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.
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?
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
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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