain perfected the design of whaleboats and the methodology of pursuit in the fourteenth century. They began their whaling adventure on the Bay of Biscay, pursuing the right whale which, as a slow swimmer, was the easiest species to harpoon. Unlike most cetacean species that sank when killed, this was the "right" whale for staying afloat.

Whaling played a crucial role in the colonial expansion of Europe. A map drawn in 1413 entitled Carta Catalán de Mecia de Viladestes shows a Basque caravel hunting a whale on the sea far northwest of Iceland. Some historians believe the Basques hunted bowhead whales along the east coast of Canada half a century before Columbus landed in the West Indies. In the sixteenth century, the Basques captain, Francois Sopite Zaburu, hit on the ingenious idea of building a stove right on deck to render whale blubber into oil and store it in barrels for months at a time. This invention completely freed the whalers from their onshore facilities, while the early rumblings of the Industrial Revolution produced an increasing number of new machines that needed lubricating oil. Dutch whalers started exploring the New World. French whalers tapped the seemingly bottomless marine mammal resource in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, an action that eventually led to the French colonization of Canada. The Basques, more tribe than nation, eventually lagged behind as European industry came to depend upon stable supplies of whale oil.

When the right whale population declined from overhunting off the coast of Western Europe, a Dutch businessman learned from a Basque whaling captain that vast herds of bowhead whales congregated around the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen located above the north coast of Norway. In 1625, a wealthy Dutchman built Smeerenburg or Blubber town, installing a massive platform for dragging whales whole out of the water and dumping the bodies directly into a giant pressure cooker. The process was quick and efficient, producing a half dozen grades of oil, animal feed, and high-grade fertilizer. Between 1675-1721, the Dutch recorded a kill of thirty-three thousand whales. The unrelenting pressure of the hunt eventually caused the bowhead population off Spitzbergen to collapse.

Over the next hundred and fifty years, larger boats from several European nations explored distant oceans and different species. Advances in winch technology finally made it possible to pursue species whose bodies sink after death. The British focused on humpbacks in the Hawaiian Islands as well as the thirty-five foot bottlenose whales that once thrived off the northeast coast of Scotland. On a tip from a Chinese pilot, the American, Joseph Scammon, learned that gray whales congregate in the shallow lagoons of Baja California. Within thirty years, the grays were commercially extinct. The bottlenose whales soon followed. The Hawaiian humpback population was devastated. Unique in the annals of whaling, the gray population actually recovered, was hunted a second time, then crashed again.

It was Nantucketers who figured out an efficient method to hunt the powerfully muscled, deep-diving, and lucrative sperm whale. The sperms quickly became the "right" whale, at least for Americans, by virtue of several superlative products rendered from its body parts. Although the flesh of this creature is considered inedible by humans, the average-sized sperm whale yields more oil of a higher grade, by body weight, than any other whale. The peg-like teeth protruding from the lower jaw are ivory. Ambergris, a waxy excretion from the whale’s large intestine, and composed of the partially digested remains of squid beaks, was a major component of fine perfume. The most valuable product was spermaceti.

The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859 led to a new, inexpensive source of machine oil. The Civil War interceded, causing the sperm whaling industry to lose its work force and its capital, neither of which it was able to recover after peace was won. Lamp oil, rendered first from the blubber of right whales, then bowheads, and finally sperms turned night into day, lit factories and homes until Edison destroyed the market forever with his invention and subsequent marketing of the electric light bulb in the 1870s, incidentally turning the inventor into the greatest whale saver in history. For all these reasons, the sperm whale hunt tapered off just as the species became depleted to the point of commercial extinction. The hunt resumed again just before the Second World War, now focused primarily on acquiring spermaceti. In the 1957-58 season, a total of 18,853 sperm whales were taken, mostly by Japanese and Norwegians. In the last year they were hunted, 1979-80, whalers took 2,203. Since then sperm whales have been granted a full reprieve, and the species has rebounded to certain extent.


