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How humanity learned to love whales (and what they taught us in return)

We have changed our understanding of whales and by doing so we have changed our understanding of the world

13 February 2016

9:00 AM

13 February 2016

9:00 AM

Last week a sperm whale was beached at Hunstanton in Norfolk and there was much horrified concern.

A terrible sight, lying there like a small cottage on the immensity of the beach, 46 feet long and 30 tons, surrounded by rescue workers from British Divers Marine Rescue and Hunstanton Sea Life Sanctuary who were dousing the whale with water to try and keep it going, but to no avail. It died towards the end of a long and desperate day.

Last month, another sperm whale was beached just a couple of miles away and five more at Skegness. All of this provoked a mood of sadness and wonder: that so enormous a thing could exist in the first place and then die in so inexplicable a fashion.

It wasn’t always like that. In 1331 a large school of whales beached on the Dodder River in Ireland, tributary to the Liffey, in the middle of a famine: ‘From the stinking cagework city a horde of jerkined dwarfs, my people, with flayer’s knives, running, scaling, hacking on green blubbery whalemeat. Famine, plague and slaughter.’ This from Ulysses.


North Atlantic right whales are docile things. They keep near the coast and near the surface. They have a high blubber content, so they float like corks when harpooned, and yield vast quantities of whale oil. They were called right whales because they’re the right whale to hunt. They were duly hunted close to extinction and are classed as endangered.

We have changed our understanding of whales and by doing so we have changed our understanding of the world. We no longer see whales as protein mountains and oil mines, or as monsters to be slaughtered for our protection and pride. Whales now excite admiration, excitement, curiosity, delight, wonder and love. A whale-sighting is a bucket-list staple. I have been on boats full of passengers weeping for joy because a whale chose to share a little quality time. Quite a shift from being the raw material for a corset.

It began, like so much else, in the 1960s. Back then, environmental awareness seemed to be concentrated on whales: the blue whale in particular, the largest creature that has existed on this planet. The clash had its liveliest expression in Greenpeace, which sent activists to disrupt hunts. A Russian whaler fired a harpoon over their heads and news bulletins revelled in the footage. The world’s imagination was captured. This was poetry: mad martyrs against heartless foes. At the same time we discovered the intelligence of dolphins and whales. Captive dolphins solved complex problems. Flipper had his own television show and always saved the day. Whales were sociable, intelligent — and, as it turned out, musical.

Their singing was discovered in 1952 by an American serviceman listening for Russian submarines. The songs have been recorded and analysed. A speeded-up humpback recording is stunningly similar to a normal-speed nightingale. The humpbacks’ songs show unmistakable alterations across time. ‘A new song will spread like a wave across the Pacific,’ said the cetologist Phillip Clapham. In other words, whales have culture.

For 21st-century humans the default position on whales is joy. At least in the developed world. And it can even be suggested that in some circumstances, whales are changing their views of humans. Certainly that’s how it looks in San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, Mexico. There was a time when this place was a killing ground, red with blood. The grey whales were called devil-fish, because they took the war to the whalers and would routinely and deliberately overturn open boats.

A while ago I was in an open boat in San Ignacio Lagoon and the whales came up to the boats — but not to turn them over. They came to be patted and tickled. People sang to them, kissed them, wept without shame. Whale mothers nudged their calves forward so they could have this strange experience. It’s always easy to get sentimental about wildlife, and that rule is doubly true for whales — but for a crazy moment it felt like forgiveness.

If you happen to be a whale, there’s still a fair amount to forgive. The loophole in the 1982 moratorium is ‘scientific whaling’. The Japanese use it to kill about 300 whales a year, to the negligible advancement of science. Whaling has become the badge of an unenlightened nation.

Whales are big. Blue whales are huge almost beyond comprehension. The revelation of their vulnerability when they were hunted to near-extinction changed everything. It became clear then that humans have the power of life and death over everything on Earth — even the biggest animal that ever drew breath. The question of what to do with that power became the challenge of the 21st century.

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