Whaling and gnashing of teeth: In the wake of the Glasgow conference, David Nicholson-Lord looks at the ancient monsters of the deep. Should we love them or eat them?

It must have been irritating being Norwegian in Glasgow last week, but for Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway's Prime Minister and the head of its delegation to the International Whaling Commission, the experience, almost certainly, was a bitter one. Not only did she end the week with her environmental reputation in tatters, but she also had to suffer the rhetoric of John Gummer.

Even by his own extravagant standards, the Minister of Agriculture was in florid form at the opening of the IWC. Outlining Britain's opposition to the resumption of commercial whaling - and thus its head-on clash with Norway - he spoke resonantly of stewardship and heritage.

Our generation was on trial, he declared. We were created not as masters of the universe, but as preferential shareholders. 'Like our fathers before us,' he went on stirringly, 'we have ceased to use resources and instead exploited them . . . This planet and its resources must be left in better shape for our children than we found them.'

The gnashing of teeth from the Brundtland corner was almost audible. The ironies were many. If sainthoods were awarded for environmental campaigning, Mrs Brundtland, alone of national political leaders, might now be approaching beatification. Her contribution has been twofold: as leader of a nation that has always taken a reformist stance on issues such as global warming; and as chairwoman of the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, which became known as the Brundtland Commission. In the opposite corner was Mr Gummer who, for all his ringing declarations against whaling, was representing a country which gave it up only 30 years ago. Over the last decade or so Britain has also become known, with reason, as the 'dirty man of Europe'. Moreover, Mr Gummer voted in favour of fox-hunting earlier this year and at the height of the mad cow scare two years ago was to be found promoting the meat industry by feeding his daughter with a hamburger.

Why is whale-meat different from cow-meat? In what way, the Norwegians ask, is a fox - or a stag, also hunted in Britain - different from a minke whale? How, asked Georg Blichfeldt, one of the whalers' leaders, can we take your Mr Gummer seriously?

'It is a strange world we live in,' a Norwegian diplomat mused, 'where it is not all right to kill some animals because they are prettier or more intelligent than others.'

The vast bulk of the world's minkes - the smallest of the great whales, the least devastated by hunting and the species that would have borne the brunt of any resumption of commercial whaling - are now safe for another year. Norway's defeat on Friday, at the end of the week- long meeting, ensures that.

Yet the double standards and the unresolved philosophical issues will not go away. Two stand out. Are whales really 'special'? And can they be regarded as a 'crop' to be 'harvested'?

Mrs Brundtland is adamant that no animals should be excepted from nature and exempted from the requirement to provide human beings with sustenance. Contrast this with Mr Gummer's statement that whales are 'particularly sentient' animals.

In practical terms, the evidence is against Mrs Brundtland. Humans have always viewed cetaceans - whales, dolphins, porpoises - as very exceptional animals indeed.

Speak about whales and the superlatives abound. At up to 110ft long and 140 tons - as heavy as 2,000 people - the blue whale is the largest animal the world has known. It also emits the loudest sound produced by a living source - its whistle, more deafening, at 188 decibels, than a passing jet aircraft (usually between 140 and 170 decibels).

The sperm whale has the biggest brain of any animal - about 20lb, six times larger than a human brain - and is the deepest diving sea mammal, capable of over an hour at depths of more than 5,000ft, using its sonar to hunt for squid on the ocean floor in conditions of impenetrable blackness. The grey whale has the longest migration pattern of any mammal - 7,000 miles, from the Arctic to the waters off Mexico. The humpback's underwater songs, lasting half an hour - and, some believe, rhyming - can be heard hundreds of miles away in the sea (and now, thanks to recordings on the Voyager spacecraft, out in space too).

The killer whale is the fastest animal in the sea, capable of 40mph. The bowhead's mouth is so big two lorries could enter side by side.

These were the animals that the first civilisations found in the seas. Between 60 and 45 million years ago, the whales' ancestors, by then looking - or at least behaving - not unlike an elongated otter, walked into the sea, giving up the land for good. By 10 million years ago, when men had not yet parted company from the apes, the cetaceans already had highly developed brains. For long afterwards, they were probably the most intelligent beings on earth.

