The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare (2010)

Chapter 12. A Cold War for the Whale

You have become like us,

Disgraced and mortal.

Stanley Kunitz, ‘The Wellfleet Whale’

For his 1954 film of Moby-Dick, made in Britain and Ireland rather than New England, John Huston requisitioned an 1870 schooner which had recently done duty as the Hispanola in Walt Disney’s Treasure Island. She was fitted out at St Andrew’s Dock, Hull, where chandlers contributed original harpoons, found in their loft. This movie Pequod was then sailed to the west coast of Ireland, where the director chose to shoot only on overcast days to give his film a gloomy look.

I remember watching Huston’s film as a young boy; it seemed rather wordy and dull to me. Our old-fashioned, veneered black and white television, with its grainy 405 lines, did little to convey the subtle effect that the cinematographer, Oswald Morris, had devised to emulate nineteenth-century whaling scenes, combining two sets of negatives–one monochrome, the other Technicolor–to suggest ‘that this story was filmed in 1843 when it was supposed to have taken place’. I did not appreciate the deftness of Ray Bradbury’s screenplay, for which he read the book nine times and wrote fifteen hundred pages of script to reach a final one hundred and fifty: ‘I found myself plagued with a vast depression,’ said Bradbury. ‘I felt I had the weight, the burden of Melville on my back.’ Any analogies between the nineteenth century’s thirst for whale oil and the post-war desire for petroleum escaped me, too.

Nor was I impressed by Orson Welles’s bravura cameo role as Father Mapple, performing histrionically from his pulpit-prow–in Shepperton. (Welles would stage his own version of Moby-Dick in 1955–claiming it was the best thing he had ever done–at the Hackney Empire, in London’s East End.) I may have recognized Richard Basehart as Ishmael, but only because he played the submarine captain in A Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, battling a giant squid; as with Disney’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, both whale and squid were Cold War monsters, subaquatic versions of science fiction aliens, the threat the world faced from within. And although the sight of another savage other, Queequeg and his tattooed face and his long red drawers, was terrifying enough, when a whale finally appeared on screen, it was difficult to tell if it were alive or not–not least because Huston had recreated Moby Dick as a life-size model. (At one point during the filming, part of the ‘White Whale’ broke loose while being towed off Fishguard in rough seas, causing coastguards to alert shipping to a ‘possible hazard to navigation’, and the Royal Air Force to send out a flying-boat in search of the errant prop.)

Roped to this ersatz whale, Gregory Peck nearly drowned as Huston insisted on take after take of Ahab’s final moments. But it is only now, watching the movie again, that I see something shockingly real in these scenes. Intercut with sequences acted out in a studio tank–betrayed by the wrong-sized waves and an atomically lurid, back-projected sky which turns Gregory Peck’s Ahab into a kind of pantomime demon king–Huston inserts footage of sperm whales being hunted off Madeira. Here his film comes closest to the truth, in the mortal spout of dying whales, the gushing crimson fountains. It is an unforgettable, Hemingway-like gesture; only instead of a dying bull, it is the world’s greatest predator that perishes, publicly, as advertised, on screen.

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In 1958, the year in which I was born, Ernest Hemingway told the Paris Review that he had hunted a school of fifty sperm whales, and harpooned one ‘nearly sixty feet in length and lost him’. His was a forlorn boast of a heroic American past. Whaling was now the province of other countries, and their efforts would do far more to bring whales to the brink than the Yankee fleets ever did. In fact, it was within my lifetime that whaling reached its all-time peak. In 1951 alone–one hundred years after Melville’s book appeared–more whales were killed worldwide than New Bedford’s whale-ships took in a century and a half of whaling.

In my Illustrated Animal Encylopædia, edited by curators from the American Museum of Natural History and illustrated with photographs of the museum’s dusty dioramas–although not, I’m glad to say, with its positively horrifying set-piece of a life-size sperm whale doing battle with a giant squid–the limits of 1950s cetology were acknowledged. As if in response to Ishmael’s question, ‘Does the Whale Diminish?’, the authors issued a tardy reply. ‘We cannot hope for much success until we know more about these deep-sea mammals. We are seriously endeavouring to get this information.’

The book bears witness to a pre-ecological age. A section entitled ‘MOST IMPORTANT PRODUCT FROM THE WHALE’ states that ‘One recent whaling season in the Antarctic produced 2,158,173 barrels of oil’, but under another headline, ‘THE WHALE IN DANGER’, it reports that ‘whalers took 6,158 blue whales, 17,989 finback whales, 2,108 humpback whales, and 2,566 sperm whales in a single season…This does not include 2,459 whales taken by the Russians.’

It is salutary to see how sharply the figures escalate throughout the twentieth century. In 1910, 1,303 fin whales and 43 sperm whales were taken; in 1958, the totals stood at 32,587 fin and 21,846 sperm whales. It was a momentum exacerbated by politics. From 1951 to 1970, the Soviet Union increased its catches outside international agreements, taking more than three thousand southern right whales, although only four were reported to the International Whaling Commission. First convened by President Truman in Washington, DC, in 1946, the IWC–whose headquarters were based in Cambridge, England–introduced successive steps to limit whaling further, but commercial pressures and unsustainable quotas overtook good intentions.

Humpbacks were particular victims of this slaughter. The Russians claimed to have taken just over two thousand animals, but the figures show that they killed more than forty-eight thousand. Young whales, mothers and calves, protected species were taken indiscriminately, and the figures falsified. Sperm whales, too, suffered badly. At the turn of the century they had enjoyed an illusory reprieve as the newly mechanized fleets began to pursue the rorquals, but after the Second World War, with baleen whale populations rapidly shrinking, the harpoons were aimed again at the cachalots, whose numbers had just begun to recover.

By the 1950s, at the height of a new antagonism between east and west, an average of twenty-five thousand sperm whales were dying each year, ending up as vitamin supplements or animal feed. ‘Boiled sperm whale flesh can be used for feeding furbearing animals,’ noted one Russian scientist, Alexander Berzin, a Soviet-era Beale whose book was illustrated with indistinct images of whale pathology and dissection. His countrymen also used the tendons in the whales’ heads to make glue, and in 1956 alone, 980 tons of whale hide were processed in a single Russian factory, tanned and dyed and destined to make soles for shoes. Men walked on whales.

The Cold War was taken to the whales in their ocean fastness. North Atlantic right whales, protected since 1935, were reduced to one hundred animals by the USSR, which also killed 372 of the even rarer North Pacific right whales. Southern right whales had already reached a low point of tens off the coast of apartheid South Africa, while Arctic bowheads suffered similarly under the disunited nations.

The reason for this renewed interest was, of course, financial. Whaling was rapidly becoming the province of new multinational companies. By 1957 whale oil was fetching £90 a ton; in Oslo that year Unilever acquired 125,000 tons of the stuff, from Norwegian, Japanese and British manned ships, although, when asked, the company declined to comment on its purchase. A few years later, it was estimated that whales were worth £50 million a year to the global economy. Helicopters were being used to spot whales in the Southern Ocean, where one whale-ship received a regal gam when the Duke of Edinburgh boarded the Southern Harvester from the royal yacht Britannia, the princely person being hoisted across in a basket slung from the masthead, while a fifty-foot sperm whale provided the buffer between the two vessels. (Later, the Duke was heard to remark in a television interview that ‘A whale has an odour peculiar to itself.’)

The tenth meeting of the International Whaling Commission at The Hague in 1958 implemented new restrictions, extending the existing prohibition on killing humpbacks in the North Atlantic and in part of the Arctic, and limiting their hunting in the Antarctic. Such limits meant nothing to those who had not signed up to the organization. ‘The whaling industry lives with a recurring nightmare: the extinction of the whale,’ The Times stated in a forthright editorial in January 1959, foreseeing ‘a massacre in the Antarctic next season’. It demanded neutral observers and a ban on the building of new whale-ships without consultation. ‘Britain’s role as peacemaker is a laudable one. It can, however, hardly be pursued to the detriment of British whaling, and cannot be pursued without the cooperation of others.’ As another scientist pointed out, ‘conservation had failed mainly because whales belonged to no one and it was no one’s direct interest to look after them.’

While the IWC investigated more humane ways of killing whales, Holland and Norway–two of the so-called ‘big five’ of the whaling nations (the others being Britain, Japan and Russia)–announced their decision to withdraw from the convention ‘because it has proved impossible for the two countries to obtain reasonable whaling quotas’. Even as the western nations squabbled, Japan was increasing its fleet. By 1963, headlines were announcing, ‘TASTE FOR WHALE MEAT BOOSTS INDUSTRY’–a reference to the fact that for the Japanese, whale oil was secondary to its meat–and noting that the nation had recently acquired the Southern Harvester, the same ship visited by the Queen’s husband. There was a certain bias to such reports–‘There is a mechanical ruthlessness about Japanese whaling methods which makes the whalers of a few years ago look like amateur adventurers’–which was another legacy of war.

The same article added that a ‘state of piracy’ was ‘gradually emptying the whaling grounds’. Whaling was a free-for-all, and one of the worst offenders was the Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, future husband of the former First Lady. His vessels were purposely registered in Honduras and Panama, countries beyond the IWC’s membership, and plundered protected waters, taking whatever whales they met, ‘be they endangered species or newborns’. Only when Norway publicized his actions–and after the Peruvian navy and air force had opened fire on his ships for hunting whales within their territorial waters–was Onassis forced to stop his slaughter, finding it more financially viable to sell his fleet to the Japanese.

