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On the Minds of the Whales

Andrew Stevenson
Humpback whales off the coast of Bermuda; from Andrew Stevenson’s Whale Song: Journeys into the Secret Lives of the North Atlantic Humpbacks, just published by Lyons Press

The twentieth century almost did in whales. At its opening their great feeding grounds in the southern ocean were undisturbed by the blast of the harpoon gun, yet by the 1980s it was hard to find a large whale anywhere.

I worked as a curator of mammals at the Australian Museum in Sydney at the time, and saw living whales on only a handful of occasions: most memorably when I was traveling at dawn by outrigger canoe in eastern Indonesia. The tropical sea was as smooth as oil and a pod of dolphins moved around two huge, serrated shapes lying in the water—the backs of two sperm whales. They remained motionless as we drifted to within a few meters of them. Then, almost imperceptibly, they began to shift. Their heads slipped below the water as they arched their backs until their huge flukes rose into the air above us, before they silently moved into the depths. I had not glimpsed “the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow,” as Melville put it, but the sight had left me by turns puzzled, awed, terrified, and profoundly touched.

D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale is an inquiry into the fate of the great whales of the southern Pacific. Their wholesale industrial immolation is now a fast-receding memory for most, yet the struggle to save them was an important milestone in the battle to manage our environmental commons. Played out against a background of two world wars, the halting development of international cooperation, and the rise of both deadly technology and the scientific expert, it’s a story from a very different, yet eerily familiar world.

Burnett’s primary sources are the minutes and notes of the committee meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and its predecessors. In other hands it might have yielded a story as dry as dust, but this historian has an eye for small, telling details, resulting in an intriguing book full of paradoxes and unlikely heroes. Among the latter is the American biologist John C. Lilly. He believed he could communicate with cetaceans, and he rated their powers of ratiocination far above our own. The sperm whale has the largest brain of any creature, and he reckoned that it was the greatest philosopher on Earth:

The sperm whale has gone so far into philosophical studies that he sees The Golden Rule* as only a special case of a much larger ethic…he probably has abilities here that are truly godlike.

Then again, this was the Sixties, when god-whales were as unexceptional in some quarters as female activists wishing to make love to the creatures. Despite the color provided by such characters, The Sounding of the Whale is not an easy read. Nor is it sentimental. It barely touches on the heroic era of whale hunting, when the chase involved sailing ships and hand-held harpoons, and it contains little about the lives of whales. Its great strength lies in exposing to the light of day the byzantine deliberations of the IWC—the organization charged with conserving the whales, but which instead oversaw their destruction. At almost 750 pages long it’s vast, and I regret to say that in parts its organization is as messy as a cetacean carcass bloating in the sun.

At the heart of industrial whaling lay the “floating factory,” described by one observer in 1952 as

a technical marvel. It is an oil-plant and a meat-meal factory. It is also a canning factory. It is a very well-equipped chemical works, with a most ingenious and varied routine. It is in fact a scientific institute of the first rank.

There were formerly large markets for whale meat, whale oil, and other products such as industrial wastes and fertilizers rendered from whale carcasses. (Now there is only a market for whale meat, mainly in Japan, Greenland, and Iceland.) But the idea that a whaling ship might be a scientific institute pulls one up. Burnett’s central theme is that scientists and whalers had entered a fatal compact that, from the start, doomed the whales. It was Sir Sidney Harmer, keeper of zoology of the British Museum (Natural History) from 1909 to 1921, and director from 1919 to 1927, who made that compact work. Yet his motives were pure. He had studied the tragic history of the whaling industry in the northern hemisphere and in a 1911 report concurred with Dr. Flower, his predecessor in the museum, that it was nothing but an exercise in “cupidity” and “ruthless extermination.” Now the whalers had turned their attention southward and a “gold rush” in whale products was underway. How long would it be before the great antipodean whale stocks followed those of the north into oblivion?

Nobody could answer that question with any certainty because virtually nothing was then known about whales. Indeed, such was the state of ignorance that the world’s leading scientific journal, Nature, could publish a grossly misidentified photograph of a whale and go uncorrected. Harmer was one of the very few professionals in a position to become an authoritative advocate on behalf of whales, but even he had no idea how long they lived, how often they reproduced, or how many there were. And without such knowledge, there was no hope of managing whale stocks.

