The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian network founded in 1973


Gentle Giants

David Gunston looks at the sad story of whale hunting

From the Christian Herald dated April 7, 1984:

He is by far the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth. He may reach a length of 100ft or more, with an average gross weight of at least one ton per foot length.

He has a vast, dense overcoat of soft, compressible fat - the oil-rich blubber that has caused his downfall.

For man has hunted the blue whale, like all his large kin, to the point of extinction, in order to make money from these natural reserves of body-heat-preserving fat.

Many uses

Doubtless some processed parts of him are in your home as you read this - needlessly, since inexpensive and accessible substitutes are readily available. His blubber oil may be in the margarine you eat or the soap you wash with. It may be included in the paints and varnishes that decorate your rooms.

He may be helping to glue together the plywood in your furniture, while his flesh may very likely feed your pet cat. None of him is wasted when he is dragged out of the southern seas, but he is literally vanishing before our twentieth century eyes.

There may be some 4,000 of him left, although some authorities put his present precarious population as low as 1,000 or even fewer. Yet 50 years ago he numbered at least 200,000, probably much more. Soon he will not exist at all - save in the memories of the few whalemen who are largely the only people ever to see him, and in the profits of nations who have slaughtered him for commercial gain. For he has always been largely unprotected, a fee source of quick money-making. We shall never see his like again.

Does all this really matter? As some of the whaling nations and concerns are already saying, if he is to become speedily extinct, might he not as well prove useful to the last?

Little known

The blue whale, so called from his slate-coloured streamlined body, is beautifully adapted for a deep-sea life. His brain is not only the largest brain that has ever functioned in the world; it is also proportionately the biggest brain of any living thing. Yet what do we know of his intelligence? Tragically little. What do we know of his life - daily, yearly, individual, family, social? Hardly much more. We have not even begun to understand the fabric of whale society.

There is irony as well as tragedy here, for if there were some way of getting to know the blue whale, of communicating with it, studying it alive under normal conditions at close quarters, even of getting acquainted with a few specimens, as we are now beginning to do with its comparatively tiny but amusingly intelligent cousin, the dolphin, we might well be less inclined to exploit it and keener to preserve it as an animal of boundless interest and importance.

We do know, however, that here is a creature of many parts, intensely sensitive, resourceful, living a calm, highly organised, socially significant life. We know also that they can communicate complex messages to one another over vast distances of ocean by means we still do not fully understand. They are highly gregarious and talkative to their young, help their sick brethren and females in labour, protect nursing mothers by keeping them and their calves safe always in the middle of their herds.

A whale's life

Most probably they pair for life, and when unharried live long, some 50 years or more. Paring takes place on the surface of the sea, prefaced by complicated but to us still unknown courtship preliminaries that alone might be fascinating to understand. Blue whales are decidedly choosy when it comes to picking a mate; they require the constant society of many of their kind before courtship begins in earnest.

Usually only a single baby whale is produced, although twins have been seen. This arrives after a full year's gestation, and although each baby develops from an egg cell just as minute as those of all other mammals, including man, it measures 25-30ft in length when born, an astonishing rate of growth for the embryo period of twelve months.

Blue whales are devoted mothers, carefully suckling their offspring on the surface, giving them enormous quantities of milk so rich that it will not mix with water and contains five times the fat of cow's milk. In two or three years, the young whales may be approaching 60ft in length, yet they are still juveniles. Two years elapse between successive pregnancies, and if, as has often happened in recent years, pregnant or nursing whales are killed, the decimation of the herd is greatly increased, and its chances of making a recovery of numbers much lessened.

All these factors, plus our almost total ignorance of whale life and whale society, make modern whaling for profit, aided by such sophisticated gadgetry as radar, spotter planes, fast catcher-boats and huge factory ships for instant processing of the carcasses, disastrously harmful to the world's whales. They simply cannot survive such slaughter year after year.

Perhaps if whales had voices all would be changed. But instead, whales can make only muffled sighing and blowing noises on the surface, and communicate under-water by weird grunts, clicks and submarine murmurings in a language we may never succeed in learning.

Remote, aloof, mute and - unless decisive international action based on public opinion throughout the world, not only in the remaining whaling nations, is taken swiftly - doomed. The blue whale deserves more than such a fate. For he is greatest of living giants, and biggest of nature's animal mysteries.

Reproduced with thanks.

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