Our ongoing fascination with whales

From Moby Dick to the Thames bottlenose, whales have captured the human imagination like almost no other animal

By Stephen Moss  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Sun, Jan 21, 2007 - Page 9

As soon as you enter the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, you start getting directions to the blue whale. Of all the stars in this strange, dead celebration of life's variety, the blue whale is the starriest. Naturally, it is housed in the "blue zone." If ever an animal required a zone to itself, it is the blue whale.

I didn't really need to come to see this institution again. I was last here 15 or so years ago and could remember every detail of the whale -- the way, surrounded by other large mammals, it dwarfs them, almost filling the gallery; its serenity, eternally suspended in space, endlessly photographed and smiled at by visitors; its small yet knowing eyes and absurdly small flippers. It lies somewhere between grandeur and ridicule -- a divine joke.

The note on Balaenoptera Musculus says, a little shamefacedly, that this 28.3m-long model, made of wood and plaster in 1938 and painted a tasteful, speckled blue, is not quite accurate. Blue whales had not been observed underwater when the model was made, and it is too bulbous. But the Natural History Museum has no plans to modify its whale. Generations have been overwhelmed and amused by it -- often both at the same time. Print the legend. Until relatively recently, of course, the legend was just about all we had.

"There is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like," said the narrator in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

"And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour is by going whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him," the narrator said.

So when a young, relatively small, hopelessly lost northern bottlenose whale was spotted in the river Thames a year ago, it was no surprise that it caused a sensation, and the world's media gathered to film its final hours. This is not something you see every day -- not in Battersea, south London, anyway.

For millennia, we have been fascinated by whales and dolphins. The latter, which are classified as a type of whale, feature on Greek and Roman mosaics -- stories of them rescuing people go back 2,000 years or more and in some parts of the world they cooperate with native fishermen in the catching of fish.

Whales are both a cause and a symbol. They represent timelessness, space, improbability -- they are the largest creatures ever to evolve, demonstrate great intelligence, live in complex societies, use tools, cooperate with each other, can recognize themselves, have a lifespan at least as long as ours and can speak to each other, communicating through what zoologist Nicholas Slocum, who runs Whale Watch West Cork, calls "low-frequency grunts and whines" over vast distances, even across oceans.

"There's an air of mystique about whales," said Slocum.

"They live in an environment very alien to us," he said.

He takes groups out on his boat in search of minke, fin and humpback whales. If there is a sighting, he said his passengers are "to use the modern term, gobsmacked."

"You only see a small part of them, and you only see them on their own terms," he said. "That always struck me as rather attractive."

He described this communing with whales as "mystical."

It is easy to get carried away by whales. Look at Melville. When he began Moby Dick, he thought he was writing an adventure story. But as his biographer Andrew Delbanco said: "He soon swerves away from the adventures of a young man in flight from his own despondency, and he finds himself swept up by a larger tale -- about a maimed sea captain and the prodigious white whale that has `dismasted' him."

Monster flop

The book, now considered one of the greatest in the language, was a monster flop, and poor Melville was eventually forced to give up writing and become a customs inspector.

Melville recognized how much he had bitten off -- how uncontrollable in its extent his whale of a book was likely to be.

"From his mighty bulk the whale affords a most congenial theme whereon to enlarge, amplify, and generally expatiate," he wrote at the beginning of chapter 104. "Would you, you could not compress him."

In his 1988 book Whale Nation, Heathcote Williams attempted a different sort of epic -- a long love letter in poetry to the whale. He writes lyrically of their love of games -- "Whales play. For three times as long as they spend searching for food: Delicate, involved games, with floating seabirds' feathers, blown high into the air." -- and wittily of their delight in sex: "In whales the male member is erected voluntarily, unsheathed from within deep abdominal folds, erected, and then collapsed and concealed again, by an act of will. Unlike in man, where it has an unseasonal, disconnected life of its own. And the blue whale's penis is nine feet long, which may require additional self-control."

Whale Nation, however, is also a hate letter to humankind -- or at least that portion of it that sought (perhaps still seeks) the destruction of the whale. If, for Melville, writing in whaling's pre-industrial age, hunter and hunted are joined together in a dance of death that ends in a moment of tranquillity, a century later destruction had been mechanized. There is no beauty -- only brutality. Ahab's insane, quasi-religious pursuit had become, in Williams' words: "An essential component of our expanding economy."