All this was accomplished despite–or perhaps because of–quotas imposed by the International Whaling Commission. The Antarctic catch for 1967–8, for example, was set at thirty-two thousand ‘Blue Whale Units’. The world’s largest animal was reduced to a mathematical quantity, and its ancient population as ‘stocks’ in bureaucratic equations. It was a terrible arithmetic:

1 BLUE WHALE UNIT = 2 FINBACKS,
OR 2½ HUMPBACKS, 6 SEI WHALES.

Not only was the average size of whales in the catch declining, ‘which points suspiciously to overkilling’, as one scientist noted, but ‘the CDW–take per catcher’s day’s work–which is a measure of the effort required to take a whale, is also steadily declining, which tells us what we already know, that the whales are disappearing’. An awful possibility led another marine biologist to wonder, ‘What will be next? Will the orbiting satellite speak through space to tell the hunter where to find the last whale?’

The whales could not win. As the rorquals diminished in the Antarctic, the whaling nations turned back to sperm whales. Many thousands were caught by the fleets on their way to the Southern Ocean, in warmer waters where females and breeding stocks were found. During its London meeting in 1965, the IWC discovered ‘massive evidence’ to show that regulations about the size of sperm whales that could be taken were being comprehensively broken. As a result, the commission banned sperm whaling between latitudes of 40º north and south. That year the killing reached its historical crescendo, with the death of 72,471 whales.

One of the last whaling ports was Dundee, sending ships to waters that, twenty years later, would witness Britain’s last colonial war, and where they now lie as rusting wrecks in the rocky harbours of South Georgia and the Falklands. Some of the men who worked on the ships are still alive, and describe their work in these open-air abattoirs as an inferno. The remembered noise, the smell, the sights repulse their memories, retrospectively. If the whales had been able to scream, they say, no one would have been able to bear their work. Instead, the whales were rendered dumb in the face of destruction, as if they agreed not to protest against their abuse, the more to shame their persecutors.

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I cannot claim immunity. As I walked home from school through wet autumn leaves to find my mother drying clothes by the fire, Southampton factories were processing whale-oil margarine which sat in yellowy blocks in our fridge, while my cheeks were brushed with whale fat, for ‘women will be interested to learn it goes into the making of their cosmetics’, as my encyclopædia informed me.

The lingering smell of whale.

While I read illicit American comics under my bedclothes, fantasizing about a world of sleek-suited superheroes, new processes–sulphurization, saponification, distillation–extended and rationalized the use of whales in lubricants, paint, varnish, ink, detergent, leather and food: hydrogenation made whale oil palatable, sanitizing its taste. Efficiency ruled, in place of the early whalers’ waste. Whale liver yielded vitamin A, and whale glands were used to make insulin for diabetics and corticotrophin to treat arthritis. Nineteenth-century trains had run on whale oil; now streamlined cars with sleek chrome fins used brake fluid made from the same stuff. Victorian New Englanders had relished doughnuts fried in whale oil; now children with crew-cuts and stripy T-shirts licked ice cream made from it. Their bright shiny faces were washed with whale soap, and having tied their shoelaces of whale skin, they marched off to school, past gardens nurtured on whale fertilizer, to draw with whale crayons while Mum sewed their clothes on a machine lubricated with whale oil, and fed the family cat on whale meat. In her office, big sister transcribed memos on typewriter ribbon charged with whale ink, pausing to apply her whale lipstick. Later that afternoon, she would play a game of tennis with a whale-strung racquet. Back home, Daddy lined up the family to take their photograph on film glazed with whale gelatine.

Whales imprinted with the image of the age.

It was not until 1973, when I was a teenager, that Britain began to ban whale products. Even then, it allowed exceptions such as sperm whale oil, used as engine lubricant, and spermaceti wax, for softening leather–of which it still imported a total of two thousand tons a month–along with other products ‘incorporated abroad into manufactured goods. Sperm whales had not been overexploited,’ said the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, ‘but baleen whales had.’ The Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association–which used ninety-five per cent of all imported whale meat to give its dog and cat foods ‘“chunky” appeal’, announced that it would accept its last consignment that November.

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Whales may no longer have lit the world, but time still ran on their oil. Watchmakers used the superior lubricant, prized in polar latitudes for its ability to allow chronometers to function in freezing temperatures (thereby allowing the hunting of more whales by Antarctic fleets). As the giant astronomical clock of Strasbourg Cathedral ceremonially tolled European hours, it did so lubricated by the products of William Nye’s Oil Works, New Bedford.

And while whale-oiled clocks ticked, the mythic beast acquired a new meaning in the half-life of the nuclear era. In the late 1940s the American artist Gilbert Wilson became obsessed with Melville’s novel, as well as with modern science. In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, he wrote of Moby-Dick that ‘no tragedy in world literature succeeds quite as powerfully or as clearly in pointing up the mortal errors of hate and domination’. Wilson even suggested to Shostakovich that they should create an opera of Moby-Dick as ‘a catalyst for helping to dissolve American and Soviet cold war dissension and to restore world peace’.

