For centuries, whales have been seen in contradictory ways: as awe-inspiring and beautiful animals, but also as objects from which human beings can extract a great profit. D.H. Lawrence took the first approach in his poem “Whales Weep Not!” (1909):
They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains
the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.
All the whales in the wider deeps, hot are they, as they urge
on and on, and dive beneath the icebergs.
The right whales, the sperm-whales, the hammer-heads, the killers
there they blow, there they blow, hot wild white breath out of the sea!
Consider, by contrast, this extract from Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket (1835):
In the year 1690 some persons were on a high hill observing the whales spouting and sporting with each other, when one observed: there—pointing to the sea—is a green pasture where our children’s grand-children will go for bread.
Herman Melville, who includes the Macy passage among the many extracts with which he begins Moby-Dick, depicts, in his narrator Ishmael, a young whaler constantly drawn in both directions. At first Ishmael accepts the industry of whaling. But as he sees whales up close, wondrous and mysterious beings, he becomes increasingly, if inconstantly, critical of harpoon whaling and the greed for consumer products that drives it. Those products have included meat; whale oil from blubber, useful for many purposes, such as lighting lamps and making margarine; sperm whale oil, a valuable lubricant for machines and, in our own time, for intercontinental ballistic missiles; and baleen, or “whale bone,” used for corsets, combs, and countless other products.
Greed drives the whole enterprise of Melville’s Pequod, goading its crew to gratuitous acts of sadistic cruelty. As they stab and torment the already dying whale, the moderate Starbuck pleads with them for pity. (Starbuck, a corporate man in his time, and perhaps a fitting ancestor of the corporation that bears his name, is not opposed to greed or to what Ishmael surprisingly calls the “murder” of the whale, only to useless excesses of torture.) “But pity there was none,” concludes the traumatized accomplice.
Contemporary international law is pulled, like Ishmael, in both directions, one faction trying to end lethal cruelty to whales, the other seeking only to preserve whale “stocks” for future exploitation. This was also the case in the 1950s when, goaded by the bureaucracy’s demands for higher and higher quotas, Soviet whalers conducted an illegal mass whale slaughter even as they learned more and more about the social intelligence and emotional complexity of their prey.
Whale products are far less needed than they used to be, with the advent of electric lights and alternative lubricants and oils. We live in a buoying time when the powerful greed motive has somewhat abated, and there is now a real possibility that the compassion long lurking can actually prevail. Sperm whale oil was not used for the anointing of King Charles III, as it had been used for British monarchs going back for centuries. Instead, Charles arranged to be anointed with olive oil made from fruit harvested on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, near where his Greek grandmother Princess Alice is buried. It seems that Charles’s environmental awareness, once thought an unmanly kind of foolishness, is now widely admired, and indeed is one of his most endearing characteristics. Even American missiles are now “anointed” with other lubricants.
In his vivid and sober Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling, the historian Ryan Tucker Jones observes that whales are utterly unlike the pigs, cows, and chickens raised in the factory farming industry. Those animals, thoroughly under human control from birth, are forced into lives so diminished, so deprived of social interaction and free movement, that it is easy for both workers and consumers to see them as mere objects for use. But whales have always had lives of their own: social relationships, free movement. They are increasingly imperiled and yet still visible as complicated individual creatures. It is almost impossible to see them up close and not be moved.
Especially well known to human observers, and studied in both group and individual settings, are the orcas (large-toothed whales sometimes known as “killer whales”) who roam in the Salish Sea off the coast of British Columbia and the state of Washington. Whale scientists have given every orca there a name and a biography, periodically updated by the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. These whales are the focus of conservation policy manager Nora Nickum’s new book, Superpod: Saving the Endangered Orcas of the Pacific Northwest.
Among the many stories she offers, my favorite—and an indelible example of orca emotional complexity—is that of Tahlequah, an orca now twenty-five years old. In 2018, having already given birth to one healthy calf, she bore another—tail-first, as whales are always born, in order for the cold water to harden the tail and fin to prepare them for immediate swimming, since they must swim to the surface to take their first breath. But this baby took only a few breaths and then died. It lived at most thirty minutes.