In 1904 whalers established a beachhead on the British subantarctic island of South Georgia and were soon busy killing whales faster than they could strip them of blubber. Despite the lack of data, Harmer felt that these “noble beasts…among the most marvelous productions of nature,” were in peril. So when the opportunity arose to fund whale science using some of the royalty payments made by the whalers to the British government, Harmer saw his chance. Whale scientists would work alongside whalers to collect the required data: and so, according to Burnett, a generation of hip-booted cetologists was born.

Theirs was the first methodical attempt to study whales. As the enormous bodies were drawn to the factory in South Georgia, scientists measured and identified the whales, and dug out their gonads and fetuses to assess reproduction. Thus, paradoxically, whales were being killed in order to conduct science aimed at conserving whales. Even at this early stage some could see that the independent spirit of science might be captured by industry. Indeed it could hardly have been otherwise.

The first hip-booted cetologist was Major G.E.H. Barrett-Hamilton. An amateur field naturalist attached to the British Museum, he traveled to South Georgia in 1913 to labor in the Augean stable that was then the whaling station there. With up to forty whale carcasses amassed in the bay awaiting dismemberment and boiling down, the place was, according to one observer, “a charnel house boiling wholesale in vaseline.” The miasma that hung over the bay transformed the bright white paint of the ships to a boggish parchment, its putrid vapors resembling the pong of bad fish, manure, and a tanning works mixed together. And it was dangerous work. A rotting whale could fill with gas to bursting, ejecting a fetus the size of a motor vehicle with sufficient force to kill a man; or a chain might break, allowing a massive jaw bone to crush a worker.

In this hellhole, Barrett-Hamilton spent up to twelve hours a day measuring and burrowing into the rotting bodies of the leviathans. By January 16, 1914, he had sampled 294 individuals. But the personal cost was great. Exhausted, he died of a heart attack that night in his sleep. When the notes and specimens he had given his life for were shipped to Britain the major accompanied them, packed in a barrel of formaldehyde.

When Harmer analyzed the data collected by Barrett-Hamilton and others, he became even more alarmed about the fate of the whales. By 1914—just a decade after whaling on South Georgia had commenced—the number of humpbacks caught had declined by over 90 percent, from 5,300 per year to just 450. How long, Harmer fretted, before the fin whales, which counted among their number the blue whale—the largest creature that ever lived—followed? He asserted that the danger was imminent. The whalers, in contrast, claimed that there were fin whales aplenty. The argument that ensued bore more than a little resemblance to the 1980 wager between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon over whether resource scarcity would lead to an increase in their price. Like Simon, the whalers won: prices did not increase, and there were more fin whales than Harmer had thought—yet the resource would not prove inexhaustable.

By the 1920s land-based whaling stations were giving way to factory ships, and in Burnett’s book the cetologist F.D. Ommanney gives us the flavor of life aboard such vessels. He told of spending his days on the rolling and pitching cutting deck,

mountaineering…over mounds of red flesh and piles of bones [while] skillfully dodging over taut and criss-crossing steel hausers to the accompaniment of the usual warning shouts.

With trapdoors opening directly to the boilers waiting below, these were death-defying circumstances, and Ommanney was grateful when the foreman delayed proceedings for a minute or two so that a fetus could be extracted from a whale to be studied by students. Under such circumstances, could he be expected to object when, against regulations, a lactating female came up the slipway? With every whaleman paid a “lay,” or proportion of the proceeds from the catch, to save the female would amount to picking everybody’s pocket—including the man whose hand was on the trapdoor lever. Often, when the gunner who harpooned a lactating female came aboard the factory vessel, Ommanney

had to listen to a long explanation…. It had been dark or foggy, he did not see the calf. I smiled and felt like an indulgent schoolmaster and reached for the Red Label Johnnie Walker.

Whisky was then the coin of the whaling realm—useful for toasting mistakes, purchasing biological samples, and washing down the whale sausages that were a staple on the ships. It was understood to be so important to survival that the first whale scientists were supplied with three cases of Johnny Walker Black Label per trip as part of their kit.

If life aboard a whaler inevitably brought scientist and harpooner together, things were no different in politics. By 1946 the IWC had been established, and leadership had passed from British to American hands. In this new environment it was another museum man, Arthur Remington Kellogg, who played the leading part. He’d been a US delegate to the 1937 International Conference on Whaling, which resulted in the first global protection for whales, and he chaired the 1946 meeting that gave rise to the IWC as well as serving as its chairman twice. The pinnacle of his scientific career was doubtless the directorship of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, a capacity in which he served from 1948 to 1962.

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    Do unto others as you would be done by. 

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