Much mystery - and dispute - surrounds the intelligence of cetaceans. They have a large and convoluted neo- cortex, the most highly evolved part of the brain, and their ratio of brain weight to body size in some species outstrips humans and chimpanzees. Parts of the brain thought to govern sociability are also large in cetaceans. Hence, in part, the mystique that has grown up around them - their 'telepathy', their 'rescues' of humans from drowning or sharks.

These speculations have attracted some noted popularisers of science - Carl Sagan, Lyall Watson - but much orthodox mammalian science has remained unconvinced, arguing that dolphins are as likely to take you for a ride out to sea as into shore, that dogs are equally proficient at tricks and that, if they are so bright, why are they always beaching themselves?

Yet this is to measure intelligence by human, land-based criteria. Cetaceans are undeniably sociable, playful, keen on leisure- time sex, altruistic towards fellow members of their pod or school, inventive in their tricks, curious and reasonably well-disposed towards people. But they are not manipulative, because 60 million years or so they lost their hands, and the dialogue between hand and brain has been vital to the development of human intelligence and civilisation. They cannot change their environment but they can adjust to it supremely well. Which is the better way, ours or that of the cetaceans? Dr John Lilly, the American researcher who tried to decode the dolphin 'language' in the Sixties, spoke of an 'underwater civilisation that has managed the oceans with superb poise and conservation for millions of years before upstart man began to ravage earth and sea'. The naturalist Loren Eiseley asked whether intelligence 'in another form ' might be higher than man's, yet be marked by none of his 'material monuments'.

Classical man clearly felt something of the same. Dolphins are ubiquitous in Greek mythology: to kill one, the Greeks believed, was akin to human murder. They are on murals at the Palace of Knossos in Crete, painted circa 2000 BC. Poseidon, the sea-god, took pity on drowning sailors and turned them into dolphins: later they rescued his son Taras from a watery grave. Stories of friendships between, particularly, boys and dolphins were legion. In the Middle Ages the dolphin came to symbolise courtly love: hence the badge worn by the heir to the French crown and his title (Dauphin). From many cultures - Greek, Chinese, Indian, Amazonian - there are accounts of dolphins 'helping' fishermen by driving fish into their nets, of seamen's whispered communications with them.

With the great whales, a different theme was visible. Their size engendered awe, their gentleness, when it finally became apparent, wonder. The Hebrews called such fabled beasts Leviathan - monster of the waters - and made of them creatures of dread. But when Western man came face to face with Leviathan from the 12th century onwards - the period the Basques began commercial whaling in the Bay of Biscay - the Jews' misconception was exposed. The Basques' quarry was the right whale, so-called because it was the 'right' whale to catch - swimming slowly and close to the shore and minding its own business.

Anyone who has been whale- watching will know the extraordinary effect of a sighting, reducing one or two hundred chattering humans to a silence broken only by the whale's slow breathing.

Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick: 'You feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other living object in living nature.' Through Melville, the whale has given us one of the finest passages in English literature - the 'wondrous phenomenon' of the white whale's breaching, when, 'rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale . . . booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more'.

For Rudolph Otto, the German philosopher and author of Das Heilige ('The Holy'), these words would capture almost perfectly the mysterium tremendum - the fearful majesty - which Otto argues is central to a sense of the sacred. What Melville described, millions now experience. The whale, in other words, has become the most potent symbol of a new spirituality, its destroyers the perpetrators of a new sacrilege. Whale-song has been played in church services; you can 'adopt' a wild Orca. Who could destroy such a phenomenon? Is it any coincidence that Captain Ahab is unhinged? One 20th-century seaman and whaling author wrote of his conviction, 'after reading hundreds of log books and sea journals, that the old whaling vessels had more than their arithmetical proportion of madmen'. Yet if green spirituality sweeps away whaling, Mrs Brundtland may still get her sustainable development. In the mid-Seventies it was estimated that the value of dead whales was matched by that from live whales, through books, films, research, whale-watching tours. By the mid- Eighties a dead whale was estimated to be worth 15 per cent of a live one.

According to a Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society survey, four million whale watchers now spend pounds 185m a year, with tours operating in the three whaling nations - Norway, Japan and Iceland - since 1988. In Norway, where there are at most 2,000 jobs left in whaling, whale-watching numbers grew twelve-fold in the first three years.

Whale-killing may be a dying industry; letting them live, clearly, is not.

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