Tahlequah, however, kept the four-hundred-pound dead baby with her, balancing it on her head and periodically raising it up to the surface to breathe; sometimes she carried it on her back or in her mouth. She seemed to lack the energy to eat. People all over the world came to know of this grieving mother and, through her story, of orca individuality and complexity. From time to time, she was seen without the baby, most likely because other orcas of her pod were helping her bear the burden. She traveled more than a thousand miles before, on the seventeenth day, she let it go, whether because her mourning had reached a new phase or because the body had begun to decompose. She regained her strength, and two years later she bore a healthy calf, named Phoenix by the researchers because he had in a way risen from the ashes of her mourning.
This is the sort of behavior the Soviet whalers had observed, even while slaughtering mothers and babies in violation of international law. Although Ishmael’s optimistic prediction that whales will not follow the buffalo on their road to extinction has proved barely correct (and indeed he was wrong about the buffalo, or American bison, now rebounding thanks to conservation efforts), they are still dying in large numbers all over the world. Some species, like the North Atlantic right whale and the resident orcas of the Salish Sea, are critically endangered, although other species, like the humpback whale and other types of orcas, have been rebounding in recent years, thanks to an international moratorium on most whale hunts.
But harpoon whaling, the focus of international efforts, is only one small part of the harm done to whales by humans. The three books and the film reviewed here each focus on one source of harm while neglecting others, or even insisting that the harm that is its focus is the worst and all others are less awful.
Let me preface my closer examination of each harm with a catalog of all the evils whales currently suffer at human hands:
(1) Harpooning, a painful, indeed horrible, death.
(2) Sonic disturbance, affecting physical and emotional health, caused by the noise of container ships, military sonar, and oil drilling using “air bombs” to chart the ocean floor.
(3) Collisions with ships, large and small.
(4) Entanglement in fishing gear, lines, and nets.
(5) Pollution from a variety of human sources: plastics, PCPs, and other dangerous chemicals that enter the seas, poisoning the food supply.
(6) Kidnapping for display in theme parks, though by now in the US this conduct is largely illegal.
But ours is a time of hope, and these books show that there are many steps we can take—and urgently need to.
Harpooning continues, despite the recent decline in demand for whales. (What remains of the market is mainly for meat, still sold in restaurants in Nordic countries.) Norway killed 580 whales in 2022 and has reportedly hunted 15,000 since a moratorium was established in 1986. Japan’s number goes up and down with no clear trend: 270 in 2022, down from a high of 640 in 2018, but that was after several years of lower “takes,” and Japan has announced the intention of ramping up its whaling industry. The country has even introduced whale meat “vending machines” to stimulate sales. Iceland has announced the intention of ending whaling by 2024 due to lack of demand. Meanwhile, it killed 148 whales in 2022. The US contributes too, through Inuit hunts of beluga and bowhead whales off Alaska, though numbers are hard to come by.
What is wrong with whaling? Let me begin with the obvious: it ends prematurely the lives of these complex sentient animals, using them as objects from which humans can extract meat, oil, and other useful products. But that is what is wrong with the killing of most animals for food. Defenders of whaling often point this out, charging their adversaries with hypocrisy. The charge may be true in some cases, but pointing to a comparable evil hardly justifies the one under scrutiny.
It can certainly be added that harpooning is a horrible death. It is very difficult to kill whales, because they are so huge and so well protected by layers of blubber. Finding the vital organs often requires repeated strikes. Nobody describes this better than Melville:
His motions plainly denoted his extreme exhaustion…. So vast is the quantity of blood in him, and so distant and numerous its interior fountains, that he will keep thus bleeding and bleeding for a considerable period; even as in a drought a river will flow, whose source is in the well-springs of far-off and undiscernible hills. Even now, when the boats pulled upon this whale, and perilously drew over his swaying flukes, and the lances were darted into him, they were followed by steady jets from the new made wound, which kept continually playing, while the natural spout-hole in his head was only at intervals, however rapid, sending its affrighted moisture into the air. From this last vent no blood yet came, because no vital part of him had thus far been struck. His life, as they significantly call it, was untouched….
As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale’s eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.
Today’s harpooners use not lances but guns that shoot an exploding bullet into the whale. These are said to be more humane, but death still can take hours. After a close study of fifty-eight of Iceland’s 2022 whale deaths, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority found that the median time from the first shot to death for the twenty-three whales who did not die instantly was 11.5 minutes. Of the total of 148 who were killed last year, thirty-six whales were shot more than once. Five whales were shot three times, and four had to be shot four times. One whale was shot and chased for five hours before escaping.
