The sea is in a sense our last frontier, and the whales the rulers of it, whom we are in danger of displacing, just as we have displaced the Indians and the buffaloes that they hunted. The hunting and gathering stage of man’s evolution ended on land some 10,000 years ago, but it continues still today in the sea. So far we have only managed to exploit its resources, not to cultivate them. The neolithic revolution is only just beginning to reach the sea. Yet the oceans occupy a far larger proportion of the earth’s surface than the land and they nourish a life of quite staggering richness and variety.

In these days of worry about over-population and overcrowding it is encouraging to remember that we have only just begun even to explore these vast areas and volumes of water. But above all let us not exploit them carelessly and so ruin them. Our treatment of whales in the past has certainly not been encouraging, but it is not realized widely enough that there are some distinct signs of better times for them. Knowledge has increased enormously and the methods of management and control that have been devised are being adopted, at least in part, by the Russians and Japanese, who control 85 percent of the world’s catching. This has been an international effort, devised largely by scientists and backed by governments and by popular opinion. It has not been easy to achieve, but is a hopeful sign that human affairs can be conducted rationally.

But whales are not just a “resource” to be exploited. They are wonderful creatures, in some ways perhaps closer to ourselves than any other animals. It must be a dull person who will not admit that whales are fascinating. Many books about them are fascinating too—but they can also be tiresome. Whales rouse some of our worst as well as our best poetic instincts. Mind In the Waters is a mixed collection of some thirty pieces “assembled” by Joan McIntyre. It makes compulsive reading, but it is a bit hard to be compelled by a poem that is printed in the margin of a scientific article and with a photograph on the same page. Perhaps some people like this sort of typography—it makes for easy snippetting at the coffee table. But some of the marginal snippets are so small that you have to take a hand lens to read them. It is annoying when you have deciphered a diagram of a food web that is printed too small, to find that it is full of mistakes.

But enough of carping. This is mostly a fine and a moving book, and will repay either serious study or browsing by the layman. It begins with an erotic D.H. Lawrence poem and then has a wonderfully moving account of how a seventy-foot whale got trapped in a pond and was shot as it swam around for many days, while its mate called to it in vain from the ocean outside. In this as in many other stories there is evidence that the whale in its distress also tried to communicate with the humans.

The theme of the book, as the title says, is that whales possess some quality akin to our minds. But what is it? And can we learn by studying these fellow minds more about the same ambiguous quality in ourselves? Many have concentrated on their communication by a language of sounds, but Gregory Bateson gives us an account of the social behavior of a group of seven dolphins without even mentioning sounds. He found they had a clear system of organization of friends in pairs and threes, so that some were regularly seen together, but never with others. There was a hierarchical threat system, in which order was never reversed, whereas chasing could be by either party in the hierarchy. In a game they played in which you pushed along someone else with your nose in his or her genitals, the lower member of the hierarchy was to do the pushing.

Dr. Bateson was interested in what he called the ecology of mind, how several ideas live together in one brain, but he did not find the answer to this problem of the organization of the model in the brain. Indeed it seems characteristic that whales provide more problems than answers: perhaps this is part of their fascination. According to Bateson “they do not have anything like language, no epistemology that identifies things.” Instead they have a system of “kinesics,” a “language” of body movement, which is all about relationships “not only to other dolphins but to oceans, to geography, to navigation, to whatever they deal with.” Which leaves the problem pretty much where Melville did in Moby Dick. “Has the Sperm whale ever written a book—No his great genius is in doing nothing particular to prove it.”


Whales do of course use sound extensively, partly for identifying objects at a distance by sonar. They can as it were “see” things a long way away by the reflection of the sounds that they emit. Peter Warshall tells us all about this, in an article not always accurate but easy to read. He does not agree that whales have no language but, as he says, “we can’t figure out what the toothed whales are saying to each other.”

Jacques Cousteau and his colleagues have given us two books that tell even more about dolphins and whales than Miss McIntyre’s assembled items. They are beautifully produced and illustrated but it is a disappointment that they are not always scientifically accurate. They tell some of the difficulties in studying the sounds that are produced and received by whales. Most of the noises are squeaks, with a frequency far outside our own range. But no one really knows whether the sounds are produced in the larynx or in some other way. The outgoing sound waves are certainly precisely directed by a system of hard bone leading them out at the tip of the head. The ear openings are tiny but the sound is probably received largely through them, perhaps also by the lower jaw. The front of the head contains a mass of fatty tissue called the “melon,” which may act as a sort of “acoustic lens” to focus the sound. These animals can locate objects so readily under water that their methods have attracted much attention from naval researchers. Much of the information is probably still kept secret by the navies of the world concerned with submarine detection. Whales and sea lions can be trained to seek out and bring back all sorts of objects that are lost deep in the ocean. You can train them to retrieve your satellite or weapon that has gone wrong and dropped to the bottom, which of course appeals greatly to the military.

