We have been short on good news lately, and for that reason, too, it was absolutely wonderful to learn that the International Court of Justice has upheld Australia’s bid to ban Japan’s Antarctic whaling program. It was equally wonderful to hear that Japan intends to abide by the decision.
The best part of the news, of course, is what it means for whales. I have been reading Philip Hoare’s book The Whale, and the story it tells is so utterly appalling that it is difficult to believe that any fair-minded person could assent to the on-going killing of these great songsters. I starting reading after meeting Philip at the recent conference ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’. He gave a marvellous speech, and the video is now online (view here).
I had no idea that more whales have been killed in my lifetime than were killed in all the decades during which ‘Moby Dick’-style whaling wreaked its havoc. According to Philip, in 1951 alone ‘more whales were killed worldwide than New Bedford’s whale-ships took in a century and a half of whaling’. The reasons are primarily technological, along with a continuing desire for whale bodies. The invention of harpoon guns armed with a bomb that would explode inside the animal’s head was the great leap forward in slaughter. From that time on, with faster ships, more lethal weapons, and, as the years went by, more sophisticated tracking devices and gigantic factory ships, the whales never stood a chance. In Philip’s words: ‘A whale once seen was as good as dead.’
Whales and men were both fodder for world wars, not least because whale oil was used in the manufacture of nitro-glycerine. Philip writes that ‘the entire population of humpbacks in the South Atlantic were driven to extinction by 1918′. The second world war also involved massive whale slaughter, and after the war whale meat and oil were used to feed protein-hungry populations in war-torn countries.
Efforts to limit and ban whale slaughter have been episodic, and each success has been a struggle. There has been a great deal of ideology in the mix, as my courageous friend Kumi Kato explains. Kumi is a Japanese scholar, and has been documenting traditional whaling practices. She contrasts them with commercial whaling, the point being that while there was a tradition of hunting, it was not the same as contemporary slaughter.
Traditionally, she shows, small-scale community hunting of whales and other cetaceans was carried out with the greatest respect. A whale death was treated like a human death, and a commemorative plaque was hung in the temple. There, Buddhist nuns sang daily prayers for all the whales and others who had been killed. Kumi considers that whaling traditionally involved ethics and spiritualty, along with a strong sense of reciprocity. Hunters and their communities recognised human dependence on the lives of others.
Some of these elderly women are still singing cetacean prayers. I have had the privilege of hearing Kumi’s recordings, and gratitude for those dedicated and loving women has filled my heart.
Thank You, Dear Nuns, For Your Prayerful Commitment!
Journalists have been asking politicians whether Japanese people will be angered by the decision to stop the killing. The answer seemed to be that the majority doesn’t care, and that some will dislike the ruling while others will be glad for it. It is good to remember that there is more going on here than just opinion. The temples still hold memories, the nuns still sing, and today whales in the southern ocean are that bit safer than they have been previously.
Thank You, Dear Activists!
Now, let us not forget about the myriad other assaults on whales and other sea creatures. Not only the killing, but the sonic impacts, and the toxins, and the entanglements, and a thousand other hazards of life in the deep blue sea.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
Philip Hoare writes prolifically about whales. I can testify at this moment that The Whale is a great read.
Kumi Kato has written several articles on traditional whaling. One of them is ‘Prayers for the Whales’ (read here).
I have recently written several other essays on whales and other sea creatures. See: ‘What’s In A Whale?’, ‘Songsters’, and ‘Sharks in a Sea of Death’.