Make Your Christmas Gift Count


I’ve just been writing the post script to Whale Boy, giving a bit of factual back ground about sperm whales – possibly the weirdest animals on the planet, which is of course why I love ‘em. So yesterday I reread parts of my mate Hal Whitehead’s great book ‘ Sperm Whales, Social Evolution In the Ocean’. The book is now hedgehogged with little yellow postits marking my favourite bits, but here is a favourite-favourite, a description of what a sperm whale looks like to a squid that’s about to be swallowed…

‘During its final moments, if in daylight and not too deep, a doomed cephalopod might see the sperm whale advancing formidably on a broad front from the gloom of the ocean. Coming directly toward it is the long, narrow but powerful, lower jaw, outlined in white, which will soon open to display two rows of large conical teeth and the white lining of the folds of the mouth and tongue. Above the jaw is the mass of the spermatceti organ, expanding from the narrrow jaw to the ‘high and mighty God like dignity inherent in the brow” (Melville 1851 ). The front of the spermaceti organ is often scarred from encounters with past prey, or with other whales, or other hazards in the ocean . Protruding on either side of the head are the eyes and behind them the rest of the body fades into the murk of the ocean. Such is the vision of this devastating predator as seen by its prey.’

Revisiting the facts about sperm whale anatomy and behaviour, outlined with such clarity, was a delight, and hugely cheering. Rather less so was my reading on the last few years doings with the IWC. The IWC – International Whaling Commission – is the organisation that over sees whaling, or tries to. That’s all I’m going to say about it – for readers who know, you don’t need to be reminded of the Machiavellian shenanegins that go on inside it. And for readers who don’t, rejoice in your blameless ignorance. All you need to understand in this context is that member countries – whaling nations and nations which can’t even bless themselves with a coastline – get to vote. And in 1986 they voted to end whaling, a moratorium that could only be over turned by a 75 % majority. I remember how happy I was. We’d won I thought. Whales were safe. Well, I was in my twenties and young for my age.

Japan, Norway and Iceland of course, keen whalers as they are, were having none of it. Since 1986 they have found a series of excuses for killing 30,000 whales. Its totally unecconomic. They can’t sell the meat and not many people apart from Jeremy Clarkeson want to eat it anymore. Some of it is so rich in heavy metals that they must have to wear protective clothing to put it in the freezer. But they live in hope that by keeping their whaling fleets alive they will be prepared for the day when the moratorium is over turned and they can go back to slaughtering whales on a truly industrial scale, until there are none left for anyone to argue about.

Dream on you may say, you still need a three quarters majority. Well the whaling nations have been busy bribing all manner of impoverished countries with international aid and other state level Ferrero Rochers and now the vote is split 50 50. It is not impossible that they could get their way. The ensuing ‘fishery’ will not be well managed or sustainable, it’ll be an unseemly and bloody rush to grab the last tins of soup from the shelves.

And the whales will be gone.

Just think about that for a minute. What would you say to your grandchild who picks up a yellowing copy of a picture book about whales? Or finds a clip on the internet? How would it feel to know that they were nowhere, not up there somewhere in the Arctic, or down with the penguins. That no matter how hard you looked, you’d never find one.

Perhaps you’ve never seen a whale perhaps you never will. But if you never could. That’s different.

Somehow if defeating the moronic old harpoon-wielding loonies were the only thing we had to do to make sure there are still whales in the ocean for our great grandchildren, it wouldn’t be so bad. The whalers’ll all be dead in a few years anyway, especially if they eat their own products.  But the list of threats is ghastly – entanglement in the increasing miles of fishnets, collisions with ships, hearing damage from military and geological sonic surveys, and the more intangible specters of climate change and pollution. Because we know so little about the ecology of the seas, and of whales, some of these threats are unquantifiable, and the standard policy of government and business in this situation is to ask that we wait for more data. This is like standing on the train tracks until you can see the colour of the train driver’s eyes; here’s Hal again:

‘To save the sperm whale and other oceanic life, we must conserve on a grand scale, and we must do this in the absence of conclusive scientific data on what levels of threats are dangerous’


This goes for all habitats and all creatures. All the lovely things I’ve seen this extraordinary year – the orang utans I saw in Borneo, the manatees and river dolphins in Peru, the elephants and gibbons in India.  We do need to go on gathering that conclusive data, but we need to act. If something smells a bit like a threat, looks a bit a like a threat, then it probably is a threat, so best to do something and not wait until we have its inside leg measurement.

So if you want to buy a Christmas present that actually does something to make the world better, log on to Whale and Dolphin Conservation or (better still AND) the World Land Trust and find out how to give them some money and put some ticks on your Christmas list.


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