Magazine article The Spectator

Whales: A Love Story

Magazine article The Spectator

Whales: A Love Story

Article excerpt

How humanity learned to love them - and what we learned about ourselves in the process


Last week a sperm whale was beached at Hunstanton in Norfolk and there was much horrified concern.

A terrible sight, lying there like a small cottage on the immensity of the beach, 46 feet long and 30 tons, surrounded by rescue workers from British Divers Marine Rescue and Hunstanton Sea Life Sanctuary who were dousing the whale with water to try and keep it going, but to no avail. It died towards the end of a long and desperate day.

Last month, another sperm whale was beached just a couple of miles away and five more at Skegness. All of this provoked a mood of sadness and wonder: that so enormous a thing could exist in the first place and then die in so inexplicable a fashion.

It wasn't always like that. In 1331 a large school of whales beached on the Dodder River in Ireland, tributary to the Liffey, in the middle of a famine: 'From the stinking cagework city a horde of jerkined dwarfs, my people, with flayer's knives, running, scaling, hacking on green blubbery whalemeat. Famine, plague and slaughter.' This from Ulysses .

North Atlantic right whales are docile things. They keep near the coast and near the surface. They have a high blubber content, so they float like corks when harpooned, and yield vast quantities of whale oil. They were called right whales because they're the right whale to hunt. They were duly hunted close to extinction and are classed as endangered.

We have changed our understanding of whales and by doing so we have changed our understanding of the world. We no longer see whales as protein mountains and oil mines, or as monsters to be slaughtered for our protection and pride. Whales now excite admiration, excitement, curiosity, delight, wonder and love. A whale-sighting is a bucket-list staple. I have been on boats full of passengers weeping for joy because a whale chose to share a little quality time. Quite a shift from being the raw material for a corset.

It began, like so much else, in the 1960s. Back then, environmental awareness seemed to be concentrated on whales: the blue whale in particular, the largest creature that has existed on this planet. The clash had its liveliest expression in Greenpeace, which sent activists to disrupt hunts. A Russian whaler fired a harpoon over their heads and news bulletins revelled in the footage. …

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