Over the years two factions have emerged.1 For one faction, content to use whales as means to human ends, the only evil to be prevented is the extinction of one or more species, thus the cessation of (one part of) a lucrative industry. Those who hold this view typically speak of “whale stocks,” as if individual whales were insignificant. But for others, and for me, the evil is the needless and cruel deaths of individual whales. The species matters because continued reproduction and diversity are usually essential for individual health and flourishing, including social interaction.
Much hunting of whales, including hunts conducted by US whalers, is regulated by a treaty signed in 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). This convention set up a monitoring group, the International Whaling Commission (IWC).2 The treaty, it should be said, regulated only its member nations, so a nation can escape its restrictions by refusing to join, or joining with reservations, or quitting.
The ICRW was aimed not at ending the killing of whales but at sustainable use. In its preamble, US secretary of state Dean Acheson described whales as “the wards of the entire world” and a “common resource.” The word “resource” suggests that whales are seen as objects for human utility. And indeed, when the convention was drafted, there was no thought of banning commercial whaling entirely: the goal was a quota system for each member nation. Two forms of whaling were explicitly permitted outside the announced quotas: aboriginal whaling and whaling “for scientific purposes.” Both then and now, the treaty regulates only its member nations, and a nation that does not agree to a particular provision may remain a member of the IWC while opting out of that provision. Any change requires assent by three fourths of the member nations. With these provisions in place, the stage was set for stagnation, and yet without the opt-out, many nations seriously engaged in whaling, including Russia, Japan, and Norway, would not have joined the IWC in the first place.
Initially, commercial whaling was permitted, with quotas and careful monitoring procedures. In 1982, however, a complete moratorium on commercial whaling was instituted. Intended to be temporary until “stocks” recovered, the moratorium endures, since there has been no agreement about circumstances that would justify resumption of whaling. This disagreement has only intensified: some members of the IWC have increasingly shifted to an animal-rights viewpoint, with a general ethical objection to whaling, while others are eager to resume the commercial practice. Enforcement has always been weak, since the treaty gives each nation the task of disciplining its own whalers. And Norway and Iceland have simply opted out of the moratorium. There, legal commercial whaling operations continue.
Other nations, meanwhile, exploit the exceptions granted under the treaty. The purpose of the scientific exception was to understand whale biology. Just as medical students gain knowledge by dissection, so too it was thought that knowledge of the whale required whale cadavers. But it was reasoned that whale cadavers were typically lost in the deep and that the occasional beached whale might not be representative of her species. So killing for research, some nations argued, is required.
Appeals to scientific purpose, especially those by Japan, have been unpersuasive. In March 2014 the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s program of scientific whaling in the Antarctic, known as JARPA II, was not justifiable under international law, because it did not have merit as a scientific program. The court pointed to the lack of scientific findings and peer-reviewed studies from it. Many environmental organizations saw the entire practice as commercial whaling in disguise. It is difficult to disagree.
Japan, however, did not give up: it announced that it would “redesign” the program and that its right to do so had been defended by the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), a Japanese NGO that claims to be an independent research organization, although it sells the “byproducts” of whale dissection commercially as food. (Significantly, a US appellate court described the ICR, not contentiously but straightforwardly, as “a Japanese foundation that performs lethal whaling in the Southern Ocean.”3)
The International Court’s decision was cautious. It did not address claims that whales have a right to life, and it defined the purpose of the ICRW as that of balancing conservation with sustainable exploitation. Nor did it object to the idea of giving special permits for scientific research; it only said that Japan’s program did not qualify.
The issue is now moot, because Japan, frustrated by the growing opposition it faced in the increasingly conservationist IWC, left the commission in December 2018 and resumed commercial whaling in 2019, although not in the Antarctic. In 2020 the ICR stated that its research now used only nonlethal methods.4 Apparently, then, it is conceding that its genuine scientific work does not require whale death. New technology has made it possible to study whales up close without killing them, using deep-sea descent equipment and especially deep-sea photography.
