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An Oppressed Group

Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: An Encyclopedia of Sea Mammals

by David J. Coffey
Macmillan, 223 pp., $17.95

Two years ago, as a reporter, I joined an ocean expedition whose purpose was to find the Soviet Union’s Pacific whaling fleet and, through argument or obstruction, end its annual harvest of sperm whales. The ship we sailed on, a chunky Canadian halibut boat festooned with symbols of peace, life, love, earth, and water, was a vessel well suited for its whimsical mission. The crew, all members of an ecological organization called Greenpeace, was made up of scientists, fishermen, environmentalists, musicians, and various hard-core visionaries, many of whom had been on previous Greenpeace voyages to protest atomic tests by the United States and France and the slaughter of infant seals by Norwegians and Newfoundlanders. Now they had all banded together behind the cause of cetaceans, seeing in the whale a symbol of life itself under the threat of extinction.

I confess I did not share their crusaders’ feeling for whales when I stepped aboard the Greenpeace ship in San Francisco. At that time my knowledge of whales consisted of dimly remembered details from Moby-Dick and several childhood viewings of a life-size model that, suspended by fragile wires, hung from a gallery ceiling in New York’s Museum of Natural History. From these encounters I granted whales a certain abstract magnificence, but my urban imagination could apprehend nothing special about their existence. That certain species were dwindling into extinction, that whalers no longer needed the skills of the hand harpoon or the courage to risk in longboats the danger of a sudden breach or a long Nantucket sleigh ride, were melancholy facts, but hardly the first that came to mind whenever I pondered the injustices of the world. To fasten on the fate of the whale as the measure of our planet’s future must be, I thought, little more than a dramatic eccentricity, to be indulged in only by those who have the leisure for the more exotic anxieties about the environment.

Chronicles of conversion are tedious, but I feel I should give some reason for my change of mind, if for no other purpose than to justify to some extent my reviewing a book whose text and illustrations are concerned with the habits and destiny of aquatic mammals. The shift in my attitudes began simply enough with my first sight of whales, a meeting which removed the abstraction from their impressiveness and diminished my ignorance of their odd congeniality. It was a late, misty summer twilight when I was called out on deck by excited voices to gaze on a pod of orcas, or killer whales, that flanked and followed our boat as if in escort. Because of their high, black dorsal fins and modest size, I mistook them at first for sharks. However, I soon noticed the spouts of breath that rose above them as they curved their bodies in and out of the water, swimming with an easy swiftness that allowed them to dart and circle about the ship and still keep their places alongside it. Most of the crew brought out flutes and recorders, and began piping erratic snatches of melody in the hope of keeping the orcas with us as long as possible. Although I did not know it then, killer whales have a fondness for the sounds of these instruments, and indeed they did stay with us for nearly half an hour before, as if on command, they suddenly disappeared beneath the water.

When they were gone, the ocean seemed particularly desolate. For a while, the whales had animated the waters, and the sound and sight of their breathing had infused that animation with a sense of kinship, a feeling of connection between two orders of nature that was as exhilarating to me as it was unexpected.

A week or so after this meeting, I saw another aspect of this relationship. I watched as a dozen or so sperm whales were hunted by Russian catcher boats, saw and heard the harpoons explode like shots of cannon and sail over those members of our crew who, in Zodiac boats, had put themselves between the whalers and their targets in the belief that their presence would prevent the Russians from opening fire. Indifferent to the courage of this manner of protest, the whalers went about dispatching the small herd, the harpoons piercing and exploding the flesh of the whales until the columns of breath became bloody geysers.

As I watched I remembered how Melville described the way the sperm whale, in its death agony, turns toward the sun, as if to pay a final homage to life before leaving it. The whales I saw killed that afternoon had no chance for such acts of instinctive worship; blown apart by modern weaponry, they had time for only the briefest unconscious convulsions before they died. Later, their bodies would be taken to a large factory ship, from which the stench carried a great distance across the water. Their carcasses would be turned into commodities; oil would become an ingredient in margarine and a lubricant for delicate machinery; flesh ground into fertilizer and food; excrement, under the genteel name of “ambergris,” prepared to serve as a stabilizer for society’s more expensive perfumes. But before they could be towed away for this transformation, air was pumped through hoses into the whales’ blowholes to keep the corpses buoyant. Bloated, disfigured, bloody, gnawed on by sharks, the dead whales bobbed clumsily on the surface of the water, tokens of desecration that would stay in my mind long after it comprehended that the whale, through size and innocence, was an embodiment of pure being that deserved a wholly dedicated defense.

