Philip Hoare: A victory for the whalers, a defeat for humanity

The IWC's decision to retain its ban on whaling does not mean that the killings will stop. Quite the reverse

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My generation has witnessed a vast change in the way we see whales. When I was born, in 1958, Britain was still a whaling nation. Ships would arrive in my hometown of Southampton laden with processed whale oil and meat, destined for margarine, plant fertiliser and pet food.

As I grew up, in the 1960s, attitudes changed. Our eyes were opened to the slaughter of cetaceans in the Southern Ocean and elsewhere. At its peak, this cull far surpassed that of the 19th-century industry commemorated by Herman Melville in Moby Dick. In one season alone, 1960-61, more whales died than in 150 years of Yankee whaling: 74,365 animals, one tenth of the total death toll for the 20th century. The blue whale, the fin whale, the grey whale, the right whale and the humpback – the largest creatures that have ever lived on our planet – all came to within a hair's breadth of extinction.

Out of that horror came a new voice – the whale's. More than anything else, it was Roger Payne's 1967 recording of the mating calls of the humpback – a fluting, sonorous threnody for its species – that sensitised the world to what was happening. Payne is perhaps the one person who most directly affected the fate of the whale. The album, The Song of the Humpback Whale, made the charts, and in the process became the emotive soundtrack to the Save the Whale campaign of the 1970s.

Save the Whale. It's a phrase which became hackneyed with overuse, a pejorative shorthand for liberal consciences. How appalling, then, that in the year 2010, it should be pressed into service again, to fight the whaling nations: Norway and Iceland, who exempted themselves from the 1986 moratorium instituted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and Japan, which hunts whales under the guise of "scientific research".

I am completely torn by this week's events in Morocco, where talks broke down. In my heart, I agree with those who have embraced the news that this year's negotiations of the IWC have broken up, and that the moratorium would not be lifted (as the US proposed in a desperate attempt to break the impasse). Yet reason says something else. If we do not exert some kind of new control, the whalers will be able to go on with their slaughter unrestrained. Membership of the IWC is voluntary, and the ban was only ever intended to be temporary. Japan, which has been assiduously buying the votes of nations with no interest in whaling (only in the aid Japan offers in turn), will continue to press its case, having invested millions of dollars in its campaign. Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand's Commissioner at the IWC, has proposed a year-long cooling off period. In the meantime, more whales will die.

We stand at a crossroads for cetaceans. We see the fragile existence of these animals as a barometer of ecological threat. As symbols of an endangered world, they evoke, and provoke, anthropomorphism on a scale equal to their size and supposed intelligence. To some this is so much New Age mush.

But if you have been confronted, as I was, with a gigantic female sperm whale in the waters off the Azores, her sonar clicks scanning my body as I hung there in the ocean, you might believe otherwise. What do you say when a creature that big (and possessed of the largest brain of any animal alive) comes close enough to touch, then turns to look you directly in the eye? It is a gaze suffused with sentience. Scientists such as Hal Whitehead, of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia – who has worked on sperm whales for three decades – now believe that these animals create complex social structures, using those brains whose highly developed neocortices indicate the capability for communication, tool use and even abstract thought.

During that encounter – as in many others I have had with whales over the past 10 years – I was vividly reminded of what we have done to them, and their world. From the humpback feeding grounds of Cape Cod to the deep waters of Kaikoura, where even bigger male sperm whales gather, I've seen whales faced with new and insidious threats. These animals live in a world of sound yet are assailed by the sheer noise we make in the water: from commercial shipping to military sonar. Their food sources are being affected by global warming and acidifying oceans. Smaller cetaceans such as dolphins and porpoises perish as "bycatch" in fish nets.

Larger whales die, caught in fishing gear. Fifty per cent of North Atlantic right whales – the most endangered of all large whales, with a population of fewer than 400 – show signs of such entanglements. And in one of the most shocking of the latest scientific findings, it has been suggested that sperm whales are inhaling heavy metals from coastal chemical plants they pass on their migrations. Like the cetaceans being washed up dead in the Gulf of Mexico, they are victims of pollution.

Conservationists and scientists do all they can to draw attention to and ameliorate such effects. But this week in Morocco, their combined wisdom, and that of the 88 nations which subscribe to the IWC, had an even more onerous duty: to decide the fate of the 1,500 whales that die purposefully at the hands of human beings each year.

Norway, Iceland and Japan argue that their critics are subject to sentiment and hypocrisy. There is no difference, they say, between eating whales and consuming pigs or cows. But there is a difference, one that they conveniently ignore, and which is summed up in three innocuous-seeming letters: TTD.

They stand for Time To Death – the amount of time a hunted whale takes to die. An explosive grenade is shot into the animal's cranium, supposedly killing it outright. Yet in practice, this does not always happen. You cannot guarantee the humane slaughter of a whale on the high seas. Some have to be finished off with gunshots. Others are dragged backwards to drown them. They may take hours to die, in what we can only imagine must be extreme agony.

If domestic animals were to be slaughtered in this way, we would simply not countenance it. Yet thousands of highly evolved and sentient creatures die painful deaths each year – not only in the remote waters of the Southern Ocean (a declared whale sanctuary) but also in our own backyard, the North Sea.

We cannot condone such actions; that much is clear. Yet I would agree that the failure of the IWC to reach an agreement this week is actually a disaster for whales. It is a Pyrrhic victory for those who lobbied so vocally, and with such good intentions, for the ban to be maintained. We are back to square one. Back to the Japanese and their "scientific research", back to the trade in whale meat, back to the slaughter.

It is one of the worst quandaries any conservationist has had to face. Must some whales die in order that the greater number be saved? It is a cetacean judgement of Solomon, and the delegates of the IWC have avoided it. Their indecision has consequences.

Human politics ensure that today, and tomorrow, and for years to come, people will still be killing whales. And like the violence and torture visited on human beings by human beings, it seems that is the intolerable predicament in which we are all complicit. Unless, that is, we start to listen to that plaintive song, echoing through the oceans of the world.

Philip Hoare's book, 'Leviathan or, The Whale', won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction

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