For Brushes and Brooms

The mysticetes have not been so fortunate. At the end of the nineteenth century, there were not enough baleen whales anywhere in the known world to support a continuation of the hunt. The fleets of "whalebone whalers" rusted in their moorings. Then, during the first years of the new century, almost too improbably, explorers reported sighting vast, herds of rorquals–the family of whalebone whales that includes blues and their smaller look-alikes, the fins, the bryde’s, the seis–swimming off the remote coast of Antarctica. Huge factory ships were built capable of slicing up a hundred foot blue whale in just a few hours. Advances in refrigeration technology permitted the meat to be stored for the duration of the voyage, transforming it from a local and seasonal specialty into an item of mass global marketing. New harpoons were introduced equipped with exploding tips and shot from cannons mounted on the decks of catcher boats. Air hoses kept the carcasses afloat.

Antarctica became the whaler’s motherlode, the site of a systematic slaughter that outdid every previous hunt by efficiency if not by ferocity. Administered first by Norwegians, and subsidized by British and Greek capital–Aristotle Onassis was a major investor–and later enjoined by the Japanese, the Antarctic "fishery" yielded, at its peak, a whale every twelve minutes. The blues, most massive and most valuable of the rorquals, were the first to vanish. The industry then targeted the next in size, the fins. They vanished. Next came the seis, which eventually vanished as well. Then the brydes. Today, Japanese whalers still venture into Antarctic waters to hunt the last healthy population of rorquals, the thirty-foot minke whale, despite an overwhelming vote by the International Whaling Commission to designate Antarctica a whale preserve. Even as politicians jab and parry over the terms of whale preservation, illegal "pirate" whalers hunt several protected species to provide meat for fish markets throughout the Orient.

In his epic poem, Whale Nation, Heathcote Williams devotes several pages to an inventory of products produced from whale parts. Because it is so long, and because so many of the items seem supercilious, the list finally attains the dimensions of a great tragedy, documenting better than any historical account the near sightedness of human commerce.

          For brushes and brooms;

          For linoleum;

          For medical trusses;

          For oil cloth;

          For sausage skins;

          For drum skins;

          For sword hilts and scabbards;

          For laces;

          For surgical stitches;

          For tennis racket strings;

          For Riding crops;

          For chess-men;

          For buttons;

          For tanning leather;

          For artist’s pigments;

          For wax crayons;

          For engineering collants;

          For golf bags

Whale meat is exceedingly oily, fishy-smelling, and the color of clotted blood. Even when it was readily available in the United States it was never regarded as more than a specialty item. Today whale meat is marketed primarily in Japan, and to a lesser extent in Norway, two places it has always been considered a traditional food. An entree can fetch $150 in a Tokyo restaurant. Norwegians primarily target the fin whale, a species otherwise granted full protection under international law. It doesn’t seem to faze them that their outlaw act has provoked an international boycott paralyzing the Norwegian fishing fleet. Nor does it seem to matter that the resource and the market are so diminished, that the relic industry survives only by a steady infusion of government subsidies.

Their industry must also contend with the guerrilla tactics of the Sea Shepherd Society–the world’s only paramilitary group fighting for the rights of another species. This whale war is deadly serious and, in recent years, has resulted in the destruction of two Norwegian whaling ships. Yet the otherwise environmentally sophisticated Norwegians remain implacable, if not jingoistic in their insistence that their national identity is at stake here, a disposition apparently so vicious that it can only be kept alive by slaughtering several hundred endangered fin whales a year. Nor does it seem to matter that this whale is a nomad, a roamer of oceans which, in its currently foreshortened lifetime travels far beyond Norway’s territorial boundaries and is therefore the resource and the responsibility of every country through whose waters it passes.

Marmot Watching

Worldwide, whalewatching earns as much money today as whaling ever did. A 1992 study disclosed that 3.4 million Americans and 4.4 million people worldwide partook that year, spending over $46 million on tickets and $225 million on related travel expenses. While the industry generally promotes preservation, in a few places its actions flagrantly disregard that message. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Japanese entrepeneur who owns both a whalewatching and a whaling boat. If his whalewatching skipper sights pilot whales in the morning, there is a fair chance his whaling skipper will be dispatched in the afternoon.

