South Korea’s announcement at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) that it may resume hunting Whales for scientific purposes coincided with a friend lending me her copy of Whale Nation.  Powerfully evocative and steeped in research, it brings Whales alive in my imagination in a way nothing else has ever done before or since.  First published in 1988, Heathcote Williams’ epic poem is an extraordinary evocation of cetacean biology and mythology, and offers a graphic account of the history and practice of whaling.  Illustrated throughout, the poem is followed by an extensive section of literary and scientific excerpts entitled ‘On the Nature of Whales’.  I wanted immediately to send copies to Seoul’s Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.   Surely if there was something the South Koreans desired to know about Whales, they would find it here!

“Blue seas cover seven-tenths of the earth’s surface,/And are the domain of the largest brain ever created,/With a fifty-million-year-old smile.”  The opening section of Whale Nation begins the thread of comparison with humans – the Whales’ larger brains (six times bigger than ours and ten times as old) – but also evoke a different rhythm of life, and a delight in play.  “Whales play, in an amniotic paradise./Their light minds shaped by buoyancy, unrestricted by gravity,/Somersaulting,/Like angels or birds;/Like our own lives, in the womb.”

Often we may assume that non-human creatures devote their time almost exclusively to hunting for food – probably because many humans living in industrialised nations spend up to a third of their own lives working.  However, Whales seem to have a better approach to what we’ve come to call the ‘work-life balance’, playing “For three times as long as they spend searching for food:/Delicate, involved games,/With floating seabirds’ feathers, blown high in the air,/And logs of wood/Flipped from the tops of their heads….”

In this poem we discover that Inuit people say “We like the way Whales think.”   Yet, despite an anti-whaling protest by Seoul-based activists, many South Koreans clearly don’t.  Their ministers explained that scientific research is required because fishermen say that Whales are consuming large amounts of Fish stocks.  This surprised me, as I believed that most species ate Plankton and Squid – and indeed, Williams refers to just these food sources.  Additionally, he shows us that Whales serve an important ecological function in maintaining Plankton levels from growing exponentially, and thus having a deleterious effect on marine life: “For without their attentions,/With their grazing pressure removed,/The oxygen-producing plankton would breed uncontrollably,/Fractionally raise the temperature of the ocean,/Overheat their habitat,/Destroy the air-conditioned equilibrium of their global crucible,/An die…”

Williams also describes Whales as possessing Buddhist-like self-restraint: “They are not compulsive eaters,/They can go for eight months without food”.  Elsewhere he attributes to them “vision” and “ecological consideration” because they breed in relation to the amount of food available.  This degree of self-regulation is perhaps supported by the male member being subject to voluntary erection – a fact which the poet follows with a wry aside: “Unlike in man,/Where it has an unseasonal, disconnected life of its own.”

Could in fact industrialised human behaviour – frequently described as being unseasonal and disconnected by ecological thinkers and writers – be at the root of both South Korean and Japanese claims that Whales are devouring their Fish?  Portraying us as “blind dwarves” who “crawl on the top of the corpses of slaughtered giants”, Williams courageously explores the brutal practice of slaughtering these magnificent creatures, which he sees as having been “an essential component of an expanding economy”.  Documenting the legion number of cities around the world which historically grew on the back of whaling – “urban conglomerations plugged into the corpse of the whale” – he provides a whale-sized litany of the products derived from their bodies, including “Cetacean oil… highest grade of lubricant…/To anoint the moving parts of missiles.”

With untold millions of Whales eradicated, and some species rendered extinct – all as the means to supplying our economies with the raw materials required to generate material wealth – this “marine holocaust” continues to effect oceanic ecosystems and attitudes towards their exploitation, and this despite the IWC moratorium on whaling called in the 1980s (which Japan, Norway and Iceland defy).  In The Unnatural History of the Sea, Professor Callum Roberts has documented the legacy of four centuries of commercial whaling, which he terms “the first global industry”.  This was in part founded on the myth of ‘the inexhaustible sea’.

In fact early travellers’ logbooks testify to the existence of vast ‘herds’ of Whales, but their systematic hunting to supply domestic demands eliminated and drastically reduced them, seemingly with little question as to what might be happening to their numbers.  Finally, twentieth century developments in steam and diesel technology led to the pursuit of species such as Sei and Minke, previously too swift to be captured by crews in rowing boats.  And it is these species that the Japanese are still hunting in the name of scientific research, (although Sea Shepherd’s valiant crews and supporters do much to reduce their impact.)

Illogically, the results of Japanese studies on Sei Whales show that of the stomach contents analysed, around 82% was Copepods, and only 3.4% Fish.  Tests on Sperm Whales reveal a diet of deep-water Squid.  Could it be that IWC rules, which ensure that Whale cadavers are not wasted, mean that they then become a commodity, gaining economic value as meat to be sold in shops and restaurants, and so drive covert commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research?  A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report from 2005, which raises concerns about Japanese claims that Whales are somehow responsible for the depleted status of global Fish stocks, also points to conflicts between different approaches to scientific research and economic profit.

Underlying motives, including those of vote-chasing politicians, come into sharper focus when this same WWF report goes on to highlight the non-lethal ways of studying Whales, many of which are more effective in providing scientists with long-term data.  For example, analyses of tissue obtained though a biopsy dart can provide a longitudinal indication of what a Whale is eating, as opposed to the snap-shot obtained from the stomach of a corpse.

So if Whales are barely eating any Fish, why are fishermen complaining about unsatisfactory stocks?  It doesn’t take much lateral thinking to realise that overfishing is likely to be the cause.  Again, Professor Roberts’ study of industrial fishing makes chilling reading.  With a wide range of electronic gadgetry at the disposal of modern fishermen, there are few Fish that escape their nets.  And aboard giant factory ships, fishermen can travel further and for longer, and they have all the gear required to land and process their vast catches.  Unfortunately, quotas have not helped the situation, nor have regulations that fishermen discard overquota Fish and bycatch.  Practices such as ‘bottom-trawling’ have also had terrible consequences for life on the sea-bed, with knock-on effects on the entire ecosystem of an affected area.

Heathcote Williams concludes Whale Nation with a powerful refrain which draws out the comparison of Whales with humans.  His lines surface repeatedly in my mind, like blasts of mist from a Whale’s blow-hole:

“In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
Without killing their own kind.

In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
Though they allow the resources to renew themselves.

In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
Though they use language to communicate, rather than to eliminate rivals.

In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
Though they acknowledge minds other than their own.”

This poet is one of an increasing number of ecologically aware thinkers pointing to the human-centred focus of modern Western minds, but his lyrical and meticulously researched descriptions of these extraordinary creatures can only leave us awestruck by what we continue to destroy.  And what a gift both he and the Whales themselves extend us – a reason to give up believing we always know best, and instead to surrender to the beauteous example of these “gentle, visionary giants”.

Links to:

Sea Shepherd http://www.seashepherd.org/

Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society http://www.wdcs.org/


Helen Moore
Pic Nick Victor

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