The whale - so special, and scarcely understood

What is it about these stupendous, gregarious yet mysterious creatures that creates such an ambivalent bond with humankind?

Share

Such mass strandings as those of pilot whales in Scotland and Florida last week address us directly. The sight of dozens of helpless whales out of water, gasping for breath, bowed down by their own weight, seems an all-too powerful emblem of our disconnection from the natural world. To be stranded is to be abandoned, a symbol of our own carelessness. Indeed, these news stories take on a symbolism beyond their awful reality, as parables of morbid fascination, as if their victims had been selected for some terrible experiment.

In Iris Murdoch's strange, Booker-prize winning novel of 1978, The Sea, The Sea, the protagonist, Charles Arrowby's cousin James informs him: "The sea is not all that clean …. Did you know that dolphins sometimes commit suicide by leaping onto the land because they're so tormented by parasites?" To which Charles replies, "I wish you hadn't told me that. Dolphins are such good beasts. So even they have their attendant demons."

In fact, the causes of these events are multiple, and conflicting. Pilot whales, like other toothed cetaceans (dolphins among them) naturally follow one another; if one animal is sick, it may head for shallow water so that it doesn't drown, and its comrades follow it. Anomalies in magnetic paths, laid down in the sea bed, may lead the cetaceans into dead ends. Solar flares, immune systems compromised by heavy metals and, most recently, military and commercial sonar have all been blamed.

We might not know the cause, but the effect is plaintively clear. In unusually large mass strandings of common dolphin in Cape Cod earlier this year, rescuers discovered that the animals became less stressed if they were placed side by side. Intensely social, their only consolation was each other.

What is this vexed relationship between human and natural history? Why are we so drawn to the plight of the whale? One reason is that we share the same physiology. I recently attended the dissection of a harbour porpoise at the Zoological Society of London. In the basement laboratory, I watched as Rob Deaville cut through its blubber like a sushi chef.

I thought I was going to be sick. In fact, as Rob deconstructed the animal before my eyes, I was amazed at how like us it was; every organ echoed ours; even the animal's size evoked our mammalian kinship. (The animal also turned out to have been murdered by bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay – a story which rather undermines the received notion of an ever-smiling Flipper).

And it is also the sea, the sea, that surely underlines this. We regard the ocean as a kind of blank canvas. We pollute it unknowingly, because we cannot see the results of our abuse. But a cetacean, living in the water yet breathing the same air as us, is a stupendous and exquisite symbol of the life down below.

When a humpback whale breaches, as I've often seen it do, throwing its 50-ton, 50-foot body out of the water, it is an absolute physical rebuke, a literal breaching of the barrier between us and the element that covers two-thirds of the Earth. It is a renewed reminder that, in the 20th century alone, we hunted and killed more than 300,000 blue whales. Only 15,000, at most, remain.

But this is not just a tale of exotic and charismatic megafauna. As the British wildlife trusts point out, there are many cetaceans around our islands, susceptible to the same problems. Only last month a fin whale was carried into Portsmouth Harbour on the prow of a merchant ship. It had almost certainly been struck at sea by another ship. This whale – a species second only to the blue whale in size, the fastest of all great whales and also one of the loudest (a fin whale in the eastern Atlantic can hear a fellow fin whale's call from the other side of the ocean) Ω met an even more ignominious end, being carted off to landfill.

The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, with whom I work, is a great advocate, like the rest of its peer trusts, for the conservation of marine species. A couple of weeks ago it identified a small pod of porpoises playing off Sandown, on the Isle of Wight, within easy sight of land. One intrepid local naturalist, Captain Keith Leeves, has even instituted whale-watching trips in the Channel.

There is a heartening story here, too. We are much more attuned to the plight of the seas – partly through campaigns such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's. Cetaceans are also reaping the benefit of the international moratorium on the hunting of great whales. It celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, with an ambitious WhaleFest to be held in Brighton this October, complete with life-size inflatable whales to be installed in the Hilton's ballroom – the same hotel where the moratorium was signed.

We have come a long way in those 30 years. Yet we still know so little. Scientists such as Hal Whitehead have been doing amazing work on sperm whales – which possess the biggest brain of any animal that ever lived. Professor Whitehead has shown that these highly social animals have the ability for complex communication and even a culture of their own. American philosopher Thomas I White has pointed out the equally incredible private life of the dolphin, whose brain may be emotionally superior to ours, and capable of a sense of individual, existential self.

All this work is only in its infancy. What will we discover in years to come? Will we look back 100 years from now and wonder how we ever allowed these animals to be hunted, as they still are – by Japan, Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands?

At such moments I'm often reminded by a line from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when the Earth's dolphins escape its imminent destruction, with the throwaway line, "So long and thanks for all the fish".

Back in the 1960s, the radical scientist, John C Lilly, proposed that cetaceans were aliens with whom we merely shared our planet. Unfortunately, we may have altered the Earth's climate so much that those aliens feel increasingly under threat: from pollution, anthropogenic noise, and warming and acidifying seas that affect their food. It is ironic that 30 years after we thought we'd saved the whales, they may be in greater danger than ever before.

Organisations such as the wildlife trusts, campaigning for a vital implementation of 127 marine protected areas around our shores, and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, for which I act as an ambassador, are the first line in the defence of cetaceans. But, as a writer, I look to art and literature as well as science and conservation to draw attention to their plight. Along with the artist Angela Cockayne, I have co-curated an ambitious attempt to create an online recording of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, which launches next weekend at the Plymouth International Book Festival. Published in 1851, the book – widely seen as the greatest American novel – has never been surpassed as a commentary on the whale.

The intention of the Moby-Dick Big Read is to reimagine Melville's book for a digital, 21st century audience. The result, we hope, is a new awareness of the state of the whale. Melville's prescience addressed its possible extinction, even as he questioned the morality of the humans who pursued the whale. "I know him not, and never will", he wrote, after composing 136 chapters of his leviathanic text. How astounding that, 160 years later, we might still say the same thing.

For a map of the 127 marine conservation zones proposed by the wildlife trusts, go to: wildlifetrusts.org/MCZmap. For the Moby-Dick Big Read: plymouthinternationalbookfestival.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
 

If Renee Zellweger wants to look different, who are we to question it?

Boyd Tonkin
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker