17. A Wail for the Whales
‘‘Would we know it, the moment when it became too late; when the oceans ceased to be infinite?”
If this line doesn’t send chills down your spine and makes you contemplate upon the extent to which humans have destructed their environment, I don’t know what will! I recently read an article by Rebecca Giggs which forewarns us about the harm humans have caused in their endeavour to capitalize on the oceans. The article talks about how humans, since long, have exploited whales, directly and indirectly for selfish reasons. Traditionally, whales were poached for their flesh which was either consumed as food, or extracted for oil. During the World War, whaling had become a matter of military interest, which is why the International Whaling Commission was instituted. While Whales are not typically anthropomorphized, the current obsession of humans with sea life is leading to their extermination.
Earlier, various technologies were employed to trap and butcher the whale. Its flesh, also called blubber, was a food item approved by the Vatican for meatless Fridays. Apart from direct consumption, blubber was also a source of oil. A single mature right whale could yield seven thousand gallons of oil. Whale oil greased factory cogs, lit shop floors and streets, and when used as an insecticide, spurred industrial agriculture. With time, the scope in which whale oil could be used also expanded. It was now used to make explosive ammunition, trench-foot treatment, soap, margarine, lipstick, transmission fluid, and burn gel.
The dynamics of the Whaling Industry changed drastically after World War 2. To regulate the problem of whale hunting in international waters, the International Whaling Commission was set up in 1946. But the quotas that were initiated by the commission turned out to be counterproductive as whalers, who expected a price surge, started stockpiling. While some captured as many whales as they could and left them when fatter ones were found, the others hunted out of season and even illegally captured whale calves. ‘Unaffected and in cold blood,
everything is killed that comes before the gun”, this quote of a sailor from a whaling enterprise makes us understand the magnitude of whale killings during that period of time. This rampant practice of whale killings led to a “commercial extinction’ in the entire Southern Hemisphere region. While the American and European whaling operations shrank, U.S.S.R.’s whaling industry, which had begun in the nineteen-thirties, expanded during the Cold War. Meanwhile, Japan was suffering from a postwar food crisis, and thus Whale meat was served as a cheap source of protein to elementary- and middle-school children. Along with ICW, an independent committee of biologists also warned people about the distinct risk of complete extinction of whales in the Southern hemisphere. Anti-whaling advocates incorporated non-whaling countries into the ICW to strengthen the conversationist stance.
Gradually, whales started being perceived as symbols of a global inheritance. It is a difficult task to arouse empathy towards whales as they are not as typically ‘cute’ as other animals are perceived to be. Whales are too gigantic to fathom, according to human standards. Thus, they can be deemed as ‘magnificent’ but not ‘cute’. Whales have always had an enigma around them, which is why even ancient cartographers used drolleries — hybrid monsters, part whale, part sea serpent — to indicate the limits of their knowledge. Even today, we are unable to fathom the information about whales. Whales navigate, converse and commune at great distances. Whales are unique in themselves, and yet similar to mammals like us, which is why their aura intrigues us. Since ICW has granted special whale-hunting rights to indigenous communities, whale hunting has not entirely stopped. Still, whale hunting cannot be solely attributed to them as capitalist practices have made all of us complicit in this mass biocide, wittingly or unwillingly. Whales consume the tons of toxic plastic humans dispose off in the ocean waters. Food waste produced by the globalized supply chain leads to the melting of ice which indirectly affects the food consumption pattern of whales. The noise from industrial shipping has also reduced the vocalization abilities of whales. An instance of Whales being washed up on the Peloponnesian coast with ears bleeding from decompression injuries caused by anti-submarine- warfare training proves the adverse effects whales are facing because of various human endeavours. The tumultuous changes brought up by Climate change are also responsible for nudging large whale populations to sudden extinction. Various ecotourism obsessions with sealife also disrupt the ocean environment. Whale watching tours leave trails of diesel through their motorboats. People also interrupt the ocean environment in their quest to capture the perfect pictures of the animal to ornate on their social media walls. Thus, our performative love for animals is leading to their extermination.
Thus, whales have come a full journey, from being poached for human greeds to being exterminated for human obsessions. Whales have been exploited for long for their blubber. The institution of the International Whaling Commission leads to the regulation of whale hunting in international waters. While conservationists have been successful in arousing people’s sympathies towards the dire conditions of whales, whales still fall prey to our obsession with eco-tourism. I found this stance of the author to cite the example of a whale to draw the larger landscape of environmental degradation very fascinating.