In Wilson’s own dystopian imagination, the White Whale became an augury of atomic conflict, and Ahab’s ‘insane pursuit of Moby Dick into the Sea of Japan’ analogous to America’s ‘atrocious nuclear experiments and explosions in the same area’. Similarly, in his critical work, The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, published in 1949, Howard P. Vincent considered that Moby Dick was ‘ubiquitous in time and place. Yesterday he sank the Pequod; within the past two years he has breached five times; from a New Mexico desert, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and most recently, at Bikini atoll.’

A cloud like a whale.

A generation earlier, D.H. Lawrence, writing in Lobo, New Mexico, had seen in Melville’s book the ‘doom of our white day…And the Pequod is the ship of the white American soul.’ In 1952 the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James was detained on Ellis Island. Exiled within sight of Manhattan’s towers, in a dull brick block next to Liberty Island, James composed his critique of Moby-Dick, comparing Ahab with modern dictators. In James’s essay, written in the running shadow of the nuclear race, Ahab’s Pequod became a weapon of mass destruction. ‘He has at his sole command a whaling-vessel which is one of the most highly developed technological structures of the day. He has catalogued in his brain all the scientific knowledge of navigation accumulated over the centuries. This is one reason why he is so deadly a menace.’ Such potential imagery could be turned against the west, too. Twenty years later, the anti-capitalist terrorists of the Baader-Meinhoff gang, imprisoned for pursuing their own war on imperialism, assumed code names from Moby-Dick (with Baader himself as Ahab)–seeing the monster of Melville’s myth, as much as Hobbes’ state, as their target. Even now, Ahab’s crazed pursuit remains the currency of political satire as world leaders are likened to Melville’s dæmonic captain in the ‘war on terror’.

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

By the 1960s cetaceans were being bodily enlisted into the military. The US Navy instituted its Marine Mammal Program, teaching bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales to identify mines and even act as underwater sentries. Dolphins served in Vietnam where it was rumoured that they were trained as assassins, using needles fitted to padded nose-cones and cartridges of carbon dioxide to deliver body-imploding doses of gas to Vietcong divers attacking American ships. They still play a part in warfare, deployed in the last Gulf War to clear mines from the port of Umm Qasr using cameras strapped to their pectoral fins. To some, such conscription was the ultimate perversion of the relationship between man and whale.

Human technology was catching up with its cetacean equivalent as machines mimicked whales themselves. In one experiment, a whale’s skin was replicated in rubber on a submarine’s hull, where it was found to reduce turbulence and drag; as a result, protruding parts such as radar dishes and conning towers were sheathed in rubber. This may have been the reason why one submarine was found with the sucker-marks of a giant squid. It had, it seems, been mistaken for a whale.

The development of marine acoustics during the Second World War had alerted the military to the sounds made by whales (which whalers had once mistaken for ghosts in the ocean as they heard them through the hulls of their ships). As the undersea world which everyone had assumed to be a silent place was discovered to be alive with noise, it was suggested that submarines could be disguised as whales by playing their recorded sounds. A century before, slave ships operated under the guise of whalers; now nuclear submarines sought the same deceit. Cetacean technology allowed man to invade the whales’ world, in the process creating sounds that would prove fatal for them.

As below, so above. While robo-whale submarines imitated them in the depths, lubricated by sperm oil which would not freeze at great depths and echoing with the ping of cetacean-inspired sonar, whales enabled the exploration of another extreme environment, as NASA used sperm oil for its delicate instruments and rocket engines, sending a trace of whale genes into outer space. Two centuries before, whales had sparked rivalry between Atlantic states; now they were part of the space race. One scientist who sailed with whaling fleets in the 1950s and 1960s told me that it was only when it had a lifetime’s supply of oil–I imagine marked barrels sitting in some secret cellar–that America lobbied for a ban on hunting sperm whales (despite the protests of the Pentagon). The fact that the US evolved chemical substitutes for other military uses of whale oil, while the USSR relied on sperm oil for its tanks and missiles, further fuelled the brinkmanship. Even now, space agencies in Europe and America still use whale oil for roving vehicles on the moon and Mars; and as you read this, the Hubble space telescope is wheeling around the earth on spermaceti, seeing six billion years into the past, while the Voyager probe spins into infinity playing the song of the humpback to greet any friendly aliens–who may well wonder at our treatment of the species with which we share our planet.

To the medieval world, which believed the earth to be flat, and monsters to lie in the oceans beyond their illuminated maps, the whale was a scaleless, naked fish–a convenient confusion that allowed its flesh to be eaten by monks on fast days–just as puffins were thought to be half bird, half fish, and geese were believed to be born of barnacles. Despite Aristotle’s investigations in the fourth century BC, when he concluded that whales were mammals, it was not until 1773 that Linnæus classified them as such.

