This essay is part of Tortoise’s File on The Future of History, which considers what history should look like in the 21st Century – as a subject of study, but also an area of action and protest. To see the rest of the File’s contents, please tap here.
In the last century – which seems so long ago now that it might be a millennium away – a cabal of mostly western nations gathered out of sight of “civilisation”, in the Southern Ocean, to slaughter three million great whales.
All of this was accomplished in a time and place – if the sea can be said to have a history; if the sea can be said to be a place – which was basically as remote as the dark side of the moon or the red plains of the planet Mars. Indeed, we knew what our planet looked like from outer space before we saw those great whales in their natural habitat, below what Herman Melville called “the ocean’s skin”.
The slaughter is a terrible part of human history, although we rarely recall it as such. We have, instead, spent a lot of time defining whales and not letting them define us.
In the 19th and 20th Centuries, Pacific great whales were known by whalers as “devil fish” because they fought back so fiercely – if futilely. But the truth is that the whalers had a tactic of targeting calves so that the adult whales would rush to protect their offspring. It was said that the adults appeared to “sacrifice” their own bodies. Does “devil fish” say more, then, about the whales? Or about humankind?
Whales are part of our history and we are part of theirs. But it would be arrogant to assume that whales do not have their own history apart from ours – their own abiding memories of past events. Richard Sabin, curator of vertebrates at London’s Natural History Museum, remarks to me that the return of blue whales to the Irish Sea, first seen in 2012 and still being seen today, may be due to the fact that their collective memory remembers old migratory routes from before when whaling reduced them to such few numbers.
Whales certainly have a lot to remember. Killer whales, for instance – more popularly known now as orca in our post-Free Willy world – have existed in their present evolutionary state for six million years. They now live in every ocean. Sentient, social beings, it is they who are the most successful mammals on the planet. Their culture is passed down matrilineally; male orcas stay with their mothers all their lives; the oldest females in orca pods are always the matriarchs, transmitters of knowledge, repositories of whale history.
Indeed, almost all toothed whales – the odontocetes sub-order of the cetacean order, which also includes mysticetes (baleen whales) – are highly socialised, with highly developed senses and all the emotional states necessary to negotiate their communal lives. Their life histories are incarnate and expressed in sound; in the signature calls that are, in effect, their names.
The glorious thing about being a whale is that they live in a sensorial world of sound. They feel sound with their bodies. Lacking hands and fingers, and living and feeding in sometimes pitch-dark conditions, sight is of little use to them. Sound is tactile for them; a physical internet of expression that they sense using sonar, receiving the reverberations through their bones. They feel communally, aurally connected. It’s their ESP, their watery telepathy. It is their culture.
Ever since the introduction of steamships, the use of military sonar and other sources of anthropogenic noise, the whales’ quiet world has been assailed. Sonar has been proven to cause whale and dolphin strandings, by forcing cetaceans to surface quickly, inducing narcosis.
But briefly, for a few months this year, the reduction in human marine activity permitted them a hiatus, as it did in the days after the terror attacks of September 2001, when the shipping lanes between the US East Coast and Europe were closed. Scientists studying the whales off New England realised that the animals’ stress levels reduced markedly, as they had stopped shouting to make themselves heard.
Similarly, recordings off the busy west coast of North America, made in the first quarter of 2020, registered a reduction of five decibels in human-generated noise, and an equivalent rise in orca vocalisations. To a layperson like myself, it sounded as though the cetaceans were having a party.
Culture and identity are as important to cetaceans as they are to us. There is no reason to think that they do not exist in existential awareness of their individual selves and of each other. Like ice cores drilled out of polar regions, their received memories may contain markers of previous events – where was good to eat, for instance.
But accessing these memories is challenging, for humans at least. One of the hardest things about studying whale history is their very longevity. Sperm whales, killer whales, humpbacks and fin whales can live to at least 100 years. Bowhead whales, whose slow metabolism has evolved to suit their Arctic fastness, live twice as long. We know this from old harpoon heads found embedded in newly hunted bowheads; the weapons have been dated to 235 years old, making the animals older. There are bowhead whales facing the warming waters of the Arctic who were swimming there when Melville published Moby-Dick in 1851.
To gather data on beings that so far outlive ourselves presents a chronological dilemma; one which sets our brief span in its paltry context. The slowness, the stateliness of their lives, lived out in an environment that is both hostile and mysterious to us, goes beyond human knowledge, beyond human time and human space.
What is history to a whale? When it comes to their relationship with humanity, it consists largely of fear. Our fear of them, as a leviathanic monster, has in turn given them cause to fear us, as we exploit their bodies for oil, baleen, meat, bone. For many centuries, there has been an apartness between whales and people, in our respective environments. More recently, there has been a growing connectedness, as social mammals.
It is that apartness that allowed us to do what we did. It is no coincidence that 18th- and 19th-century whaling occurred in the same time zones, and often the same space, as the trade in human beings. As the process of whaling became mechanised, and even the fastest, largest whales – the fin and blue whales – came within range of grenade harpoons, the abuse accelerated exponentially.
The wholesale removal of whale biomass from the still unpolluted, unplasticised oceans of the last century probably accelerated climate breakdown. Their faeces alone would have fertilised the food chain and enabled plankton to sequester carbon from the skies. They died in the world wars to supply us with nitroglycerin; their placid bodies supplied us with the tools of our self-destruction. From 1914 to 1917, around 175,000 whales gave their lives for British bombs and their oil to stop soldiers’ feet rotting.
