On the Minds of the Whales

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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 …

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  1. *

    Do unto others as you would be done by.