And so I returned from the voyage with a passion, and was perplexed to find that it was one not easily shared by most of my friends. Whenever I brought up the topic of whales, a yawn would spread through the company I was with; eyes would glass over, curious smiles would appear, and eyebrows would cock in frank suspicion of my sincerity. I could hardly blame those who knew me for their lack of enthusiasm and understanding. After all, most were in the same benighted state I had endured before sailing with Greenpeace, and even the more enlightened could hardly accept me as a serious apostle of whale conservation.

To educate them as well as myself, and to demonstrate the earnestness of my feelings, I began searching for books that would offer information about the order Cetacea in a manner that satisfied intelligent curiosity. This was not easy. Either one was confronted with a text suitable for ten-year-olds or a forbidding volume meant exclusively for cetologists and those laymen whose fanatic enthusiasm would carry them through dense clusters of biological detail. A book of the latter type is Mammals of the Sea, edited by Sam H. Ridgeway.* It contains articles by biologists, geneticists, pathologists, and research veterinarians, all of whom have made the three orders of marine mammals their special field. This excellent work has abundant cross-section drawings and statistics; everything, from the distal esophagus of the California sea lion to the chemical breakdown of porpoise urine, is analyzed with impressive thoroughness. There are even anecdotal entertainments tucked within the paragraphs of information, as when Melba and David Caldwell in their study “Behavior of Marine Mammals” relate how the managements of various marinelands have been embarrassed by the uninhibited masturbatory practices of captive dolphins. But such respites from scientific data are rare in Mammals of the Sea, and though it is an estimable book, it is not one which would kindle in my untutored friends a passionate interest in its subject.

Now, however, I have read such a book. Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises, by David J. Coffey, is a work that keeps courtesy toward the general reader in mind throughout its pages; he may skim or scan as he chooses, his interest whetted by excellent photographs and drawings that allow the imagination to animate rorquals, dugongs, and manatees long before he knows any facts about their morphology. He will see clearly illustrated a mating sequence of humpback whales that ends in a tender vertical embrace; he can follow a diagram that traces the manner in which this same species of whale performs a series of in-and-out-of-water somersaults; indeed he will discover almost every attitude of play, rest, and social movement of these creatures sketched, photographed, or painted so that the eye discerns the diversity and vitality of the species being studied.

But after one has appreciated the pictures, how should one set about reading such a book as Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises? Since it presents its information alphabetically, to proceed from cover to cover would mean encountering the uses of anaesthesia on whales before knowing very much about the animals being thus readied for study or surgery. My suggestion is to become familiar first with the names these aquatic mammals have been given. Not the names of taxonomy—they merely distress the classicist and tongue-tie the rest of us—but the names bestowed by sailors and fishermen. “Grey,” “humpback,” “bottlenosed,” “blue,” “ginkgo,” “straptoothed,” “piked,” “bowhead,” “narwhal”—these names, whether descriptive of character or of shape, all have a sturdy, practical sound to them, and an intimacy begins to form with the whales, seals, and walruses they designate after one has spoken them aloud several times and eased them permanently into one’s memory.

After learning what to call the mammals illustrated on the pages, one should then get a general idea of their genera, species, and families. This will permit similarities and distinctions to be appreciated and a certain discipline applied to the great variety of forms, flukes, and fins that runs through the cetacean order.

Once the above has been done, then the reader is free to give himself up to random curiosity. Here are some of the bits of information he may stumble on:

The blue whale, now almost an extinct species, is possibly the largest animal ever to walk the earth or swim its waters. Close to a hundred feet in length and weighing about 150 tons, these giants feed on tiny shrimp-like crustacea known as krill. To eat, they simply open their mouths while swimming, allowing krill-laden water to flow between their jaws. When they expel the water, baleen or whale-bone plates form a natural strainer which traps the krill so that ingestion may take place at leisure.