Yet the confusion continued. Nineteenth-century whalers called their quarry fish, a wilful insistence that Ishmael mischievously maintained. Perhaps it was a subconscious evasion, for the hunters knew perfectly well, as they butchered their prey, that the physiology they found within was that of a creature more like themselves than a haddock or a cod. And although twentieth-century hunting revealed much of what we know about the blue whale, for instance, even here there was deception. Dimensions were overestimated because bodies stretched as they were pulled out of the water. The only way of weighing these huge carcases was to chop them up into chunks, so vague guesses were made to compensate for the tons of blood lost before the flesh met the scales. Since whales possess proportionately two-thirds more blood than humans–the better to store oxygen on their time spent in the relative safety of the depths–this was an additionally inexact technique.

It was also a self-interested investigation carried out to ascertain profitability, although many scientists, who realized the likely fate of the whale, had another agenda. In the mid-1930s a scheme began from RRS William Scoresby to tag whales. Steel darts were shot into whales and retrieved when the animals were caught; whalers were offered a £1 reward to return them to the Colonial Office, with a note of the time and place of death. The data was then analysed ‘to gather information not only on the migrations of the whales, but on the question of whether a whale returns to the same ground in the South year after year’. In 1936, eight hundred whales were thus marked and numbered. The cumulative results were astounding: one blue whale was found to have travelled nearly two thousand miles in less than fifty days.

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Cetacean research remained invasive. In 1956 a project was devised by a Boston heart specialist, Dr Paul D. White–famed for attending President Eisenhower–to record a whale’s heartbeats on an electrocardiogram. This involved shooting a harpoon that contained the metal contact usually placed on a human patient’s chest into the animal; although, as one newspaper noted, ‘there is no indication so far of how the whale may hope to shed its burden when the interests of science have been served.’ ‘It can hardly be said that the animal was benefited by such a diagnosis,’ my encylopædia added. Dr White’s patient–or victim–was a fifty-foot grey whale. Having already experimented with a right whale, White discovered that the whale’s heart beat like that of a human. In the light of such knowledge, attempts were made to limit the animals’ suffering: the British experimented with a new electric harpoon for humanitarian reasons, but it did not prove successful.

As I was growing up, watching captive dolphins perform in Brighton’s underground aquarium built into the promenade–its yellowy-lit, car-park interior echoing with their clicks and all the more forlorn for its seaside setting–attitudes to whales were changing. They had done so drastically since my parents’ generation. In the 1920s the porpoise was so abundant in the River Tyne that salmon fishermen were urging ‘that steps should be taken for its destruction’. By the 1960s The Times was running a headline, ‘BRITISH COLUMBIA STIRRED BY DEATH OF WHALE’, noting that the demise of an orca had become national news in Canada.

The animal–dubbed ‘Moby Doll’–had been harpooned by the curator of the Vancouver Aquarium, where it was destined to be used as a model for a plaster replica. But the whale survived its wound and instead followed the boat. The public reaction was, perhaps, the first real indication of a new attitude towards whales. Although having extracted the harpoon, the animal was kept alive with horses’ hearts, flounders injected with blood, and baby seals (‘There were immediate protests from humanitarians’) and when it was found dead on the bottom of its tank, it was discovered ‘that Moby was no Doll. Moby was a bull.’ The following year, another orca was captured in the same seas. Named Namu, it was towed in a gill net trap four hundred miles south to its new home, the Seattle Aquarium, only for its captors to discover, two hours out of Port Hardy, that their charge was suddenly surrounded by forty killer whales ‘who seem determined to free him’. It was reported that Namu’s family had come to visit him, and that he could recognize them by their markings and scars.

Through individual animals such as Namu, whales became emblems of a new age. In the 1960s the American scientist Dr John C. Lilly made controversial claims about cetacean intelligence which led him to an equally extraordinary declaration. ‘We need a new ethic,’ he wrote,

new laws based on those ethics which punish human beings for encroachment on the life-styles and the territory of other species with brains comparable to and larger than ours. We need modifications of our laws so that the Cetacea can no longer become the property of individuals, corporations, or governments. Even as respect for human individuals is growing in our law, so must the respect for individual whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

Dr Lilly, whose plea echoed Henry Beston’s of the 1920s as well as the new age ethos of his own time, went so far as to state that dolphins were ‘probably quite as intelligent as man but in a strange and alien way, as a consequence of their life in the sea’, and that whales had ‘a complex inner reality or mental life’. However, his fellow scientists regarded his investigations with a degree of scepticism, not least because Dr Lilly was also experimenting with LSD in his researches into human consciousness. He also went on to advise on the making of the 1973 film, Flipper.