As for the aboriginal exception, the claim of sustenance is unconvincing, since the whale meat caught thereby often ends up on restaurant menus in Greenland, a wealthy nation. The claim of cultural expression has always been weak, since culture has never justified gross evils (for example rape and genocide), and whale killing ought to count as one. Moreover, certain large indigenous groups, such as the Maori in New Zealand, have strongly opposed whale hunting.5
Jones’s fascinating account of the history of Soviet and Russian whaling shows that the IWC has been utterly useless in enforcing its rules, even when it makes good ones. He focuses on the years between 1920 and 1960, covering the period when the IWC imposed quotas on nations rather than a total moratorium. But driven by grandiose five-year plans and their invitations to overreach, Soviet whalers found a way to conduct what he does not hesitate to call a genocide of whales in the Antarctic, simply by targeting an area that nobody was watching.
The industry was unprofitable at first. (Among other things, whaling vessels had inadequate equipment to boil down the blubber into oil, so carcasses lay around until they were useless and rats overran the ship.) By the late 1950s the equipment had improved and there was some genuine need for whale products, but Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s indifference to humane and environmental concerns led to a push for higher and higher quotas, in order to demonstrate the alleged productivity of Soviet industry. So his whalers—despite having onboard scientific experts aware of whale lives and the threat of extinction—began cheating more and more, killing at the wrong time of year, and killing the wrong types of whales (humpbacks, who were under an IWC moratorium; pregnant females and young, who were never legal), simply to elevate their numbers. Eventually the mass slaughter in the area of Antarctica called Area V made whaling “one of the most successful and destructive industries in all of Russia,” Jones writes.
Slowly, the scientists educated the whalers about whales’ capacities for emotion, play, and altruism. And the crew could see these capacities themselves. One whaler wrote in his journal, “Today we committed a sin. We killed a mother whale.” These many Ishmaels brought their news and their guilt back home, until even children’s books portrayed whales with realistic and moving complexity. By 1970 there was better adherence to quotas, and international observers were stationed on whaling ships by the IWC starting in 1971. Jones says nothing of recent history, but Russians today appear to be relatively quiet members of the IWC.
One morning in March 2000, a whale scientist named Ken Balcomb saw a Cuvier’s beaked whale who had stranded itself near his research station in the Bahamas. (Balcomb, who died in December 2022 at the age of eighty-two, was a hero of the whale science community and for many years led the orca research project in Washington State, where he founded the Center for Whale Research.) Efforts to guide the whale back to sea proved futile; the animal shortly died. Soon messages came in from other parts of the Bahamas. That day, six beaked whales had stranded themselves and died.
The search for the cause of this mass death opens the 2016 documentary film Sonic Sea, which has justly won several awards: it is scientifically rich, clear and vivid in explanation, beautifully photographed, and peopled with a wide range of experts and other whale lovers. (This includes the musician Sting, who is interviewed and whose committed activism represents what viewers might try to achieve in their own lives.)
Sound is of immense importance for all whales, far more than sight or smell. The use of hydrophones by researchers reveals a busy world of complicated interactions. Whales send sonic messages about the location of food, and they keep track of one another across huge distances, leading a cohesive group life despite their separation. And sometimes they make sounds for sheer pleasure—the famous singing of humpback whales is only one instance of their varied self-expression.
This web of sound has suffered, in recent years, from an onslaught of human noise. It is difficult enough to carry on a meaningful conversation in a loud restaurant, not to mention concert. (Sting says he now has a hearing disability.) Whales, unlike humans, have neither hearing aids nor the possibility of choosing a quiet place for conversation. Huge container ships, each the size of a skyscraper turned on its side, roam the world, with propellers that make a din. Oil rigs, needing to chart the ocean’s floor, send down air bombs at regular intervals, and the militaries of many nations use sonar to search for enemies.
Sonar is especially scary to whales. This was in time the explanation given for the sixteen beached whales; autopsies showed brain hemorrhages that were traceable to “the bends,” which afflicts whales as it does humans if they surface too rapidly. They were simply scared to death by the US Navy, which had been performing sonar exercises in that region. Other noises also cause stress. A fascinating finding is that in the year following the September 11 attacks—a period in which global shipping basically stopped—whale fecal samples showed a sharp reduction in stress.
Sonic Sea looks for realistic solutions, so it does not consider halting global shipping. But it argues that much can be achieved through rerouting to avoid migration paths and by speed limits, which both reduce noise and save fuel. Speed limits would also help avoid collisions, not the film’s topic but a major source of whale death and injury. Alternatives to air bombing are also explored. As for sonar, the film makes the modest recommendation that navies should use it only where a specific threat exists.
