Here in New Zealand's capital, where I'm talking at the literary festival about my book, Leviathan or, the Whale, the subject of whales and whaling is not a remote one. Last Thursday, in a staged protest outside the Australian embassy in Tokyo, Japanese pro-whaling protesters attempted to hand a tin of whale meat to an embassy spokeswoman. The next morning, Tokyo police arrested Paul Bethune, the leader of the New Zealand anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, for trespassing.
Whales are a live issue for people used to seeing these leviathans swim past their beaches. Only a few hundred miles off their coastline, the infamous whale wars are being fought: between the Japanese, whose supposed "scientific research" kills 2,000 whales each year, and the eco-warriors of Sea Shepherd, dedicated to stopping the cull, at any cost.
Meanwhile, in Florida, last week witnessed the preliminary meeting of the International Whaling Commission. The proposal in hand – to allow Japan commercial whaling rights in return for their agreement to stop whaling in the whale sanctuary of the Southern Ocean – is set to bring matters to crisis point. All this is particularly ironic in the wake of recent events at SeaWorld in Orlando, where a killer whale dragged its trainer to her death. The worldwide media coverage of what was probably a terrible accident only underlines the passion and the fury that reverberates around whales, and how we treat them.
Down here in Kaikoura, the whale-watching capital of the world, every pub and café is filled with whaleheads sure of the need for one thing: action rather than words. I've spent the week in search of sperm whales. After hours of searching for the whales by use of a hydrophone – listening to their clicks under water – a magnificent, 16-metre, 40-year-old male whale surfaced. Named Tiaki, his name means "guardian" in Maori.
Once, hundreds of his fellow cetaceans visited these waters. Now Tiaki's solitary presence may be a final warning: that whales face greater dangers than the Japanese hunt – from the pressures we all place on the whale's environment, through noise, overfishing, climate change and pollution.
Colonised by Mr Coetzee
Literary festivals Down Under are no tame affair. Last week, along with fellow authors such as Adam Nicolson, Geoff Dyer and Andrea Levy, I spoke to massive audiences in open air tents – crowds a British writer could only dream of. Added to this excitement was the presence of JM Coetzee, who now lives in Adelaide, having fallen in love with the place 20 years ago. But isn't it just another former colony, like his old home, South Africa, I ventured? Coetzee nodded, sagely: yes, but its master now lies on the other side of the ocean – in the US.