His description of explosive harpoons explains why, in the 1970s, when whales were threatened with extinction, some conservationists risked their lives confronting whaling ships: "At the end of the 1.5m-long steel harpoon, a small serrated cup prevents ricochet. The tip strikes, followed by a time-fused charge exploding three seconds later, splintering and lacerating the harpoon's way into the whale's side. Next to the grenade, four barbed flanges pivot on hinges, and as the whale struggles, the strain on the rope snaps the barbs open: They fly out, ripping into the lungs and inner organs, embedding the harpoon inside the whale, anchoring her body."

Williams' lyricism and anger -- the sense of man usurping nature, anchoring this most mobile of creatures -- find an echo in the description on Canadian conservationist Paul Watson's Web site of how, in the mid 1970s, he came to found the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to wage war on the whalers.

"In 1975, Watson served as first officer under Captain John Cormack on the [Greenpeace] voyage to confront the Soviet whaling fleet ... During this confrontation with the Russian whaler, a harpooned and dying sperm whale loomed over Paul's small boat. Paul recognized a flicker of understanding in the dying whale's eye. He felt that the whale knew what they were trying to do. He watched as the magnificent leviathan heaved its body away from his boat, slipped beneath the waves and died. A few seconds of looking into this dying whale's eye changed his life for ever," the description says.

Watson's commitment to violent action, which led to his departure from Greenpeace, has alienated many conservationists, who believe his organization's sinking of several Icelandic and Norwegian whaling ships served only to inflame public opinion in those countries. But there is no doubt that his willingness to meet fire with fire has struck a chord with the Free Willy generation, tired of the obfuscations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and its easily breached moratorium on commercial whaling. I have spent a week trying to grasp what the agreement means and I still haven't really got a clue. I suspect a lifetime might not be enough.

Moratorium

The moratorium was agreed in 1982 and, in theory, should outlaw commercial whaling. But Japan has continued to whale for supposedly "scientific" reasons, even though everyone knows these are bogus, while organizing a pro-whaling bloc on the IWC to overturn the moratorium. Norway, though an IWC member, has never accepted the agreement and has carried on regardless. Iceland's position is even more opaque -- it left the IWC in 1992 in protest at the moratorium even though it had given up whaling, then rejoined in 2002, recommenced "scientific" whaling in 2003 and started commercial whaling again last autumn, in breach of the moratorium.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society says the IWC and its moratorium "lack teeth" -- an extremely polite way of putting it. Without necessarily condoning the actions of "Captain" Watson -- as he styles himself -- you can see what drives him to it, and what attracts his idealistic young recruits.

Commercial whaling took several species of whales to the brink of extinction. Some, notably the North Atlantic right whale, have never recovered. Blue whales number only a few thousand, whereas, according to marine biologist Sidney Holt, before 1930 there were a quarter of a million feeding in the Antarctic. But Holt is no pessimist. He says that, despite all the loopholes and the fact that countries can enter a "reservation" against the agreement, the 1982 moratorium came just in time to rescue the whale. Although right whales continue to struggle -- they seem to have a peculiar propensity for being run over by transatlantic shipping -- other species are now doing better. The grey whale has recovered its former numbers and the humpback is also recovering.

The pro-whaling case is put by the Norwegian-based High North Alliance, which celebrated Iceland's resumption of commercial whaling in November.

"They had not forgotten how to whale," it enthused. "In just two weeks the Icelandic whalers took seven fin whales ... Fin whales are huge animals. Those caught were 18-21m long, each providing about 15 tonnes of meat and blubber."

Not that Icelanders are that keen on whale meat -- only 1 percent eat it once a week or more. According to critics, Iceland's refusal to bow to international pressure is as much about cultural sovereignty -- the "right to whale" -- as it is about commercial gain.

The last word should go to Heathcote Williams, whose irritation at our stupidity is nicely tempered by irony: "History relates that whales have only eaten one human: Jonah, a prophet. Ingested briefly, in the fond hope perhaps of learning something of the humans' Forward Planner, and then disgorged."

If only we could be said to have anything as rational as a plan.