Cousteau, like most of us, is deeply concerned over man’s relationship to whales, and for their future. In the traditional whaling exploits of the sailing ships the whale was considered as a ferocious “enemy.” Now, as he says, “misunderstanding may give way to admiration and comprehension;…man will honor himself finally in being able to feel respect for the largest creature on the face of the earth.” We can all agree with this, but it still leaves difficult problems. If we respect them should we kill them at all? Miss McIntyre certainly thinks not. She puts it like this, “As you read this, the slaughter of whales and dolphins continues…. Every twelve minutes a whale is killed…the principal reason is profit. Almost all of the products…can be synthesized or substituted from other sources.” But “whales can be saved,” and she has founded Project Jonah, an international organization aimed at doing it.

Fortunately there are reasons for thinking that the situation, though still serious, is not quite so alarming as it was. Some effective actions have already been taken to relieve the danger of the most threatened species. In 1970 the United States secretary of the interior, Walter Hickel, placed eight commercially sought-after species on the endangered species list. This means that it is illegal to import any parts or products of them into the United States. The list included some of the most magnificent of all whales, the bowhead, right whale, blue, sperm, and finback whales and the sei, humpback, and gray whales. At the same time he called an international meeting of cetologists to consider the gaps in our knowledge that make conservation difficult. Ten countries were represented, including Japan. The Russians were invited but did not come. A report of the conference now at last appears, edited by Dr. Schevill. It includes a summary of the recommendations and papers on some twenty aspects of the problem.

At first glance it certainly has not the attractions of the books already reviewed. Ugly cover, no glossy pictures, and hideous type with unjustified lines. No doubt this makes for economy but the Harvard University Press should know that good matter in a book deserves good presentation. They will no doubt reply that this is a scientific book and that scientists don’t care about how the data look. Why then publish the photos at all, since they are not of scientific interest? But much of the matter here is of very great general interest and appeal and deserves wide attention. For instance one of the major conclusions is that there should be a new study of smaller whales, including dolphins and porpoises. These are not at present either useful to man or endangered by him, but may unluckily enter both categories. A new method of catching tuna is to watch for dolphin activity. A long purse seine is then put around and captures both fishes and cetaceans, resulting in the death of perhaps hundreds of dolphins, whose bodies are simply thrown away! What a terrible fate for beautiful and intelligent creatures. As the method is said to be “efficient” (for catching tuna) it is likely to become widespread.


But the value of this report is not in any sensational alarmist views. Indeed on their first page they report (optimistically!), “It is unlikely that any whale species is on the verge of extinction.” But there are localized stocks that “could possibly be wiped out…either by nations outside the International Whaling Commission or in breach of its regulations.” So they recommended an International Observer Scheme to help to ensure that the regulations are carried out. They also provided some ideas about how the scheme should be run, including abandoning the “blue whale unit” in which were combined the number of whales of various species that could be caught. Instead each individual species and stock is now to be managed individually. Both of these recommendations have already been put into effect.

In a fascinating article on the International Whaling Commission Dr. J. L. McHugh admits that it “has a history of acting too little and too late, but it has been far from impotent.” Since 1965, however, its actions have been more effective. In an addendum of 1972 he emphasizes that of the 100 kinds of cetacea fewer than twenty are taken commercially and fewer than ten can be considered endangered. This is of course too many, but as he says, “A total moratorium is not only irrational and unnecessary, but impossible to achieve. Continued pressure for total cessation of all whaling could well be counterproductive, by destroying the Commission just when it has finished resolving most of its major problems.”

This will certainly not please everyone, but the great advantage of a sober survey such as this is that it faces the realities of human need and commercial methods. The working group on management begins by explaining that harvesting of whales is the most efficient known means of tapping the resources provided by the plankton of the northern and southern seas, which are “among the most biologically productive regions on earth.” “The herds of the great whales could at optimum stock levels contribute significantly to human needs for protein.” They are at present the only way we can use this source of food. We have not yet learned how to catch plankton in bulk, but the Russians are said to be building plankton catchers, ships with huge mouths that engulf the small crustaceans. The prospect of these artificial whales is not very appealing either, goodness knows what damage they might do to the balance of life in the sea.

Another food chain that can be used leads from the plankton through the squids to the sperm whales the originals of Moby Dick. These are very different creatures from the baleen whales that feed directly on plankton. They do not produce “whale oil” and so luckily for them are not quite so valuable as their cousins. But they have been hunted for centuries for another sort of oil, once used for lamps and now for automatic gear boxes. Though they are not in immediate danger of extinction their numbers are depleted and no one can be complacent about their future.

Sperm whales are prodigious feeders. Dr. Malcolm Clarke has studied the beaks of the squids that they eat, the only hard parts, which remain in their stomachs and incidentally make the valuable ambergris, used in perfumery. From the number of beaks Clarke calculates that a sperm whale of eleven tons eats no less than 130 tons of squid a year. This gives some idea of the enormous numbers of these animals in the sea. Man has no means of catching oceanic squid in quantity. They move away too fast for us, using their jet propulsion activated by giant nerve fibers. But the sperm whale can catch them, and let us be careful that we do not eliminate him for his pains.