With growing awareness of the whales’ plight and the apparent ineptitude of the International Whaling Commission, conservationists began to insist that they were entitled to comment ‘on the workings of a group that seemed to have decided that the world’s whales were theirs to parcel out’. Yet by the time the horror of whaling truly came to the public’s attention–their eyes opened by organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and acrimonious protests such as the throwing of blood over Japanese delegates to the IWC as well as direct action on the ocean itself–it was too late. The cetacean population of the world had been hunted, harpooned, blown up, butchered, ground down and consumed in a manner unrivalled by any other exploitation of the earth’s living resources.

The industry itself had long since ground to a halt by the time the eco-warriors had won their battle; a truly Pyrrhic victory, despite the piecemeal protection of the species: in 1966 all humpback whaling was banned; in 1976 fin whales, and in 1978 sei whales were similarly protected. In the last decades of unrestricted whaling, the Russians and Japanese–who had been forced to turn on the smallest rorqual, the minke whale–resumed sperm whale hunting in the North Pacific, where, from 1964 to 1974, they managed to kill a quarter of a million animals. It was as if, in advance of the end they knew must come, they exerted themselves all the more in the effort.

It was in 1982, in the unlikely setting of the Metropole Hotel in Brighton–a few hundred yards from the town’s Aquarium and its performing dolphins–that the IWC instituted its worldwide moratorium, delayed to allow the whaling nations time to comply. Yet the whale remained a victim of international politics, for all its statelessness: threatened by deafening noise pollution which causes ear damage, fatally undermining a sperm whale’s most important sense; infected by chemical pollution which generations pass on through mothers’ milk to their calves; snared by fishing lines in a frantic, drowning death as bycatch kills three hundred thousand cetaceans every year.

Whales swallow plastic debris by mistake; the thinning ozone layer induces skin cancer; warming oceans have sent their food sources in retreat; climate change has overtaken their ancient knowledge of their environment and its resources. All the while, they move from territory to territory, in and out of legislative areas and through high seas beyond any conserving principle or responsibility, yet forever subject to human activity, wherever they go (even as my own transatlantic movements scar the sky, sign-writing my environmental sins in the air).

There is no escape. Sometimes it seems whales are almost pathetically condemned to victimhood. Once they were scared into submission as the harpoon was applied; fed the furnaces with their own scraps; even supplied their own oil to clean up afterwards, as if to apologise for the mess. Now they are early warning systems of ecological attack, as if their own sonar were detecting destruction. Ishmael’s cetacean utopia looks further away than ever. Stressed and pressurized by our relentless encroaching on its environment, the whale can ill afford to suffer further sustained periods of active pursuit, although that is exactly what it faces. Since 1987, when the international moratorium eventually took effect (with exceptions for aboriginal subsistence hunts for Inuit populations in Greenland, Russia and Alaska, Makah native peoples in Washington state, and the Caribbean residents of St Vincent and the Grenadines), an estimated twenty-five thousand great whales have died. Japan alone has killed, under its Antarctic Research Programme, JARPA, and its North Pacific equivalent, JARPN, 7,900 minke whales, 243 Bryde’s whales and 140 sei whales, as well as 38 sperm whales, which it resumed hunting in 2000. In 2006 JARPA II took 1,073 minke whales–known to their hunters as ‘cockroaches of the sea’–and added fifty fin whales to the tally. Each year Japan kills twenty thousand smaller whales, dolphins and porpoises not covered by the moratorium.

Although this meat appears on open sale in Japanese markets, conservationists claim that much of it is stockpiled due to diminishing public taste, or ends up as pet food. Some is sold as meat from baleen whales, which are less susceptible than toothed whales to contamination in the food chain, although in fact it is from odontocetes. The value of JARPA’s research is challenged by other scientists, who consider that it has produced no data that could not have been gathered from non-lethal methods. As with Norway and Iceland, which hunt minke whales quite openly, other, cultural motives are at work. Like Europe, Japan claims whaling as part of its heritage for thousands of years–historically encouraged by rulers who forbade the eating of land animals.

Japan also points out that aboriginal whale hunts take place in American waters every year; what is the difference between that and their own claim to cultural precedence in coastal towns? Humpbacks are still hunted on the Caribbean island of Bequia, to techniques learned by a Bequian fisherman engaged by a Provincetown whaler in the 1870s. In 1977 it was said that the United States was ‘embarrassed’ by the continuing Inuit hunt of bowheads, of which fewer than two thousand survived. ‘They push vigorously for smaller quotas every year, and nag the Japanese and Russians…remorselessly. Unfortunately, one of the whales closest to extinction, the bowhead, is hunted exclusively by Americans.’ While the Inuit had long traditions of sustenance and religion associated with the whales, now that they were ‘rich enough in oil money to buy motor boats, powerful rifles and explosive harpoons’, whale hunting ‘has ceased being a ritual or a means of survival, and has become a sport’.