But just as the documentary was being released, in a case called Natural Resources Defense Council v. Pritzker,6 the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit went further, invalidating the US Navy’s low-frequency active sonar program as violating the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (passed out of concern over the decline in whale and dolphin populations), because it impeded several characteristic whale activities—foraging, breeding, migration, communication—and induced stress responses. (“Passive sonar,” which is used on all submarines, is unaffected by the decision, so this seems to be a result our national security can live with.) The film offers sonic hope for the whales, pointing out that noise (unlike, for example, plastic trash) has this useful property: when you stop making it, it simply goes away.
North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, their breeding opportunities so rare and compromised that every new birth is greeted as a victory. Populations have declined sharply during the past decade: according to current estimates, there are just 340 alive today, including only seventy breeding females. (There are three distinct species of right whales; North Pacific right whales are also endangered, whereas many populations of southern right whales are doing pretty well.) In We Are All Whalers: The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility, Michael J. Moore, a veterinary scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, focuses narrowly on North Atlantic right whales and their urgent problems, although his title points to larger issues of complicity and blame.
Moore’s analysis is ethically confused in some ways. First, he seems to think that the blameworthiness of a death is directly proportional to its painfulness to the victim. Thus the deaths of whales from collisions and entanglements are worse than death by harpooning, since, at least according to Moore, the latter is relatively swift, and it makes no difference that it is intentionally inflicted (a “murder,” as Ishmael says) in the pursuit of selfish ends, while the others are unintentional byproducts of earning a livelihood.
Second, the deaths I have called unintentional are really cases of avoidable negligence, but he makes no ethical distinction between murder and a culpably negligent act, and no distinction between the perpetrators and the consumers who enjoy the products brought to the market through negligent industries. Hence the title We Are All Whalers: if we use any product transported by ships that collide with whales, or enjoy eating lobsters caught by the lines that entangle them, we are just like harpooners.
This is surely a confusion. It is like saying that anyone who supports a university that shelters fraternities that have a high rate of sexual assault is a rapist, because they are part of a corrupt system sheltering crimes of sexual abuse.7 There is a moral difference between intentional perpetration of crime, which I believe harpooning is, and negligent collaboration, though both may be worthy of blame. (Moore seems unclear about whether harpooning is morally objectionable and narrates proudly his time spent in a study of harpoon efficiency conducted by the IWC, though he does at least say, “The idea that it was a necessary and desirable activity was certainly not obvious to me.”)
Despite his ethical fuzziness, however, Moore is right that the general public is culpably ignorant of the harms in which they participate. His book is a constructive call to action, since he believes that these problems can be solved. Collisions with ships obviously cause injury and often painful death, especially in the crowded coastal areas that are frequented by right whales. Here Moore suggests the obvious solutions I’ve already mentioned: mandatory speed limits and rerouting to avoid migration patterns. The enforcer in this case would need to be the US government, which has so far shown little responsiveness to whales’ plight. But public concern can make a difference.
Entanglements are caused largely by the lines used by lobster fishers to retrieve their pots from the ocean floor. When a whale begins to be entangled in such a rope, the animal’s natural response is to spin around in order to free itself. But this causes the whale to get more and more entangled—until it is swimming, sometimes for months, tied up in the rope, which cuts painfully into the whale’s flesh.
Moore has treated numerous such whales, and he describes their suffering with vividness and compassion. But he also has compassion for the lobster fishers, whose livelihood depends on their catch and who presumably lose their pot as well, since the rope has become detached from it. He is never tempted to say, as I would, let’s do away with this industry and urge the lobster fishers to move to another occupation. (Whole Foods currently refuses to carry lobsters from Maine, a state where lobster fishers do a disproportionate amount of damage, both because that is where most right whales are found and because they have organized to oppose change.) He searches, reasonably enough, for win-win solutions, and believes that the best way forward is to investigate, and ultimately to require, other gear: lines that detach easily or, better still, a new retrieval system for lobster traps, for example by acoustic signals, a method currently used for retrieval in some areas.
This solution is so sensible that it almost happened. In 2021 a US District Court agreed with the National Marine Fisheries Service that lobster fishers in the Northeast should reduce their numbers of vertical buoy lines and use inserts to make ropes more breakable, among other changes. They suggested a two-year deadline. During the budget discussion of 2022, however, funding for these changes was slashed, and the deadline was put off to 2028. (Senator Susan Collins of Maine took a leading part in these changes, championing the lobster industry and seeming opposed even to adding a subsidy for gear change so that they could meet the earlier deadline.) Alas, in June 2023 the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overruled the US District Court ruling. Now, there is neither deadline nor funding for the improvements. Many scientists and activists believe that this condemns this right whale species to extinction.
