“For there is no folly of the beast of the Earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
There are some stories of human–nonhuman interaction that are so miraculous that they should make us shudder and rethink our place on Earth amidst its incomparable and increasingly fragile species. One such story is that of Korianos and the dolphins several thousand years ago. Some Byzantine fishermen had caught a group of dolphins in their nets and were about to slaughter them. Korianos, a native of the Greek island of Paros, was able to intercede and stop the killing. He supplicated and paid the fishermen to release them from their nets and carried them back into the water. The dolphins stared at Korianos for a long while and then vanished.
Some time later a storm overtook a boat near the coast of Naxos, a boat that happened to be carrying Korianos. He was the only survivor to make it out of the boat because a dolphin found him and carried him to land. When Korianos died, smoke from his funeral pyre wafted across the shoreline where a group of dolphins arrived with their heads above water to join the mourners in the ceremony. When the smoke dissipated, so, too, did the dolphins disappear never to be seen again.
Similar stories can be found throughout history. Alexander the Great, Pliny, Cicero, Hesiod all tell of the remarkable kinship humans have with dolphins and the uncanny awareness of the cetacean mind. Cuvier the French scientist acknowledged that, “for the Greeks, they were in certain cases almost sacred beings and sometimes messengers of the gods: Apollo too took the form of a dolphin. As soon as our fishermen see one, they hurry to harpoon him and put him to death. When dolphins were met by the sailors of old, they were respected as harbingers of good fortune, and it was almost a sacrilege to kill them.”
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
And yet in our time the cetaceans languish. We with factory ships and fishing vessels are raping the oceans and now plan to wreak havoc on mineral deposits beneath the seas. As if mining on land were not enough. What on Earth will be left in 20 years’ time? The smallest, perhaps most exquisite cetacean on earth, the vaquita, 3 feet long with a black circle that rings its eyes, could vanish forever any day now. I once asked fishermen in the Sea of Cortez if they had seen any and they all answered in the negative. Not long ago we lost the Baiji River dolphin in China, due to habitat loss and poisons in the Chinese river system. Our time will be defined by how many of the great beings can survive the century, for as the whales and dolphins go, so, too, will the seven seas.
There are few places that radically redefine the reason to be on this Earth. One of them is where the Pacific gray whales come to greet you and one reaches out to touch them; it is akin to being confirmed by the Earth, a sensorial baptism unique on the planet. The mind of 50 million years of whale intelligence collides with the human species in that moment and one is made to confront the fragility of the human intellect. It is the closest one can come to touching another world. The aliens are here, and their world is water.
When they come to us, it is the whales that decide. It is as if they are trying to underscore our commonality after the heyday of their slaughter after Charles Scammon pursued the grays along the coast of California all the way to their calving grounds in Mexico a centuryand a half ago. It is almost as if they have forgiven us and wish us a second chance. The last one we will ever have. With the ocean’s warming and unimaginable pollution like plastic floating and dissolving in the oceans, what the whales are telling us is one of the key litmus tests of our time. We had better listen.
About 8,000 gray whales were hunted between 1846 and 1874. Today, only about 20,000 survive. Some say a half-million bowheads roamed the Arctic before the whaling industry exploded in the 19th century, and perhaps 350,000 blue whales were exterminated since. When the Arctic waters were depleted, the Southern Ocean whale populations were mercilessly attacked. Estimates are 2 million whales were destroyed; an estimated 10 percent of whales survive from the pre-whaling days.
Whales played a much bigger role in maintaining the ocean’s ecosystems than now, according to journalist Wynne Parry, who calls the whales’ excrement “the ocean’s miracle grow.” Whales carry nutrients from deep water to fertilize the ocean’s surface. Plankton in untold quantities, fish and other animals are recharged by the nitrogen concentrations that increase two-fold where cetaceans abound. Plankton which give the world most of the oxygen we breathe.
Once I ambled around the shoreline waiting for our guide and found to my surprise my first dead gray whale. Our son was 9 at the time, and he walked around it both in a solemn ritual and utter amazement. What had happened to this whale? Had it drowned in fishing nets? Was it poisoned? A small boy circumambulated a dead leviathan as I watched, transfixed by two different worlds colliding. Our guide would later tell us that one gray that was known by the local people many decades ago was albino and had no tail. It somehow survived by twisting its body like a corkscrew under the waves. The name the locals gave it was "the light that comes out of the darkness."
The need to conserve dolphins and whales has never been greater. As many as 300,000 dolphins and small whales are yearly caught in fishing nets and die. Better monitoring on board fishing vessels is needed globally. Collaboration with fishermen to avoid entanglements is going to determine the future of many species.
Some 1,500 whales are hunted every year thanks to the Faroe islanders, Norway, Canada and especially Japan, which has flaunted the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) orders to stop whaling with the excuse that they are conducting “scientific research.” The group Whale and Dolphin Conservation have stopped Iceland from sending whale meat to Japan, but in July 2019 Japan resumed the hunt for Bryde’s, sei and minke whales. The IWC and perhaps even the UN need to sanction Japan for their egregious abrogation of international law. Japan is acting like a renegade Ahab whose lessons should be plain to all of civilization in this imperiled time. Whale meat may have been a delicacy in the old days — especially during WWII when Japan needed whale meat — but today the younger generation especially, are far more interested in whale watching than holding onto antiquated traditions.