Support and encouragement of the International Whaling Commission is probably the best way to help the whales at present. The commission tries to find policies of management that will ensure that no stock is reduced below its optimum level—or where this has already happened, that it shall be able to recover. This will not be acceptable to all conservationists. For instance, Dr. Scott McVay doubts in his paper whether we know enough to use the concept of “maximum sustainable yield” in management of whale stocks. He makes an impassioned plea for full use of the International Observer Scheme and of assignment of quotas to each species. He pleads that cetology should become “truly a ‘life science’ rather than a ‘death science.’ ”

It is indeed hard to know how to steer a course that will be most effective. Dr. George L. Small’s book provides us with much further useful information, given from an outside point of view. He is not a biologist but a geographer, who has become concerned about the plight of the blue whale. This, the largest creature that has ever lived on earth, is now he thinks almost certain to become extinct. Three independent experts, not connected with whaling countries, were appointed in 1960 by the International Whaling Commission to study the problem of the Antarctic whale stocks. Their report in 1963 (delayed for lack of funds to publish it!) estimated that there were 600 blue whales and 2,000 of the so-called pygmy blue whales, which are probably really not a separate species, but simply young ones. Since that time at least 741 blue and 2,361 pygmy have been killed. Small concludes that today there must be fewer than 200 alive and comments, “What a monument to man’s power of destruction of God’s creation.”

In spite of being emotional on the subject, Dr. Small makes a very sober and useful analysis of the reasons for the failures of the whaling commission. He sees the desire to maintain the principle of the freedom of the seas as a genuine difficulty that faced governments, even when they were ready to restrict their own nationals. Small suggests that we should extend the Roman concept of res communis (community property) to cover what is still res nullius, and so open to exploitation by anybody. Some way will have to be found for doing this for the whales without prejudging all the other difficulties about who owns and can exploit the resources of the sea and the sea bed.

We cannot at the same time worry about population problems and starvation, and neglect to take advantage of those animals able to make food that we can digest from materials that we cannot. Our herds of cattle are acceptable to all except vegetarians and even they will generally drink milk and eat cheese, fish, or eggs. It is surely as foolish to deny that man is an omnivore as to expect him to walk on all fours or to fly.

Of course there has been gross over-exploitation of whales, especially of some of the most wonderful species. But it may not be generally realized that “reduction of fin and sei whale stocks that had been occurring at a very rapid rate has been slowed or stopped.” This is not to say that the group reporting in Dr. Schevill’s book was in any way complacent. They do not think that it is good enough to seek protection for a species only after it has become endangered. They believe it is possible by proper resource management to hold each species at “maximum sustainable yield” so that it is still a major element in the ecosystem. They recognize that controls must evolve and that “economic considerations have made it difficult or impossible for the industry to abide by the necessary restrictions.”

Will things be any different in the future? The report urges that “the industry should accept the judgment of a competent group of scientists in this matter.” But will industries or governments do so? The seven recommendations that end the report would ensure this if carried out. The report recommended that all relevant nations should join the International Whaling Commission and that all possible steps should be taken to bring this about and seek universal adherence to its recommendations. Opinions differ about how far this has been done. The whaling commission continues to be very active, though there are still problems in the organization of its secretariat. The observer scheme is in action, with schemes for different areas. The Japanese and Russians are exchanging observers in the Antarctic and they and the US in the North Pacific. At the start of the June meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the Soviet Union announced that it would phase out one of its three Antarctic whaling fleets as a gesture to the conservationists. Of course all this does not ensure that the catchers will follow the regulations, or if they did that the concept of a “maximum sustainable yield” will allow the stocks to recover and to flourish. Stronger pressures for protection are no doubt needed.

But these activities are serious and suggestive. Mankind is emerging from the stage of merely hunting in the sea. Conservation there is being taken seriously and it is on an international basis. Surely we can see some glimmers of hope here. It may be a sign not only of genuine international cooperation but also of the true cultivation of the sea. We may not be altogether happy at this concept either. There is still a streak in each of us that cherishes the wild. Let us not be too arrogant in trying to tame the oceans and their inhabitants. Let us continue to marvel at the way the whales master their environment, their perfection as swimming machines, and their highly developed senses. Above all we feel that they have something of that complexity of brain and social behavior that we associate with the concept of mind.

It is hard to know where reasonable sentiment ends and sentimentality begins. If it is right and “natural” for us to deplore slaughter of each other, is it so also for creatures that are like us? Some would say that we should kill neither the whale nor the cow or sheep, but most would agree that this is not a practicable morality, or even a “natural” one. What difficult questions we make for ourselves! At least we can agree that we should not be cruel to any creature, and can we be blamed for wishing to preserve such beautiful animals as the whales, even if at the same time we exploit them as part of our own ecosystem? Commensalism between species is one of the most widespread features of nature. The herds of our sheep and cattle constitute a far greater number of these large creatures than could survive without us. Is it too much to hope that we could help the whales equally, so that there are as many or more of them in the sea than before they were hunted so efficiently?

This Issue

July 17, 1975