The sperm whale is capable of all the prodigious feats Melville claimed for it. Truly the warrior of whales, it seeks its food among sharks and giant squid, reaching the latter by being able to dive to depths of over three thousand feet. This ability to make such deep and prolonged descents is still not fully explicable to scientists. Coffey suggests that the oily substance called spermaceti—so called because sailors thought it was a store of male sperm cells—may be the secret to the sperm whale’s resistance to the great pressure its body endures during a dive.

There are sirens in the sea; a whole order in fact known as Sirenia, the members of which bear the rather unerotic names of dugongs, sea cows, and manatees. Their full soft bodies and large eyes, together with their trusting manner, caused sailors to think of alluring mythical creatures. Coffey comments on this desperate act of imagination:

The journey must have been long and the mariners’ needs pressing for these blubbery aquatics to have assumed human form.

One would have almost to transcribe the text of Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises in order to give anything like an adequate summary of the bits of fascinating information it contains. However, there are some omissions. Two facts in particular, which I discovered on the Greenpeace voyage, I add here in the spirit of scientific cooperation. First, the whales’ vaporized spouts of breath often cause a rainbow to form like a halo over them; second, as the musicians on our boat proved, California grey whales sound instantly when rock and roll is played over loudspeakers but will surface to swim contentedly when they are serenaded by recordings of Bach and Mozart.

There are, of course, dark passages in Coffey’s book. He discusses with gloomy resignation the long history of ineffective legislation to protect whales, especially that of the International Whaling Commission, an ineffectual body apparently more interested in ensuring the future of whaling than of the sperm and humpback. At its peak, he points out, the whaling industry killed over 30,000 sperm whales annually. Now, when their survival is in question, “far too many are slaughtered,” in spite of a so-called “international moratorium.” Coffey also examines the show business uses to which dolphins and orcas are put in captivity, viewing it as a sort of “aquatic vassalage” that is perhaps necessary if the public is ever to become concerned over the fate of these mammals. As for research, his article on captivity ends with the direction: “(See Warfare).”

After following this ominous request, one discovers that dolphins have been employed for many years now as aids in man’s martial designs. First their shape was used as a model for submarine construction; next they were taught to retrieve practice torpedoes and other dangerous objects from sea beds; then it was found they could be taught to propel deep-sea divers thus increasing the speed and efficiency of the underwater frogman.

Of course, it was not long before the military mind began seeing in dolphins what they would call an “offensive capability” as well, and soon they were being trained to patrol enemy waters and instructed on the manner of carrying and attaching limpet bombs to the hulls of ships. Coffey ends this depressing account with a quotation from Jacques Cousteau, which I certainly could not improve upon: “No sooner does man discover intelligence than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity.”

But Coffey’s most spirited assault on behalf of his aquatic mammals is launched against neither the military nor the whaling industry, but on those scientists who claim that the annual hunting of whales is really a form of beneficial pruning. Coffey cuts through the arrogance of their assumptions with a few strong arguments of fact and logic—denying, for instance, that such scientists have any valid way of estimating the number of whales in a species or of calculating the original size of herds before man began reducing them.

In the end, the question of our treatment of whales involves more than correct scientific method, more even than the simple matter of their survival. Ultimately it is a moral problem that involves the purpose to which man puts his spiritual energy. To slaughter these creatures, about which we still know so little, to justify with tendentious statistics the turning of breath into blood, argues our own extinction as much as that of our victims. The first creature mentioned by name in Genesis, the symbol of inscrutable creation used by God Himself in his reproof of Job, the whale must now accept the view man takes of him. For a long time now man’s awe has been confined to his own capacity for self-destruction. Perhaps it is time he fastened some of it on creatures like the whale, beings that enhance our mind’s capacity to revere life. Books like David J. Coffey’s make a helpful and entertaining beginning in this direction.

  1. *

    Mammals of the Sea: Biology and Medicine (Charles C. Thomas, 1972).

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