What’s In A Whale?

One wouldn’t know this without having been there, but apparently ‘the stomach juices of a whale are unbelievably foul’. I gained this gem of information while reading a delightful book: The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species. Written by the charismatic marine biologist Terrie Williams, it is inspired by her love of marine mammals, and her wide experience of them through close encounters, most especially her encounter with a young Hawaiian monk seal. Williams is a terrific story-teller, and she takes up a range of issues that affect not only monk seals but all marine mammals.

Hawaiian monk seals, mother and pup, Kaua'i
Hawaiian monk seals, mother and pup, Kaua’i

One story tells of taking part in the necropsy (an autopsy performed on an animal) of a whale that had washed up dead on a beach directly in front of a resort hotel on the near-paradisiacal island of Kaua’i in the main Hawaiian islands. The big scientific question was: how did it die? (The logistical question was how to get it off the beach and safely ensconced in an appropriate burial site.) Williams was part of the investigative team, all of whom ‘dreaded the oils and acids that would permeate our skin and clothing for weeks in spite of numerous washings and bleachings’.

Williams got the task of going into the whale’s belly to extract the contents, and she managed to bring out the cause of death. As she tells the story: ‘At first it looked like the partially digested tentacles of an octopus, and then some type of elongate brown worms. The veterinarian … took a piece of dried cane stalk and began to probe the brown ball…. The mystery unravelled with his probing. What I had grabbed was not biological at all: it was man-made. The long tentacles turned out to be rope. I had extracted rope and nylon-filament twine from the stomach of the young whale. There were yards and yards of fishermen’s netting. It was the kind of netting thrown into the oceans to drift aimlessly on currents to catch squid until the owner retrieved it a later date.’ The young whale had gone after squid and had got the whole mess.

The whole mess, drifting the seas through lethal negligence, had killed him.

This wretched story plays out again and again amongst marine mammals and other creatures including pelagic birds – they become entangled and strangled, they eat and die, they think they are ingesting food whereas actually they are ingesting death.

Monk seal rescue. Photo: NOAA/Yoshinaga
Monk seal rescue.
Photo: NOAA/Yoshinaga

Williams tells another side to the story of what goes on in the gut of a whale. This is a story of faeces. Both whales and seals, along with other marine mammals, shit in the sea. If these deposits were on land, we would call them manure, and like manure they are fertilizers. In the ocean, marine mammal manure provides nourishment for phytoplankton. These drifting plants provide food for zooplankton, and they are food for small fish; small ones are food for larger fish, and so on along the nutrient webs. The whole oceanic ecosystem is fertilized by marine mammal manure.

Furthermore, phytoplankton consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. According to one report, about half the world’s oxygen in produced by phytoplanktons. Their health enables the health of the oceans and the health of planet. Keeping them well fertilized seems like very good sense.

These thoughts were fresh in my mind when I read for the first time about the annual slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands. The article is put out by ‘Campaign Whale’. It came to my eyes just a few days ago, and I actually couldn’t quite grasp that I was seeing the bloody froth of a hands-on massacre.

A human has about five litres of blood in their body. A dolphin has about twice as much, perhaps ten litres. A pilot whale is large compared to a dolphin, and small compared to a big whale. It has perhaps 100+ litres of blood. Like all sea mammals, the blood has high levels of oxygen, making the muscles almost black and the blood itself,  when it flows from the body, is an unearthly crimson. The photos of the slaughter show waters that are so intensely red that it is difficult at first to take in the fact that this is blood.

When a pod is in the area the islanders send word around to get the boats out. They drive the pod into a bay where the whales are beached. People wade in amongst the whales, striking them with steel hooks and cutting their throats. The water churns a brilliant crimson, and both whales and humans are washed in blood.

The Faroe Islanders who support this slaughter say that it is a cultural tradition and is integral to their identity. The health experts say that whale meat, particularly the organs, have high levels of mercury and other heavy metals, along with a range of other toxins including PBC’s.

Pilot whale Wikipedia
Pilot whale

The ‘Campaign Whale’ people say that the slaughter is unacceptably cruel, and that the Faroe Islanders no longer need the whales for subsistence. They note the well-documented fact that marine mammals are experiencing a great many threats to survival: ‘climate change, toxins, over-fishing, entanglement, hunting, ship strikes, disturbance from oil and gas extraction seismic surveys, boat traffic, and lethal military sonar.’ Every slaughter adds to the burden of this larger multi-pronged lethality.

It is fair to say that the visibility of the Faroe Islanders’ slaughter makes them an easy target for public criticism. Much of the suffering and premature death in the oceans has a human origin, but most of it takes place far from human eyes. The problems are known, and are much larger than any quick fix can address. Some of the problems are entangled in political and military objectives that seem close to unstoppable. A recent news report describes the US Navy’s plans to increase its sonar testing. The Navy’s own estimate of impact tells an awful story: ‘The Navy estimates that its activities could inadvertently kill 186 whales and dolphins off the East Coast and 155 off Hawaii and Southern California, mostly from explosives. It calculates more than 11,000 serious injuries off the East Coast and 2,000 off Hawaii and Southern California, along with nearly 2 million minor injuries, such as temporary hearing loss, off each coast.’ Dr Reese Halter, also known as the Earth Doctor, spoke scathingly about the Navy’s decision in a recent ABC radio broadcast.

