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Hope is a thing with blubber

Book review  “Fathoms: The World in the Whale” By Rebecca Giggs Scribe, 358 pp., April 2020 

2543 words

Dropping like a spider on a thread of silk, my little boat is one of ten being lowered from the top deck of a ship into the sea near the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. A crane arches me away from the side of the ship, above a frigid sea draped with crackling chunks of ice, freshly cleaved from the nearby glacier, down past my sea-level cabin which has a small porthole. It is inset like a washing machine door allowing waves to lap against the glass, with a plunk and a brief spin cycle. The hum of the ship’s engines travels down the loaded cable that tethers me to the ship, through the inflatable boat and into my thighs. Like a heartbeat, it is an ever-present feature of my world – a sound that comforts me on the rare occasion that I notice it. As soon as my boat feels cradled by the slushy sea, my movements are automatic: lower the motor, turn the ignition, unclip from the cable, untie the bow line, check the fuel and my radio. Muffled radio chatter provides just enough detail to ascertain that a whale has been spotted nearby, close to the shore. I make way in that direction, but as is usual for summertime in South Georgia, the sea near the coast is a furious cauldron. Inbound swells shoulder opposing gusts of wind and bobbing around amid this chaos are hapless, dense icebergs the size of elevators. Known as growlers, their sluggishness belies their danger to mariners. Whales seem to casually avoid them as a pedestrian avoids parked cars.

For three months of the year, I work at sea in the Southern Ocean, during which time an expedition cruise ship is my entire world. Guiding paying passengers, I venture out twice a day to find whales or to hike on shore, before being plucked back aboard to the warmth of the ship to deliver lectures. Essentially, I burn fossil fuels to take tourists to the remotest and most vulnerable parts of the planet. My hope is that my work fosters a sense of urgency about how our everyday actions far from polar waters influence both the climate and defaunation crises. There is no doubt that we are influencing the climate at a rate unprecedented in hundreds of thousands of years. Polar environments are disproportionately affected, requiring ambassadors to lobby for progressive climate and wildlife conservation policies. Witnessing what we are losing can elicit an emotional response to encourage a lower-impact lifestyle. As the whale biologist on board an expedition cruise ship, my role is to find whales, enthuse people about them and gather biological data. I have yet to meet someone who dislikes or is even indifferent to whales. For most people, seeing an abundance of whales and hearing their breath are the most cherished moments of a trip to Antarctica.

Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs examines our obsession with charismatic animals, specifically whales. She takes a sobering look at our impact on the environment and the technological advances that can help us protect whales from our encroachment on their world. The book is a hope-tinged reminder that we have not yet saved the whale. Halting whaling is no longer sufficient. Accidental capture (bycatch), plastic ingestion, ocean noise and collisions with ships are the primary methods by which we kill whales today. In a cruel twist, an additional growing threat to recovering whale populations is our voracious love for them. Giggs ascribes this threat to ‘biophilia’ – a love for animals which is not necessarily problematic, but which can have ugly manifestations. Fathoms grapples, as do I, with the ethical concern that biophilia can be detrimental to the animals in receipt of our love or attention. Our urge to get close to whales for example puts them at risk of stress from engine noise, collision with ships, or even the contraction of pathogens where they are petted or swum with (the risk is reciprocal). Wild animals attempting to survive by foraging or provisioning their young can be disturbed or displaced by our very presence, let alone our attempts to get close to them. We increasingly experience the wilderness through the screens and devices that mediate our relationship with the world. Giggs deftly describes the obsessive melding of bucket-listing and animal-selfies on social media as “performing our love for nature”. This performance is the antithesis of experiencing nature. Ironically, Fathoms begins with a 7,000-year-old social media post: a giant whale hewn into the rock near Sydney, Australia. The story of a similar petroglyph, dynamited in the 1920s to make way for the Sydney Bridge, says as much about the tragic relationship between whales and people as it does about colonialism and the plight of the Aboriginals whose ancestors created these sacred whale carvings.

