Our long, troubled relationship with whales—the largest, oldest, most mysterious creatures on the planet.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
March 5 2010 10:00 AM

Whales

We owe them an apology.

Also in Slate: It used to be important to "save the whales." Have we saved them yet?And can animals like whales really develop "a taste for human blood"?

Click here to view the slideshow "Whales".

I saw my first whale in a safari park outside London—a captive orca named Ramu—back in the early 1970s. As it ran through its routine, it was clear to me, even then, that this wasn't the right way to keep a wild animal. That much was clear from the way the whale's huge six foot dorsal fin had flopped over—a detumescent symbol of its emasculated state.

Since the 1960s, 200 killer whales have died in captivity. As the recent death of an orca trainer in Seaworld shows, our interface with whales seems destined to be troubled, and certainly exploitative—sometimes in unusual ways. In Australia in the early 20th century, shore whalers at Eden, on the coast of New South Wales, co-operated with a pod of orca led by a bull male named Old Tom. The killer whales—so-called by early hunters because they saw these whales killing their own kind—would herd humpbacks passing by on their migration south toward the Antarctic. The orca would corral the unsuspecting great whales into the cup of Two-fold Bay. There the human hunters would row out to harpoon them.

As the carcass sank to the shallow sea bed, the orca would be allowed to claim their part of the bargain: the humpback's tongue, the only part of the animal they relished. Twenty-four hours later, bloated with gas, the dead humpbacks would rise to the surface for collection by the whalers. Eden, whose bloody waters were so ill named, was a cynical exploitation of two species of cetacean. The truth is now, as it's ever been: We need whales more than they need us. Once we hunted them for their industrial resources. Now we demand to be entertained by them. What they want, most probably, is to be left alone.

The whale is an animal characterized by an exquisite paradox. It is the largest, loudest, longest-lived creature ever to exist on our planet. Yet it is elusive, and for all its magnificent bulk, barely seen. Glimpsed in the water, it presents only a tantalizing jigsaw picture of itself: a fluke here, a fin there, a head or a snout.

It is telling that the leviathan's massive bulk is announced by an airy cloud of spume; that same sign may be all the fervent whale-watcher will see of his or her prey. Since time immemorial, the whale has been wreathed in mystery—and of course it almost predates time itself, having existed long before the land around which it swims.

"We account the whale immortal," Herman Melville wrote in the ur-whale text, Moby-Dick.Yet even as Melville published his book, in 1851, it would take another century for humans to film the whale in its natural habitat. We knew what the Earth looked like from outer space before we knew what the sperm whale looked like underwater. As Ishmael notes, "the living leviathan never fairly floated itself for its portrait."

It is this essential mystery that leads us on in our conflicted attitude toward cetaceans, named for the Greek for sea monster. Theirs is a discrete, multifarious suborder of mammals, one that comprises the now-extinct archeocetes; the mysticetes (moustached) or baleen whales; and odontocetes, or toothed whales. They total some 85 species in all—maybe more—and are ranged in every waterway around the world, from the tropical Amazon to the frozen Arctic, from the wide Pacific to the narrow Mediterranean Sea.

Eminently adaptable in a manner that perhaps only Homo sapiens can mimic, cetaceans inhabit much more of the globe than we do. Our puny existence is limited to the two-dimensional land, mortally bound by gravity. They live in three dimensions, free to wander at will, in an environment whose mass far exceeds our own earthly and tentative plane.

The whale is a remarkably recent addition to our anyway limited knowledge of the natural world. Indeed, we are only beginning to understand its nature even as it slips away from us. During the five years it took to research and write my book, The Whale, one species of cetacean—the Yangste River dolphin—went extinct, while one new species, the Australian snubfin dolphin, has been identified.

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This sense of revelation is in part due to our changing attitude towards the whale. The monster of Biblical myth and medieval legend—the horned beast spouting in the remotest seas, at the edge of the known world—became an industrial resource in the modern era, hunted for its light-giving oil. (It is another essential irony that the unit of light itself, the lumen, should be measured from spermaceti candles provided by an animal that spends most of its existence in the darkest profound of the ocean.)

Whales lit and lubricated the Industrial Revolution—from street lamps in New York, Paris, and London to mills spinning cotton gathered from the American South to lighthouses on the New England shores. New Bedford, now little known outside Massachusetts, was at the time that Melville sailed from the port on his own whaling voyage in 1840 the richest city in America—wealthy on the products of the whale. Whales—or, at least, their constituent parts—were America's greatest export after timber. The pursuit of the whale extended American influence around the world for the first time, an economic reach more potent than any cry of liberty or freedom, exporting American values into the farthest Pacific and its remotest islands. In turn, the Yankee whalers left behind rats, disease, and their genes.

Like the bison and the Native American, the whale died for the new republic. Only the pursuit of another kind of oil—with discovery of mineral oil in Titusville, Penn., in 1859—and all that it would mean, provided a temporary lull in the assault on the whale. Similarly, the outmoding of tight-laced 19th-century corsets stiffened with whalebone (actually not bone at all, but baleen plates made of keratin, the same material as human fingernails) stalled the terrible, near-annihilation of the right whale. Fickle fashion and essential greed doomed and saved the whale in turn.

Yet it is only recently that we have truly turned from a whaling civilization to a whale-watching one. When I was a boy in the 1960s, Britain—along with Norway, Japan, and the Soviet Union—still hunted whales. Whaling ships returned from the Southern Ocean to my home town of Southampton, England, disgorging the processed parts of whales that would enter the human food chain. I ate margarine made with whale oil. My mother wore makeup made with whale oil. Our family car ran on brake fluid made from whales; our garden roses were fertilized with ground-up whale. More whales died in the year of my birth, 1958, than perished in the entire span of Yankee whaling.

It was the burgeoning environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s that led to the shaky reprieve that still, tentatively, holds sway. Indeed, to some extent ecological awareness owes its origins to the massive publicity of the Save the Whale campaigns. To a soundtrack created by the whales themselves—via Roger Payne's groundbreaking and album-charting recording of the plaintive song of the humpback whale—we moved slowly towards cetacean manumission.

In 1986 a moratorium was declared on the hunting of great whales, instituted and overseen by the International Whaling Commission—a body originally convened to ensure the conservation of whale stocks for further exploitation. Yet it is a temporary, and voluntary ban. Nations such as Norway and Iceland operate outside its strictures. Aboriginal hunts are granted local dispensations, and, to the justified outrage of many, Japan conducts an annual whale hunt under the guise of "scientific research."

It has taken us just one generation to move from killing whales to regarding them as a barometer of ecological threat; from seeing them as a God-given resource to perceiving them as a miracle of nature. It is barely to be wondered at that our attitude to these creatures should remain conflicted. When, in the summer of 2007, I dove into the three-mile deep waters off the Azores and swam with sperm whales, my overwhelming reaction was to offer my apologies. We are not finished with the whale. The remarkable thing is that the whale has not yet deserted us, either.

Click here to view a slide show of whale photographs and to read about the history of the humpback, the right whale, the sperm whale, and the beluga.

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Philip Hoare is the author of The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea.

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