Since Japan was encouraged and even assisted in post-war whaling by the west–whale meat was served in school lunches until the 1970s–it irks to be lectured on the subject. ‘It’s not because Japanese want to eat whale meat,’ Ayako Okubo told the New York Times. ‘It’s because they don’t like being told not to eat it by foreigners.’ Some contest that it was actually America’s overuse of pressure on the Japanese–and the moral weight of the environmental lobby–that pushed Japan into its intransigent position. Indeed, although America was highly vocal in the anti-whaling campaign of the 1970s (presenting a proposal to a 1972 United Nations conference on the environment to ban all whaling for ten years), things might have been very different if, like Russia, Norway and Japan, the US had maintained a whaling presence in the post-war years. If its industry had not failed in the late nineteenth century, there might not have been the political impetus to ban international whaling. Perhaps this is the true legacy of Moby-Dick.

It is true that stocks are recovering from the nadir of the mid-twentieth century. Numbers of humpback and minke whales are increasing in southern and northern oceans, and the southern right whale, Eubalæna australis, is breeding successfully off the coasts of South Africa and South America, raising hopes that its genes may reinvigorate its cousin, the North Atlantic right whale. As Richard Sabin and field researchers such as Colin Speedie note, fin whales are seen in greater numbers in the Bay of Biscay and off the coast of southern Ireland, while blue whales are swimming through the Irish Sea, a passageway which once proved fatal for the easy access it allowed to British and Irish hunters, a kind of cetacean shooting alley. Taking advantage of the modern moratorium, the great whales are reclaiming their age-old routes.

However, this success makes them susceptible to those who consider their populations sustainable; ironically, our enlightened attitudes have exposed the whales anew. To take a thousand minkes has an exponential effect on the rest of the population by destroying complex breeding and social structures; the effect on sperm whales may be even more disproportionate. In 2006 Iceland announced its intention to resume hunting finbacks, although its efforts stalled with the discovery that the levels of mercury in the whales they caught were too high for human consumption; the Inuits of Greenland, who eat beluga and narwhal muk tak, are among the most contaminated people on earth, despite living in its least developed and apparently pristine spaces, while the whales in the Canadian St Lawrence waterway have absorbed so many industrial pollutants that one in four die of cancer. Norway, with its deep-rooted historical precedents, resumed commercial whaling in 1992. It never had any intention of abiding by the tenets of the IWC, nor does it see any contradiction in its actions: whales are as much livestock as any domesticated cow, a time-honoured resource for a maritime nation. Meanwhile, the contested moratorium remains in place, only ever a temporary solution, as both sides know only too well.

It took time for science to recover from Dr Lilly’s extraordinary claims about cetacean intelligence; scientists were as loath to pronounce on the subject as they were to address the existence, or not, of the Loch Ness monster. None the less, it was becoming clear that whales and dolphins have brains matched only by the higher primates and humans, with whom they share the same convoluted neocortex–the characteristic wrinkles and whorls on the top layer of the organ–and which indicate exceptional intelligence. If allowances are made for their thick blubber, the body-to-brain-size ratio (the Encephalization Quotient, or EQ) of sperm whales indicates significant acumen.

Studies show that cetaceans can solve problems and use tools; exhibit joy and grief; and live in complex societies. Not only that, but they also pass on these abilities in ‘cultural transmission’. Twentieth-century whaling may have destroyed ‘not just numerous individuals’, says Hal Whitehead, ‘but also the cultural knowledge that they harboured relating to how to exploit certain habitats and areas’. The remaining animals also experienced lower birth rates as a result, and although they did not suffer as badly as mysticetes such as the right whale–which were reduced to a mere fraction of their pre-whaling numbers–the slow-breeding sperm whale population is growing at a mere one per cent a year. The 1986 moratorium may have come only just in time for Physeter.

Dr Whitehead–along with scientists such as Jonathan Gordon and Natalie Jacquet–has spent years studying the sperm whale in the wild. There is strong evidence that these whales are ‘cognitively advanced’, he tells me; they just don’t use their brains in the same way as humans do. Their lives, lived in another medium and reliant on entirely different structures and influences to ours, demand other talents which are quite unknown to us.

Hal Whitehead’s conclusions about the sperm whale are fascinating. He notes that while its brain is huge, it is not so unusual when seen in relative size, compared to other mammals. However, its structure ‘suggests strengths in acoustic processing and intelligence’ it has an unusually large telencephalon, the area of the brain used to produce conscious mental and sensory processes, intelligence and personality, and its neocortex–associated with social intelligence in primates–is also highly developed.

