Leading article: Truly, a whale of a tale

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The Independent Online

Almost as striking as the images of the whale itself were those of the thousands of human animals drawn to the banks of the Thames to watch. Drawn by wonder and sadness at the sight of a wild creature, far from its natural habitat, in the heart of a great, bustling city.

Concern for the fate of such a beautiful and intelligent animal should be channelled in a constructive direction, however, rather than be allowed to run off into sentimentality. Attempts to rescue the lost whale, however laudable, should not be the only focus of attention. Similarly well-meaning attempts to save oil-covered birds from oil spills also risk becoming a form of compassionate displacement activity, because they almost all die anyway. When it comes to dealing with lost whales, as with oil slicks, most people understand that the suffering of individual animals should prompt us to ask wider questions about human threats to the environment.

We know, too, that whales would get lost and die even if there were no humans to disrupt marine ecosystems. Sick or disordered whales probably got stuck in strange places when Cro-Magnon man was doing nothing more disruptive of the environment than hunting Megaloceros where Chelsea Bridge now is. But we know that noise pollution in the oceans is bad for whales. Professor Hal Whitehead, a pre-eminent expert on the northern bottlenose whale, suggests that this one may have been confused by naval sonar or other noises from ships and oil rigs. It can only be hoped that the case of this lost whale will increase the sense of urgency in restraining the use of naval sonar, in particular.

The plight of this one animal comes at a sensitive time for whales generally. Japan, Norway and Iceland are increasing their whaling and are once again threatening to push back the global protections against whaling that have helped to stabilise populations over the past 20 years. Last week it was reported that plankton stocks, the base of the food network that sustains life in the oceans, are threatened by global warming. James Lovelock's warning that the weight of human numbers is destroying the self-correcting mechanisms of the global ecosystem has dramatised the precariousness of life as we know it.

We do not share all of Mr Lovelock's doom-laden prognosis - dubbed "apocophilia" by his critics. On the contrary, we take his warnings as an inspiration to human determination to rise to the environmental challenge. The compelling drama of the whale that came to the Palace of Westminster could help to raise consciousness about the true cost of the industrialisation of the oceans. Over the past century, fish and marine mammal stocks have been devastated. It is to be hoped that the wave of sympathy and interest generated worldwide by one whale's story will promote understanding of the human-made crisis in the oceans.