Where I live, on San Juan islands in the Pacific Northwest, whalewatching has become so frenzied that boaters besiege the local orca pods every weekend, all summer long. On the fourth of July, 1996, a hundred motorboats surrounded sixteen orcas for over an hour. Naturally, these consumers buy what touches them. In my town there are orca art galleries selling orca carvings, paintings, coffee cups, cutlery, buttons, glass, mobiles, calendars, clothing, all adorned with the image of the black and white totem.

One may also ask why, in my town, there is no commensurate harbor seal watching industry, no fast-selling line of sweatshirts silk-screened with murres, no cups adorned with sea urchins, or keychains showing the threatened yelloweye rockfish which lives up to a hundred years and bears three million live young at a time? In the same vein, why are there are no musicians building studios to play with the exceedingly musical lemurs of Madagascar or the bell birds of Australia as is done with pilot whales off Tenerife and orcas off Vancouver Island? Alaska has no commensurate billion dollar marmot-watching industry. Florida has no tourism based on swimming with turtles. No one makes spiritual pilgrimages to sites in Western Australia where dugongs cavort in the shallows though many travel to nearby Monkey Mia where bottlenose dolphins cavort near shore. Even the scientific community is effected by the charged border where humans watch cetaceans. Researchers can not expect the same level of support or attention when they mount elegant language experiment with parrots although the relationship between a parrot’s social behavior and its calls seems as evolved as any dolphin’s whistle.

The behavior of all these other creatures is just as just as worthwhile to observe, and just as important to the general health of the environment as any whale. When sea lions are spotted preying on salmon in Seattle’s Ballard Locks, mountains of paperwork are generated to give officials the option to kill these mammals who are otherwise granted full protection by an act of the US Congress. Yet when orcas in the same vicinity are documented losing weight during the same bad salmon run, op-ed pieces are written proposing that commercial and sports fishing be ended until the orcas recover.

In the Arctic, I once had an experience with a raven which walked up so close to me I could reach out and pet him. He started croaking and cooing in a whispery, soothing tone as if trying to tell me something. I later learned that my experience occurs often enough that many people in the Arctic feel quite certain that ravens possess a language. Yet there are no eco-tours to raven habitats, no raven appreciation societies, no celebrities who travel the workshop circuit lecturing about the deeper meaning of croaks and caws. I have concluded that what the raven lacks is not friendliness, intelligence, or even a willingness to communicate with us, but charisma. By contrast, a recent conference in Brussels brought together twenty organizations and three thousand participants to discuss, not the cetaceans themselves, but the varied ways that humans interact with them.


The lure of the megafauna

"If the whales can’t save us, nothing can", is a sentiment echoed over and again by environmentalists. But why do we treat this group of animals with such respect? Some observers conclude that bigger is better or, in the case of dolphins, that we can’t resist those vibrant leaps tied to such a happy face. Are these the only reasons whalewatchers scream with delight at a humpback siting, why the campaign to adopt orcas sometimes accrues the look and feel of the Elvis Presley Fan Club? Whalewatchers have been known to swoon in the presence of a leaping humpback like groupies fainting before a movie star who winks in their direction.

Cynics contend that our culture’s shallow obsession with celebrity is the primary reason "saving the whales" became the first and perhaps the most prolonged rallying cry of the environmental movement. In other words, the lure of the megafauna is irrational, emotional, stylish and, therefore, our admiration is spurious. Some ecologists vouch that global environmental healing can never occur until the concern we feel for the cetaceans transcends celebrity to include less glamorous species. If only people loved spotted owls, grizzly bears, snail darters, as they now love cetaceans, how might that affection tip the balance for saving all of nature? Then again, what’s the point of moaning? Some species of great whales would be extinct today without that tidal wave of human passion.

Being large may help generate charisma, but it is certainly not the only reason we love whales and dolphins. The "save the whale movement" often portrayed the cetaceans as mentors who could teach us how an advanced mind could flourish in harmony with the Earth. This capability of the whales and dolphins to generate hope for our species is nothing new. The Sumerians, the ancient people of the Indus Valley, and later, the Greeks praised the ability of cetaceans to rejuvenate human culture. According to Homer, Oceanus existed before the gods. Dolphins and whales lived within Oceanus, which is why the Greeks believed cetaceans, and especially dolphins, held the power of the creator. Delphys shares a common root with the words for womb, navel, and birth. Homer praised their wisdom because "they always try to be gratefully useful to human beings."