Thankfully, something changed. The release of The Song of the Humpback Whale, a best-selling album in 1970, turned many people on to the plight of cetaceans. The Save the Whale campaigns of the 1970s and 80s were the direct ancestors of Extinction Rebellion.
But don’t be mistaken: the killing has not stopped. A recent UN report forecast that 35 per cent of marine mammals may be lost in this century. The terrible truth is that we cannot imagine that new removal, and so we turn our backs on it, as if were already accomplished.
I have witnessed this ongoing tragedy for myself. When I first arrived in Provincetown, in 2001, the population of the North Atlantic right whale, which breeds and feeds exclusively off the shores of North America, looked set to plummet towards extinction. Gradually, over the past twenty years – as I watched them from the shore and even from my bed, cavorting out in Cape Cod Bay, or as I saw them up close in semi-secret scientific missions, the photographs of which I am still unable to share – it seemed as though the species were rallying, pushing up beyond 500 individuals.
Now, due to warming seas pushing them out of their historic feeding grounds and into waters where they are additionally endangered by entanglement in fishing gear or by ship strikes, they are on the brink of extinction. With fewer than 250 mature individuals in a population down to 400, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature moved North Atlantic right whales from “endangered” to “critically endangered” status on their Red List this July.
That this should happen within sight of the golden beaches and holidaymakers of the most powerful nation on Earth speaks to that vastness of separation. These animals come within a few tens of yards of the shore as they roll over one another – but they might as well be dinosaurs.
We have tried to make sense of the slaughter, of our disconnection from the natural world, in culture. In the 19th Century, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Mary Shelley’s Creature and Melville’s Moby Dick all warned us, in the form of modern myths, of what was to come. Whales, like other animals, evolved their histories in parallel with ours. They became what we wanted them to be, as surely as wolves became dogs, and wild oxen turned into domesticated cows. Not physically, perhaps, but in a psychic sense.
Two-hundred years hence, what fable will our descendants employ to make sense of what we’ve done? What excuses will they offer? Perhaps it is empathy that will redeem us; the express of our love, overwhelming the effects of a hateful heedlessness.
I must admit here, a closet attraction: I find whales sensual. At the peak of my obsession, John Waters (who inadvertently introduced me to whales in the wild when he invited me to visit him in Cape Cod) accused me of being a whale stalker and – when I showed him my expanding gallery of photographs, pulled surreptitiously from my pocket – of circulating whale porn. He said I ought to have sex with a whale. In the 1960s, John C. Lilly recommended as much to the female scientist working with his troupe of semi-trained dolphins (having already dosed his non-human experimental subjects with LSD).
There is a seminal quality to the sperm whale, after all. It gained its name from the waxy oil that spurted out of its head when pierced by early whalers, who believed it was the animal’s semen. Even the shape of the whale itself looks like a spermatozoa. The protean, prelapsarian air of the whale speaks to something pre-human, the beginning of things, an organism that left the land for the sea.
It is that sly, shape-shifting quality of the cetacean tribe that draws me in. Perhaps they speak to a lost utopia we never had. Surely one reason why we are drawn to dolphins is that they resemble a free-living, free-loving version of ourselves; as though they were us zipped up in dolphin wet suits. The whale, exceeding any credible expectation of what an animal can be – implausibly huge, big-brained, long-lived, and yet utterly vulnerable to what we puny humans do to them and their environment—presents the highest sense of paradox and dilemma about the business of being a human species on this planet.
There are heartening indications we can reverse trends. The voluntary ban on the hunting of great whales, which was implemented in 1983, appears to have resulted in the current expansion of humpback whale populations – with the east coast of Australia reporting increases of up to 10 per cent in humpback calves.
Last year, off North Stradbroke Island, near Brisbane, I witnessed the utterly joyous sight of dozens of humpbacks returning on their annual migration. From one end to the other, the horizon was filled with leaping, breaching whales. And, as if the scene couldn’t get more Edenic, a pod of bottlenose dolphins started surfing in front of me, their sleek bodies cutting through the house-high, turquoise waves. I actually laughed to myself: it was like a whalewatcher’s wet dream.
It is interesting to wonder how whales reacted to another consequence of lockdown: the fact that human whale-watching trips were severely, if not entirely, curtailed. Did they miss us? Anecdotally, in my time volunteering on whale-watch boats out of Provincetown, I’ve often discussed the idea with onboard naturalist guides like my friend Dennis Minsky. The whales have the whole of Cape Cod Bay – perhaps the whole Western Atlantic – but they choose to breach close to the boats and even bring their calves alongside, as if they were watching us.
Minsky notes that whales appear to use the boats as “fish-stops” – driving the clouds of baitfish towards us and reaping the rewards. But we have also looked those animals in the eyes, as they circled the bow or the stern, and realised, sometimes with a shudder, that their stare was disturbingly sentient.
Can we ever meet that stare with true understanding? Certainly, what’s needed, really, is a new kind of inter-species literacy. In her forthcoming and eye-opening new book, How to be Animal, the writer and philosopher Melanie Challenger observes: “The world is now dominated by an animal that doesn’t think it’s an animal. And the future is imagined by an animal that doesn’t want to be an animal.”
Throughout our shared history, cetaceans have suffered from our insistence on defining them within our own parameters. I wonder if, in the centuries to come, when we have finally translated all those squeaks and whistles and clicks, we might actually discover how they define us. I doubt we will be flattered by what we hear.
Illustrations by Tim Vyner, Photographs by Getty Images