With international stocks plummeting, the publication of photographs showing Japanese fishermen slaughtering minke whale provoked outrage in the West. But, says Philip Hoare, before we rush to condemn other cultures, we should consider our own role in jeopardising these fragile species
Last week's photographs of a Japanese whaling ship fighting off Greenpeace activists trying to save a dying minke whale would distress anyone, but I found them particularly gruelling, having spent the past five summers whale-watching off Cape Cod. Here, in the nutrient-rich waters over Stellwagen Bank, I've seen white-sided dolphins, finbacks and humpbacks.
In this photo released by Greenpeace, one of the inflatables from the Greenpeace ship MY Esperanza and MY Arctic Sunrise tries to hinder the transfer of minke whales by a catcher ship of the Japanese whaling fleet to the Nisshin Maru factory ship, in Antarctic seas in the Southern Ocean, Friday Jan. 6 2006. Greenpeace reported at least 20 minke whales had been slaughtered in the past 48 hours but the environmental activist group claimed some success, maintaining its tactics of harassment had allowed other whales to escape the harpoons. (AP Photo / Greenpeace / Kate Davison, HO)
Minkes are there, too. At 30ft long, they are the smallest rorquals, but we do not know how they breed, or how long they live. Yet these are the animals which Japan, Norway and Iceland kill in their thousands each year. Indeed, Norway has just increased its quota from 796 in 2005 to 1,052 this year.
The Japanese call minkes "cockroaches of the sea", serve their sperm as a delicacy, and their meat as burgers to fast-food addicts. Since the 1986 international moratorium on whaling, Japan has taken, under the guise of "scientific research", 7,900 minkes, 243 Bryde's whales, 140 sei whales and 38 sperm whales. And despite the use of grenade-tipped harpoons, there is no humane way to kill an animal this big: when an ailing right whale was stranded on a Cape Town beach recently, the police were advised by scientists to attach explosives to the animal's head and blow it up.
But justifiable outrage ought to be tempered by historical perspective. We may cheer Greenpeace's David versus Goliath battles in the Antarctic - where Japanese fleets work the Southern Ocean Whaling Sanctuary, a refuge declared off-limits to whalers in 1994 - but our own relationship with the whale is deeply ambiguous. Since the late 20th century, the whale has become a new-age symbol and a barometer of environmental threat; but it has also been an emblem of monstrous danger. For every Free Willy there is a Moby-Dick; for every Jonah, a Pinocchio. We still go to oceanariums to applaud the antics of dolphins and killer whales kept in confinement. We eat sea bass caught in nets that also drown thousands of dolphins and porpoises each year.
Perhaps something atavistic lurks in the way in which we see cetaceans. Whales and whaling are part of British heritage: in the 18th and 19th centuries, ports such as London, Hull and Whitby conducted massive culls of common or bowhead whales. From 1785 to 1826, Britain's greatest whaler, William Scoresby Sr, killed 533.
Before the discovery of petroleum in 1859, London, Paris and New York were lit and lubricated by leviathans. Whaling - worth $120m a year by 1850 - was America's first global industry, the germ of its empire. And unlike modern hunters, who at least claim whales for sustenance, the one part of the whale not used by the Victorians was its meat. Strips of fingernail-like baleen, with which whales strain their food, were used for umbrellas and corsets. Ambergris, produced by the sperm whale in reaction to indigestible squid beaks, was precious as a perfume fixative. Equally prized was oil from the animal's block-like head. Even in the late 20th century, Nasa used this oil in its equipment.
We cannot be excused our culpability. Almost anyone born before 1960 ate whale - in margarine or ice cream - wore it as a cosmetic or fed it to their pets. The peak of whaling was not the brutal days of Melville's Moby-Dick, but the 1960s when, in one season alone, floating factories "processed" 6,158 blue whales, 17,989 finback whales, 2,108 humpback whales and 2,566 sperm whales - not including the thousands killed by the Russians, unreported to the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The whale, too, was a victim of the Cold War.
Now, the greatest danger that it faces is not a harpoon, but fishing nets and shipping routes. The North Atlantic right whale, reduced to just 300 individuals by the legacy of whaling, has a gene pool so compromised that it is unlikely to survive the century. Save one of these whales, and you could affect the entire species' future. The wonderfully named Dr Stormy Mayo, the founder of the Centre for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, was, until recently, the only man licensed by the US government to rescue whales entangled in fishing lines. The techniques he uses are almost exactly the same as those used by 19th-century whalers. Mayo rides out in a rigid inflatable boat, armed with a long harpoon (albeit with rope-cutting blade) and an ice-hockey mask. It is a highly dangerous occupation.
As well as Mayo, the right whales may also have time on their side. When 200-year-old Iñupiaq harpoons were recently found embedded in bowheads, it was realised that whales swimming when Melville wrote his novel in 1851 could still be alive today. The hope is that, if they live long enough, this generation of right whales may be saved when a way is found to combine its genes with those of its less-endangered cousins in the southern hemisphere.
Like the ocean itself, the whale is a bellwether of our planet's fragile state. Belugas in the St Lawrence River have high concentrations of PCBs - man-made chemical pollutants - in their bodies; southern rights are at risk from skin cancer due to the thinning ozone layer; military sonar has been blamed for mass strandings of pilot whales in New Zealand and Australia. And the sand eels on which many whales depend for food are declining thanks to global warming.
But there is better news. A healthy population of 2,000 blue whales has been established off California, and sperm whale numbers have recovered from their 19th-century holocaust: more than a million Physeter macrocephalus may be swimming in the world's oceans. Antarctic minkes, as hunted by Japan, may number as many as 760,000. Not that we really know. One of the greatest paradoxes about these giant creatures is that we understand so little about where they come from or where they go. Ironically, much of what we do know comes from information gathered by the hunting fleets.
From those horrors, whales are recovering, slowly. But, as Scott Landry of the CCS points out, the IWC is a voluntary body, and heavy-handed moralising from the anti-whaling nations can rebound if we ignore the cultural context of Norway, Iceland, or Japan's actions. After all, some Japanese remember that after the Second World War, the only meat available for school lunches was fried whale and parboiled blubber. With the forthcoming and crucial 58th annual meeting of the IWC in May and June, it may be persuasion, rather than direct action, that saves the whale.
Whales - the facts
* There are more than 80 species of whale, occupying every aquatic habitat, from the Bering Sea to the Amazon. A new cetacean species, the snubfin dolphin, was identified in Australia as recently as July.
* Some beaked whales have only been identified from skulls washed up on beaches. In mid-December, seven Arnoux's beaked whales appeared in Cape Town harbour, giving scientists a unique chance to observe these seldom-seen animals.
* Sperm whales can dive to 1,600 feet, and stay below for about one-and-a-half hours. They live on, and are said to battle with, giant squid, which, due to the change in water pressure, turn into "calamari soup" by time the whale resurfaces.
* Of the 10 animals that the Koran declares will enter paradise, one is the whale that ate Jonah.
* Moby-Dick was inspired by the true story of the whale-ship Essex, which was sunk by a bull sperm whale in 1820.
* Whale milk is 43 per cent fat (human milk is around 3 per cent).
* Female southern right whales sometimes have simultaneous intercourse with more than one male. A blue whale's penis is 3m long.
* Join the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (www.wdcs.org) and the Marine Connection (www.marineconnection.org). For more on whale disentanglement, go to www.coastalstudies.org
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited