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 …

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