Around the world no-take zones are being created, and they need to expand. The effort to have 30 percent of the world’s oceans protected with Marine Protected Areas needs to be implemented and perhaps expanded. They will help protect whale migration routes, help maintain traditional cultures who have ties to the sea and over time reduce the impact of climate change. The cetaceans are trying to hold on in an increasingly precarious world. We are indebted to the cetaceans for a coherence we can only marvel at. They are perhaps the purest expression of the collective mind of the oceans.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Roger Payne, a bioacoustician who spent a lifetime studying the sounds that whales make, once suggested that no Shakespeare, Beethoven or van Gogh could ever make up for loss of life force on Earth. This decade will decide whether our experiment crashes on the waves of time or if we can avert a shipwreck beyond our wildest reckoning. This year marks the 50th anniversary since Payne first released “Songs of the Humpback Whale.” One of the remarkable discoveries he made was that songs evolve and transform and that one population of whales can adapt a song from another population. It is culture writ very large and one of the greatest discoveries in modern times.
George Orwell, who knew about dystopias, once wrote that we are all inside the whale. With all our toxins and plastic and industrial waste bleeding into the blood of the world, it behooves humanity to salvage what is left of the seas and its great minds the cetaceans. Leviathan was once considered a beast, a monster as Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher called his tract. The commonwealth with its wealth and riches, its strength, with all its sedition, and sickness and civil war is indeed a Leviathan playing havoc with creation. Perhaps we humans should be considered the true Leviathans today, reckless, unmeasured, without equipoise and perhaps even demented. What is certain is that without the whale and dolphins we will not make it to the end of the century. The whale of our own ignorance will devour us, but unlike Pinocchio who survived Monstro and Jonah the Biblical whale, will we be able to extricate ourselves from the jaws of extinction?
The whales stare at us with a power and endurance we can well envy. I have seen some lifeless whales, decomposing islands of flesh, stare back at the carcass of our own intellect. I once had the privilege of hearing Paul Watson recount the time he tried to intercede on behalf of a whale. His zodiac boat swerved between the Russian harpooner and the whale he and his crew were trying to protect. Eventually the Russians won, as a pool of blood poured into the ocean. As the whale was dying, it shot an immense look of pity at Watson. The pity was not for itself but for the entire human race. Later Watson was to learn that the oil taken from the whale, perhaps the purest on earth, was to be used to lubricate intercontinental ballistic missiles. He knew then and there that our species had completely lost its mind.
Today the acoustic, plastic, toxic pollution and strikes by ships are endangering whales everywhere worldwide, but if humanity can create the reserves necessary, if it can recognize the sanctity of whales in time it will salvage the depth charge of consciousness the whales represent to the oceans. That so many whales could have gone extinct should cause us to shudder. That some dolphin species are starting to disappear and have faded forever in the last few years should shame us. We are seeking microbes on other planets while the cetaceans we have touched and been immeasurably moved by are urging us to shed the skin of terror, suspicion and slaughter that envelops our kind. To be fully human means to touch the tactile soul of the other and to exult in an ethic and esthetic of equality. The grays we touched, the humpbacks, whose waters mesmerized us from 10 feet away are the grandest symphony on Earth.
The U.S. Navy’s sonar blasts in the Pacific and the Bahamas have caused irreparable damage to several species of whales and may have precipitated the many stranded pods of whales that have shown up around the world, such as the 45 sperm whales that were marooned in Tasmania in 2009.
How long will whales be able to cope with the cacophony of our kind? At one point, cities in New England and even the United Kingdom were lit by whale oil until the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1900. Ironically, it is that very substance in our time that threatens life on Earth. We have become deaf to the world since the industrial revolution. The only thing worse than the sonar and pollution of mayhem we have poured into the seas, would be the loss of the cetaceans, which would silence the oceans forever. Those countries that continue to execute whales should be brought to justice. Whales, as the film “Blackfish” has shown us, were not created for human entertainment. We can no longer separate environmental equilibrium from economic sustainability.
In a U.N.-style agreement on nature, modeled on the COP 21 Paris Climate accord, 23 former ministers are calling for urgent action on nature and the salvation of the oceans. The whales will be watching. We once tried to tame the oceans with our armadas and fleets. The lesson of our time is that humanity will have to learn to tame itself if we do not wish to see the ocean mercilessly sink to its knees, lifeless without coral, without giant angels like humpbacks. The cetaceans are the purest pause to our absolute conduct the oceans have. They have known who we are and what we are capable of for millennia. A part of us resides in the freedom of the cetaceans. A part of our souls is embodied in their heart. They move like waking dreams, mystical and evanescent yet magnificent mountains of corporeality. It is time we listened to the other species of Earth and finally find our place alongside the monarchs of the sea.
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.