In this case I agree with Moore: the public at large, perhaps the citizens of Maine in particular, bear a lot of the blame for this capitulation. Even if we do not greatly blame the lobster fishers for failing to reform their ways without being coerced to do so, it is unconscionable to tolerate a result like this. A more active and informed public should have brought more pressure to bear on Collins and her supporters. During the next budget debate, we should all do so, meanwhile informing ourselves about the progress in finding and testing alternative retrieval methods. And if we purchase lobsters, we should make sure they were caught with advanced and humane methods.
Whales depend for life and food on water, and all Earth’s waterways are today polluted. One terrible danger for every whale species is the presence of plastics in our oceans, mainly discarded single-use items. Alas, only a tiny percentage of single-use plastic items are actually recycled, even if left curbside for recycling: probably less than 10 percent, as contrasted with 60 percent for cans, according to EPA data.
Plastic is attractive to whales. It looks like food, and indeed when eaten gives a sensation of fullness, but offers no nutrition. And it simply stays in the digestive tract until eventually there is no room for actual food. One emaciated Cuvier’s beaked whale who washed up dead on a beach in the Philippines had died of starvation. Inside the animal’s stomach, researchers found eighty-eight pounds of plastic trash, including bags, cups, and other single-use items.
This is a problem we can successfully confront, although it will mean not only phasing out single-use plastic but also cleaning up what is already out there. Even a landfill is a better place for plastics to end up than the ocean. Individuals should ask questions of their cities and institutions, tracing the destination of “recycled” products. And increasingly, responsible hotels are choosing cans and, better yet, reusable metal bottles.
Meanwhile, we need to be aware of the damage done during wartime by the sudden destruction of dams and other infrastructure that release enormous amounts of pollutants into ocean waters. Ukrainians recently accused Russians of ecocide as a result of mass deaths of dolphins, a family of toothed whale of which orcas are another species, apparently because of Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka dam, which released massive quantities of toxic chemicals into the Black Sea waters in which they live. I like the Ukrainian idea of adding ecocide to the list of issues for which prosecutions may be brought under international law. I myself would prefer a formulation that focuses more specifically on the suffering and death of animals.
Pollution of this kind is not addressed in the books under review. The pollution story that Nickum narrates centers on the “resident” orcas in the Salish Sea, who are especially beloved for their keen intelligence, their attractiveness, and their family bonds, and who are endangered. These orcas were highly vulnerable to kidnapping. Young orcas would be seized from their families to do tricks in marine theme parks.
Because orcas learn socially, mainly from the postmenopausal “grannies” in their group who devote their time to education,8 the young captives had no idea of proper behavior. This had lethal consequences in the case of Tilikum, the orca in Florida’s SeaWorld Orlando who killed his trainer in 2010. The documentary Blackfish (2013) focused on this case, causing public outrage and eventually leading SeaWorld to give up orca displays. In 2016 California passed the Orca Protection Act, which makes the use of captive orcas for entertainment and captive breeding illegal.
There is only one resident orca from the Salish Sea still alive in captivity, Nickum writes: a female called Tokitae. She was captured in 1970 and renamed Lolita by her captors; she has lived in a small tank in the Miami Seaquarium for fifty years. The Lummi Nation of Washington have taken up her cause, referring to her under the name Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. They believe that she is related to the oldest resident orca currently living in the Salish Sea, Ocean Sun, who is around ninety-five.9 Since Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is a healthy fifty-five-year-old, her supporters believe it plausible for her to be released back to the Salish Sea. They are energetically working for that outcome.
The kidnapping has stopped, but today only seventy-three resident orcas are alive. Orcas in other parts of the world are doing well, as are those called transient orcas, who often visit the Salish Sea. Yet genetic analysis shows that they have not mated with the resident orcas for thousands of years, offering little hope for replenishment that way.