For much the same reason, cetaceans have emerged today as an enduring subject of nature films and magazine articles. Our vision of the intelligent, "gratefully useful cetacean" led directly to Flipper, the most popular wild animal TV series of all time. Another boy-meets-cetacean story line named Free Willy has become a high grossing film with several sequels. The dolphins’ Mona Lisa smile and the humpback whales’ gravity-defying leaps compete with pretty female faces as advertising icons on Tokyo subway kiosks, used to sell solar panels, computers and watches. The message is think smart, have hope, be free.

Few dispute the fact that the cetaceans have coalesced a new environmental consciousness. Some whale lovers disagree, however, with the conventional wisdom that describes cetaceans as mere passive recipients of our attention. They uphold the conclusions of authors Horace Dobbs, Patricia Saint John, John Lilly and Lana Miller who espouse an "energy field" surrounding cetaceans that is so vibrant it transcends symbolism and metaphor. The whales’ role is active, transforming the charged border into the place we visit to listen to environmental philosophy and, possibly, get our orders. According to believers, cetaceans are benevolent strategists working within the Gaia-wide network to save us even as we work to save them.

Those who hold the view assert that from Delphi to Chichijima, from Moby Dick to Keiko, from the Aboriginal dolphin dreamtime to the Greenpeace Zodiacs, cetaceans have always served humans as friendly arbiters of perception, exerting a subtle but, nonetheless, firm role in transforming the way human beings perceive their place within nature. The symbolism of this interspecies mentor is mythic, communal, and deeply cultural. Its examples are not always founded in nature, nor are they necessarily cetacean-specific. "Nuke the whales", an anthem of the punk movement of the 1980’s, was a declaration of protest, not against whales, but against the perceived excesses of environmental bathos.

When pop idioms start to sound like myth, Joseph Campbell’s writing is sure to offer some guidance. Campbell informs us that myths are active, serving society by highlighting the deepest truths of a culture. This particular myth of the mentor cetacean starts with the shape-shifting kinship elaborated by traditional shamans, devolves into the horrors of whaling, sputters as the populations of several species start to collapse, then rises again like a phoenix as people all over the world become aroused to save their once and future guide from extinction. The mythmakers insist cetaceans are here to teach us compassion, altruism, environmental stewardship, and perhaps acquaint us with etheric energies. These gifts are given freely, but with the express purpose of instructing us to reinvent our own species, save ourselves, and therefore save the planet. The poet Jeff Poniewaz describes this mentor role, not as professorial or patriarchal, but as childlike and lighthearted.

          I believe we should

          apprentice ourselves

          to whales & dolphin

          more eagerly than

          to any human guru...

          Yes, the whales

          sing & play all day

          & don’t have to mail

          their songs to any

          publisher whales

          in order to be free

          from factories & blow

          geysers of ecstasy

          all day long...

          Their only

          reason to go mad with anguish & agony are

          the lightning bolts

          exploding unaccountably

          into their brains,

          harpoons expertly hurled

          by beings made in image

          of Jehovah


Saving the whales

Whether we believe the cetaceans’ role is active or passive, aspects of the mentor myth ring true. Before the save-the-whale movement ignited a tidal wave of righteous protest, no animal advocate ever swayed a government body by arguing that a non-human species deserved to exist on its own behalf. Few conceived a human relationship to nature beyond resource management, with the result that environmental and animal rights prerogatives had to make sense to a culture implicitly committed to the predominance of the human species as well as to the inherent goodness of progress, resource development, and technology. The whale movement presented us with something original. This was not a human-centered movement. Whale activists were engaged, not for personal gain, but for the whales. Their number started out small, composed of people mostly under thirty who were roused to action by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, edified by John Muir, provoked by Edward Abbey, and mobilized by Joan McIntyre’s Mind in the Waters. They called themselves Project Jonah and Greenpeace. Dexter Cate was active in the latter. I joined in the second wave and soon found myself in the front line at Iki Island, Japan.

