The Sounding of the Whale
Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century
D. Graham Burnett
University of Chicago Press, 875pp, $45
What? You've read another tome about whales? Are you obsessed? Well, kinda...In my youth I remember several occasions when dead whales washed up on a nearby beach; the looming dark shape always attracted attention. A crowd gathered. We spoke quietly among ourselves, speculating on a cause...sickness, loss of the mother, chased onto land by predators. Mostly they were young and relatively small...the size of a pick-up truck or so. The boys would kick the carcass...always on a dare. Their parents would pull them away. I felt wonder mixed with teary sadness. What tragic occurrence far out at sea caused this undeserved death? Then the Coast Guard would come and tow it out to sea by the tail and blow it to smithereens with a depth charge...at least that is what I remember.
I hadn't read Job by then and I'd never heard of the International Whaling Commission (which was established 1946). In fact, it might not have been until Greenpeace dramatically entered the fray in the early '70s, challenging the policies of the commission, that I first got wind of the IWC's long and ineffectual effort to control the international whaling industry. Why did they kill whales, anyway? The short answer...to make money and margarine (Proctor and Gamble and Lever were big customers) and here and there, food for humans, later, oil for space craft parts. The recent history of commercial whaling industry (from the mid-1800s), the current state of affairs, and implications for the survival of the species are all examined in this, pardon me, but I have to say it, "whale of a book."
Broken into six chapters, plus and intro and a conclusion, organized chronologically, chapter one, "Into the Belly of the Beast" covers modern whaling, the biology of the whale, and the whaling and research activity accomplished between 1910 and 1942. It is especially interesting that during the war years the whale and his fellow sea mammals (dolphins and porpoises) became relevant to the war machine and its tools, submarines and sonar, so after the war, there was a practical reason to prevent their extinction: the arms race was on.
Chapter two and three cover the same time period in which a tiny American conservation sentiment was encouraged by Remington Kellogg, a midwestern naturalist who was originally interested in birds. As his interests expanded, he earned a doctorate in zoology, specializing in primitive whales and their adaptation to water. In time he became the curator of the National Museum in Washington D.C. In 1930 he was invited to speak at a conference on whaling sponsored by the League of Nations. In 1937 he was a delegate to the International Conference on Whaling, the precursor to the IWC. The bulk of his career was spent as curator of the U.S. National Museum in Washington and that position became a springboard for his whaling interests.
In chapter four, "A Cetaceous Parliament" highlights of the agonizing machinations of the IWC (finally established in 1946) are recounted. As it turns out, none of the national representatives to the annual conference would subsume self-interest for the larger issue (money) and the scientists who researched and documented the declination of numbers in the hunted species were unable to build a strong enough case to persuade anyone that quotas were urgently necessary...for thirty-six years! Believe me, this chapter is a tough read, not because of any technical aspect, but because of the frustration that is built, page by page, year by year. (A temporary moratorium was finally voted on in 1982 and, even then, several nation members abstained).
"Trials of Force" continues the discussion of the dismal impasse of the IWC. Territorial squabbles reveal the monstrous tonnage still taken. In 1952 twenty-thousand whales were taken off the coast of Chile in what was considered local waters but the take of all of the western South American countries was less than one per cent of the total production.
Chapter six, "Shots Across the Bow" is finally upbeat. It opens with a 1976 quote from the Governor of Colorado. "As whales go, so goes the ocean, as the oceans go, so goes the environment, causing the whales to become the symbol of the international environmental movement." Well, at long last, the light has dawned...at least on the Rocky Mountains. The work and influence of John C. Lilly on the whaling issue is discussed here. Lilly was a physician and psychoanalyst who (among other scientific pursuits, attempted to communicate with dolphins. He believed that they should be learned from, not killed and wrote The Mind of the Dolphin among many other works.
For a researcher as thorough and tenacious as Burnett is, it might be expected that his writing would be complex and hard to follow. On the contrary, his prose is clean and well-balanced, a pleasure to read--(even though I admit to having had to stop and look up a few words here and there). If you have a spark of interest in marine mammals, dive into this book. Think if it as five shorter books in one binding and take a day or two off between chapters to digest and savor...and to worry...are we ever going to "save the whales"?