Although similar in intelligence and behavior, the two types differ greatly in diet. Transient orcas primarily hunt seals and sea lions, which used to be endangered but have now recovered thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Resident orcas eat only fish and have specialized further, eating only Chinook salmon. These salmon are full of PCBs, dangerous chemicals that are now illegal but lurk in the ecosystem. They give the orcas reproductive and other health issues. Researchers are hopeful that this problem will abate with time, just as enforcing speed limits on boats has kept noise and boat collisions under control. (Even whale-watching boats can be part of the problem.)
But there is another issue for the resident orcas: Chinook salmon, their diet, themselves are currently having difficulty migrating because of a series of dams that prevent them from swimming upstream. They are not breeding well, and this affects the orcas, each of whom needs 300 to 450 pounds of food a day. Some orcas already appear undernourished.
Again, the vigilance and concern of the community has been quick to address the problem. In 2003 a “fish ladder” was constructed that permitted salmon to bypass the century-old Landsburg Dam on the Cedar River, resting in a pool on each stair before jumping to the next. Nickum points out that with new methods of generating electricity, dams are not as irreplaceable as they once were. Her book ends with a list of actions readers, including younger ones, can take. We have no time to waste, she writes: “But we know what to do. And that’s a recipe for hope.”
My daughter was among the many people who have had deep devotion to the resident orcas of the Salish Sea. As a lawyer and writer, she did her part, and she and her husband were frequent visitors to Friday Harbor. Before she died in 2019, she asked that her ashes be scattered in the Salish Sea.
After a long Covid-induced delay, our family finally completed this journey in July 2023. We arranged a “memorial cruise” with Captain Greg Hertel, and the four of us went out from Friday Harbor one morning on his small boat. It was a glorious sunny day, but fog rolled in, fitting for a voyage into the mysteries of our lives and deaths. We saw no orcas (often the case), but we did see many seals and sea lions. Meanwhile, Captain Greg talked with us about the orcas, telling us many of the facts also recounted in Nickum’s book, with gentleness and respect for our occasional sadness and silence.
When we were quite far from the town, he suggested that this could be a good place for our ceremony. We said Kaddish and threw the biodegradable water-soluble box with her ashes into the waters where the orcas swam. I know that Rachel felt she would become one with the animals that she loved. I have no such mystical beliefs, but the thought that she had them was what counted. My own view is that each individual life is what matters, and that hers was irretrievably at an end. So I wept yet again.
People ask about whether the trip gave us “closure,” and I find that I personally do not identify with that goal, so meaningful to others. I do believe, however, that our mission gave me a new sense of connectedness to the orcas and their world and a new determination to focus on what I could do to contribute. Tahlequah’s “closure” was to let her baby go. My own maternal mourning is more like a continuity: another effort of knowledge, vision, and writing. Each individual being loves in its own way.
In this section, I am indebted to work done jointly with my daughter, the late Rachel Nussbaum (Wichert): “Legal Protection for Whales: Capabilities, Entitlements, and Culture,” in Animals, Race, and Multiculturalism, edited by Luís Cordeiro-Rodrigues and Les Mitchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); “Scientific Whaling?: The Scientific Research Exception and the Future of the International Whaling Commission,” Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, Vol. 18, No. 3 (July 2017); and “From Bentham to the Capabilities Approach,” in Agency and Democracy in Development Ethics, edited by Lori Keleher and Stacy J. Kosko (Cambridge University Press, 2019). ↩
A comprehensive account of the treaty and its history can be found in Malgosia Fitzmaurice, “International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling,” United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law (2017). See also her book Whaling and International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Kurkpatrick Dorsey, Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas (University of Washington Press, 2013). ↩
Institute of Cetacean Research v. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, 725 F.3d 940 (9th Cir. 2013). ↩
Dr. Yoshihiro Fujise, “Foreword,” Technical Reports of the Institute of Cetacean Research, No. 4 (December 2020). ↩
All this is discussed at length in Nussbaum and Nussbaum, “Legal Protection for Whales.” ↩
I discuss this case in detail in my Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility (Simon and Schuster, 2023). The Pritzker in question is not J.B. Pritzker, governor of Illinois, but Penny Pritzker, who was at that time secretary of commerce in the second Obama administration. ↩
See my analysis in Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability, and Reconciliation (Norton, 2021). ↩
See my “What We Owe Our Fellow Animals,” The New York Review, March 10, 2022. ↩
Readers can find biographies of all the resident orcas on the website of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor: whalemuseum.org/ collections/meet-the-whales. ↩