It is precisely because the animal is so big, because its habitat is so huge, that its very existence provokes intelligence. Always moving, always in social groups, the whale’s life is invariably interconnected, dependent on one another and on each other’s knowledge. Its long, relatively safe life free from predators, and its great numbers have allowed the sperm whale to evolve elaborate social systems and cultures–although we are not quite sure what they are. And while Whitehead’s research has found no direct evidence as to its intelligence–principally because so much of that life is unknown to us–the whale’s complex social behaviour suggests a system of communal recollection, passing on information on feeding grounds and other memories. In an ever changing environment, there is an importance to the elderly, a kind of life insurance for the species.

It may be that whales remember more than we suspect; like the proverbial elephant, they may never forget. Research on humpback brains has also discovered the presence of spindle neurons, otherwise confined only to primates and dolphins. These cells–important in learning, memory and recognizing the world around and, perhaps, one’s self–first appeared in man’s ancestors fifteen million years ago. In cetaceans, they may have evolved thirty million years ago. This discovery places humpbacks with the odontocetes–sperm whales, orcas and dolphins–as sharing complex social skills of ‘coalition-formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage’.

Hal Whitehead speaks of sperm whales as not only possessing a culture–the ability to learn information as a result of social interaction–but having used it ‘to adapt successfully to the ocean’s demanding environments’. ‘There is a growing recognition that culture is not an exclusive property of humans.’ Such research suggests entire communities of whales, ocean-wide clans moving in distinctive patterns and ‘speaking’ in distinctive repertoires of clicks, like humans sharing the same language. Separate groups of the same species will act in different ways, foraging for food in different manners–methods learned maternally, passed on from generation to generation. Similarly, Clan membership is comparable to nationality in humans; two clans off the Galápagos, although genetically similar and geographically close, ‘talk’ in different dialects.

Dr Whitehead organizes the sperm whale’s clicks into four functional groupings: usual clicks, about two a second, made by foraging whales; creaks, a regular, more rapid succession of clicks which he describes as sounding like the rusty hinge on an opening door, and which indicate a whale homing in on its prey, or scanning other whales at the surface; the communicative sequence of codas–such as click-click-click-pause-click–a kind of cetacean Morse code which suggests ‘conversations’, although ‘we do not know what information is being transmitted’. Most mysterious of all are the slow clicks or clangs made by mature males and which Whitehead compares to ‘a jailhouse door being slammed every seven seconds’.

As scientists become aware of the complexity of sperm whale societies–which hunting may have fatally undermined by removing its matriarchs and, with them, essential knowledge needed to support the species, and by culling the large bull males with whom the females mate–those same societies face signal new threats. Even as we are able to predict the weather, it becomes unpredictable; as we find out more about whales, they start to disappear. Natural history may soon become simply that: history.

The earth’s flora and fauna are vanishing at an average of one hundred a day. A process of extermination, first envisioned by Baron Cuvier two hundred years ago as man began to examine the nature of the whale, will be accomplished. Between beginning this book and finishing it, one species of cetacean, the Yangtze River dolphin, has been declared extinct. By the end of the century, half of all animal species–including the right whales of Cape Cod Bay–may follow the same route.

The sperm whale, too, has an uncertain future, so slow to breed that it also may eventually perish as a delayed effect of hunting. What man started, in the purposeful culls of the two great periods of whaling, his heirs may succeed in finishing off, almost by accident. Dr Whitehead and his fellow researchers may never know the truth about the whale; although in his most astonishing suggestion–all the more so for coming at the culmination of the most detailed scientific surveys, mathematical models and precise plottings, the result of a lifetime spent studying this one species–Whitehead proposes that we may yet discover that sperm whales, the oldest and possibly most evolved of any cetacean, have developed emotions, abstract concepts and, perhaps, even religion.

If sperm whales have religion, do they believe in us? In Melville’s counter-bible, Ahab’s blasphemous pursuit of Moby Dick ends in an apocalyptic, three-day chase. Driven to the edge of his mania, he plunges his harpoon into the animal’s side–‘Thus, I give up the spear!’–only for the rope to loop around his neck, ‘and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone’. Ahab is last seen lashed to the whale’s white side, as if crucified, his lifeless arm beckoning to the rest to follow him into watery oblivion. Then the animal turns on the Pequod and stoves in the ship, sinking her and all her crew. The entire human cargo of Melville’s story disappears, leaving the surface as if man had never existed, ‘and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago’. Ishmael alone survives–clinging to a coffin made for Queequeg–to be picked up by a passing whale-ship, ‘that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan’.

But what most commentators neglect to note is that there is another survivor from Melville’s book: the whale itself. And if any animal were to evolve its own religion, what better animal than one that, for all its trials and tribulations, remains an immortal, omniscient power, a lingering shape in the ocean, beyond all human comprehension and physical dimension, forever spinning into space.

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Timberline

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Sloop

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Roswell

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Anchor

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Whisk

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Ventisca

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Scratch’s calf

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Valley