Numbers matter, but at the heart of these issues are individual lives and the lives of species. Pilot whales are among the largest of the group of oceanic dolphins, the only larger species being orcas. Like every creature on earth, the more one knows about them, the more fascinating they become. Pilot whales live and travel in family groups (pods) that have a matrilineal structure. Both sons and daughters stay in their mother’s pod. Pods congregate at times and the whales mate outside of their own group, returning to it for everyday life. Within the pod there are individuals with personalities and roles, including nursing females and hungry calves. Babies are nursed for three years or more, creating strong mother-child bonds. Unusually among marine mammals, females go through menopause. They stay with the pod and continue to lactate, and thus continue to care for dependent young even though they are not themselves giving birth. Each pod seems to have a unique mode of communication, and members show strong levels of responsibility for each other.

The Faroe Islanders’ impact is small when weighed against the whole suite of problems. And yet it is exactly because it is visible and stoppable that it must stop. I am not dismissive of cultural traditions. On the contrary, I am full of respect for their continuity and adaptability. A living tradition, like any living thing, must change and adapt in order to survive. An inflexible tradition is a dead one, and human-whale relationships do not have to be based on killing.

Whale killing is a community ritual whereby humans and whales meet at the oceanic threshold of the human community. Once it was necessary for human survival, and most probably it involved gratitude and respect. A new incarnation of an old ritual would articulate encounter, gratitude and respect in a mode of peace. The Faroe Islanders could drive a pod into harbour and hold them there for a brief ceremony of honour and blessing. The concluding ritual of farewell would see the whales swimming back out to their oceanic homeland, their bodies intact and their minds at peace in their own lifeworld.

We will never know the inner lives of whales, and that is as it should be. As the great writer Henry Beston wrote: ‘They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

Unlike Terrie Williams who got inside a whale’s body, we can’t get inside a whale’s mind. But while the mind of a whale is forever mysterious, we know that whales do inhabit worlds of meaning articulated through the mind. Within those minds are histories, geographies, families, generations, languages, stories and (for some) songs. There is determination and desire, nurturance and protection. There is a history of oceans writ out in the lives of its creatures, and the future of oceans is there too.

The time for killing traditions is over. The time for cherishing earth creatures is upon us in full measure.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Maldivian Pilot Whales, Sindhi, Creative Commons
Maldivian Pilot Whales, Sindhi, Creative Commons


The information on pilot whales is summarised from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilot_whale)

3 thoughts on “What’s In A Whale?

  1. Thankyou Debbie for writing and posting this piece… I was shocked and speechless at images and shared them without comment. Plankton is under threat via warming waters and yes such a vital part of our ecosystem. Sonars and fishing rubbish … New ways,als and traditions for that care and respect are urgent . Thanks again for this blog. Lucy

  2. Thank you for writing this piece. It hasn’t been easy for me to read or to meditate on, and has brought multiple ethical dilemmas to heart and mind. With global violence towards cetaceans, whether massively directed or from deadly neglect, showing little sign of abatement, it is difficult to turn the mind to killing traditions. In its present form, the Faroese pilot whale hunt is unnecessary and cruel, and cannot (and should not) be extracted from the global context of whale deaths. But part of its tragedy, I feel, also lies in its having become a remnant abstracted for its subsistence meanings, and reduced to a spectacle of violence. With the islanders having shifted from subsistence to reliance on globalised food systems, relationships between the place they live and the sustenance that sustains their lives are being uncoupled. With this shift comes the eventual outsourcing of violence to covert places, the factory farm and the biocide-soaked field. The potential for ethics of care and dependency gets replaced by unaccountable production systems. I only wish that some of the international outrage directed against the Faroese were also directed against the industrial farming system. It seems, however, that we’re much better equipped to avoid the latter. If the islanders’ insistence on continuing the whale hunt is a defensive reaction against globalisation and colonisation, then its continuation seems to me to be caught in a maladaptive way of thinking that does not sustain the original subsistence meanings of the hunt . To my mind, this doubles the violence against whales as well as against the islanders.

    Your call for reworking the tradition gives me hope that people can avoid this. Do you know of any attempts by the islanders to do so?

    1. Thanks, Marcus, for your thoughtful and insightful response.
      To answer your question, no, I don’t know of any initiatives among the Faroe Islanders themselves. I was drawing on my work on Aboriginal claims to land in Australia, where it is totally clear that both continuity and change are parts of living traditions. I really hate to see anyone locked into a position that puts continuity and change into an either-or framework.

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