Sperm Whales Perish on British Coast: a poignant reminder of a rejuvenated species

Five sperm whales have washed up along the east coast of England in the past week, all believed to be from the same pod. The latest was found on the beach at Wainfleet in Lincolnshire, along a stretch of coastline long used by the RAF as a bombing and air-to-ground practice range.

Some of the whales have been subjected to graffiti
Some of the whales have been subjected to graffiti

The giant cachalots have unsurprisingly drawn considerable attention from the public, including some mindless clowns who thought it appropriate to desecrate the majestic carcasses with nuclear disarmament graffiti. Others have even harvested parts of the stranded whales as souvenirs in an act so repulsive it does not bear pondering in depth.

Man’s relationship with the sperm whale is long and fraught. For more than a century, this largest of the toothed whale species was hunted on an industrial scale, primarily for its spermaceti, a liquid wax in the creature’s head that was used for oil lamps across the streets of the developed world.

Another prized commodity unique to sperm whales is ambergris. This brackish substance, produced by the whale’s digestive system, was sought after by perfumers as a fixative to allow their scent to last longer.

Harvesting spermaceti
Harvesting spermaceti

Whaling soon became a glorified endeavour, with man pitted against beast on the rough and unforgiving seas. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – telling the story of a vengeful Captain in pursuit of an infamous white sperm whale that had been responsible for the loss of his leg – was published in 1851 and added to the mythology surrounding what was effectively the mass slaughter of a species.

In the early days, whalers were launched in row boats from a main ship to tackle their prey with harpoons
In the early days, whalers were launched in row boats from a main ship to tackle their prey with harpoons

Fortunately, the invention of gas lighting and synthetic fixatives helped save the sperm whale, in addition to a belated realisation from mankind that it could not so willingly decimate its fellow inhabitants of the earth.

Since the future of the sperm whale was secured, the sheer majesty and gracefulness of the creature has been recognised and explains the almost primeval excitement when us landlubbers come into contact with these deep-sea dwellers.

It is a pity that such encounters are often only possible because of mass strandings such as that seen over the past week, yet hopefully it precipitates a greater appreciation of a species which the world is much the richer for hanging on to.

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Abe Goes Whaling: Japanese endeavors both unnecessary and unjust

Shinzo Abe is making enemies again. This time, rather than stoke regional territorial and nationalist tensions, the Japanese Prime Minister has angered neighbors by continuing his country’s controversial whaling policy. 

Japanese whaling is conducted under false motives
Japanese whaling is conducted under false motives

Abe has confirmed that Japan will again embark on a whaling season for ‘scientific research’, a euphemism if ever there was one. Despite a ban on the Antarctic hunt by the International Court of Justice, Abe insists Japan will persist.

Japan is not alone in continuing what is, in effect, commercial whaling. Norway and Iceland refused to comply to a 1986 moratorium imposed by the International Whaling Commission (Japan ironically signed it) and continue hunting whales for meat despite regular environmental protests.

Abe argues that whaling is part of Japanese culture and the 1986 moratorium made provisions for traditional/indigenous whale quotas, for example among the Alaska Inupiat. Yet such cultural claims must also take into account the modern necessity for whaling and its industrial nature.

Indigenous whaling in the Arctic is a far cry from the industrial factory ships employed by Japan and Norway
Indigenous whaling in the Arctic is a far cry from the industrial factory ships employed by Japan and Norway

The BBC has just aired the first of a two-part documentary on the modern whaling industry, focusing on the activities of Leith Harbor, a giant whaling complex on the British overseas territory of South Georgia. The sheer volume of whales caught in Antarctic waters in the first half of the twentieth century is staggering, as is the manner in which their giant carcasses were processed.

A sperm whale at Leith Harbour in 1913 - the remote outpost became an internationally profitable industrial centre
A sperm whale at Leith Harbour in 1913 – the remote outpost became an internationally profitable industrial centre

In 1870, Svend Foyn pioneered a type of explosive harpoon which was both effective in killing a whale quickly and at securing it above the surface so that the body could be retrieved. Whilst experiments with explosive weaponry on whaleboats had been conducted as early as the mid-18th century, Foyn’s design firmly tipped the balance in favour of humans.

Prior to this point, whaling had been a far more dangerous and, arguably, noble contest between man and leviathan. Launching themselves on small harpoon boats from their main ship, whalers would pursue their prey in man-powered craft, armed only with wooden-handled harpoons, riding the fiercest of seas. Many men died when either the whales, or the ocean, capsized their boats.

The danger of such an enterprise was offset both by the potential profit (both for company and individual) and the sheer thrill of the hunt. No more is the excitement and obsession incumbent in the whaling industry more evident than Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, where the duel between Captain Ahab and the white whale is one evenly matched.

moby-dick-medium

One also thinks of the traditional ballad, Greenland Whale Fisheries. Reflecting on a failed whale hunt that drowned five sailors, the narrator laments:

The losing of those five jolly men grieved the captain awful sore

but the losing of that fine whalefish, now that grieved him ten times more

Of course this commercial and personal obsession with whaling was driven by global demand in the 18th and 19th centuries; whale oil was used for lighting lamps before the advent of electricity, whale bones were employed to support fashionable corsets and the meat fed starving populations.

By the time of the great industrialised whaling of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the demand for whale products had decreased, along with the number of whales in the sea. This demand has now been reduced further, with only the indigenous populations of the Arctic Circle really able to claim that they rely on the whale for survival.

The decline in the population of the world’s whales is an undoubted tragedy, such is the magnificence of the creatures. Without any great justification to keep pursuing them, Abe is unlikely to find much support for his latest proclamations.

The the great whaling era is over and we should be grateful that we stopped when we did. At least now there is the potential for the populations to rebound and reclaim the seas that they dominated before the harpoons first stuck fast into their shiny, blubbery sides.