The surge to save-the-whales gathered steam throughout the 1970’s. The people who initiated the struggle waged their campaign with passion and conviction, employing the same media tactics developed earlier by the civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests. Some whale-savers put their lives on the line to protect dolphins and whales. The sensational image of a Russian harpoon soaring over a Greenpeace zodiac and then striking the side of a whale was the breakthrough event that turned the politics of extinction into front page news. It gave the seminal movement a podium that dramatically expanded its influence. As the number of supporters grew, the commando tactics that initially drove the fray evolved, became less edgy, more philosophical. Proponents became cognizant of a new term, ecology, with its essential lesson that nature is a community of interdependent members. Every being, every plant and animal, every thing is intrinsically engaged; destroy one member, and the whole falters. The original premise of saving whales for their own behalf acquired the urgent addendum of saving ourselves as well.

Driven by such a compelling holistic argument, the organizations that formed solely to save whales bonded to form greater coalitions, continually adding converts. The objective of preserving drastically depleted whale stocks and stopping the whalers now ignited the imagination of scientists, politicians, just plain folks. Of perhaps greater significance, saving the whales mobilized schoolchildren who channeled their innate love for animals into an unprecedented letter-writing campaign in support of a transformation in international wildlife policy. This was a new kind of mass engagement: the first international social protest fought entirely in the cause of another species. By 1980, the compounding energy had blossomed full-blown into what we now refer to as the environmental movement. Today, the whale movement is generally regarded as the first major rallying cry of what has become a transformation in human consciousness towards nature.

Before "save the whales", only a few idealists and poets talked about nature as sacred. After "save the whales", many more people came to regard natural balance as an authentic challenge to what was always considered to be a human economic and intellectual birthright. The results were significant if not subtle. By the late 1980’s, when The World Wildlife Fund mounted its campaign to save the rainforest by treating its ample resources as an entrepreneurial golden land full of marketable nuts and vital medicines, the aftershock left by the save-the-whale movement had already made that pragmatic proposal seem woefully anthropocentric. When the journal, The Futurist, declared that ecological posterity was primarily an engineering opportunity–building better cars and distilling fossil fuels so our great-grandchildren attained better gas mileage and spewed fewer pollutants–the displayed value system seemed only to promote a future without hope.

When the issue is captivity, agreement about the mentor relationship is far less certain. The oceanarium environment shortens the lives of highly social dolphins and orcas through stress-related diseases provoked by isolation and boredom. How could it be otherwise for vibrant social animals forced to spend their lives swimming in endless circles through chlorinated water? It’s an unfair image, shout the oceanarium promoters. This is an educational enterprise. Captive cetaceans serve as ambassadors for wild cetaceans by virtue of their visibility to hundreds of thousands of children. The protesters avow that oceanariums are actually circuses. How can children be educated about the behavior of wild cetaceans when they are shown captive dolphins enacting unnatural behavior such as jumping through hoops? How can children be educated about the degradation of wild stocks by entrepreneurs who degrade wild stocks in the process of capturing dolphins?

Just as great whales have their human militia, so captive cetaceans have their human abolitionists. The best known freedom fighter is Rick O’Barry, who many times has put his life on the line to defeat (monkeywrench in radical environmental jargon) an oceanarium’s expensive capture operation. O’Barry was converted to this risky vocation while working as the first trainer of the TV star, Flipper. Of his famous student, he concludes,

Though he seemed as real as life—or more actually, as art is supposed to be—Flipper was an illusion, an elaborate fabrication, the work of hundreds of talented people who came thousands of miles and spent tens of thousands of dollars to create the legend of a fabulous creature combining both actual and imaginary delphoid powers with that of a family pet specially blessed with human intelligence.

For More Info

  • This essay is an excerpt from Jim Nollman's new book, The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet. If you'd like to order it directly from Interspecies Communication Inc., go to our Membership page.

  • If you'd like more information about cetaceans, the whalewatching web is probably the best site on the internet to start your search.