Giggs candidly recounts our checkered history with whales, chiefly in the Southern Ocean where we have killed almost two million of them in less than a century. Until the global moratorium on whaling in 1986, whales were reduced to soap and margarine prompting the troubling image of the world’s largest animals being ‘melted into toast’. Because populations were not given the chance to replenish, twentieth century whaling by the UK, Japan, Norway, the Soviet Union and others became a form of mining rather than fishing. Before reading Fathoms, it had not occurred to me that whale-watching might be an unconscious search for absolution, given that we almost exterminated several whale species. Today, we are painfully close to the extinction of northern right whales and the vaquita. Vaquita is a tiny porpoise endemic to Baja, Mexico. Tenderly referred to as ‘endlings’ by Giggs, vaquita are represented by the last few of their kind; 2.4 million years in the making, they are about to be extinguished forever. Giggs writes that we have never hunted a species of whale to extinction. I would caution that we have never done so to the best of our knowledge. New species of whales, such as Omura’s whale, are still being discovered by examining old whaling data. It is possible that species have been lost before being known to science.

As a whale biologist reviewing this meticulously researched book written by a non-scientist, I struggled to find flaws. And what flaws I found are ones of which I am myself guilty. Take the use of the term ‘stocks’ to refer to whale populations. ‘Stocks’ seem to imply that whales exist for the sole purpose of being exploited or stored alive in the wild for later consumption. The utilitarianism of this language betrays an important insight. Most of us living in today’s wealthiest countries enjoy economic benefits reaped from whale oil. Giggs points out that the refinement of fossil fuels did not replace but rather catalyzed industrial whaling. Fossil fuels meant faster ships to capture even the speediest of species like fin and blue whales. A sordid circular economy emerged whereby the explosive nitroglycerine, mass-produced from whale oil, was packed into harpoons to kill more whales. Estimates show that there would have been just 85 remaining blue whales, were it not for the Second World War. Steered towards the task of killing human beings instead of whales, whaling ships were repurposed for war, giving over-exploited whale populations a brief respite. By the time of the moratorium in 1986, as few as 360 Antarctic blue whales existed.

How is it that we no longer lather whales on our skin or smear them on toast? Only after the song of the humpback whale was heard, did attitudes towards whales shift. The tide seems to have turned with the January 1972 issue of National Geographic magazine, which included a vinyl insert. Thanks to pioneering work by Roger Payne, author of Among Whales, the haunting song of the humpback whale was piped into homes around the world. The humpback whale became the posterchild of an environmental enlightenment that led ultimately to the moratorium on whaling, albeit one marred with a loophole that permits whaling for science. But do whales give us too much hope? Giggs wryly refers to whales as “Paragons of green devotion”. Using the Australian petroglyphs as a starting point, Fathoms tries to understand why whales are totems in most western societies, after having been brutally slaughtered for over a century. Does our adoration of certain animals amount to a kind of speciesism?

Charisma can cut both ways. Whereas one culture considers whales too charismatic to be eaten, it may be this very charisma that turns whales into food in another culture in the belief that eating whale infuses one with its superlative qualities. Attending a homecoming ceremony of a Japanese whaling fleet, Giggs explores how whaling and reverence towards whales can coexist in Japanese culture. Shinto Buddhism considers all animals to be equal, making it preferable to eat one minke whale to liberate the equivalent biomass of sardines. These high-minded justifications for whaling sit uneasily alongside more candidly extractive attitudes, evident for example in a Japanese delegate to the International Whaling Commission referring to minke whales as cockroaches and in the country’s more general contempt for international oversight of shared marine resources often derided as a form of cultural imperialism.

Japanese ‘scientific’ whaling is conducted with the pretense of estimating a sustainable catch quota, with no consideration for whale welfare. The International Courts of Justice found it to be devoid of scientific credibility. Highlighting the perverse circular reasoning on which ‘scientific’ whaling is premised, Giggs wonders if whales experience suffering in proportion to their body size. Research attempting to justify future whaling relies on knowing the age structure of a population, namely how many mature females survive to compensate for hunted whales by reproducing. Obtaining intact eyes and ears is one way to age whales as these organs contain annual layers rather like tree rings. There is no quick way to kill a swimming whale even with an explosive harpoon. Analysis of Greenpeace footage found that harpooning a minke whale inflicts a death throe averaging ten minutes. As Giggs points out, attempting to avoid the head to preserve the eyes and ears, leads to an even more agonizing death for whales than would be the case if they were being hunted solely for commercial purposes. The pretense of science amplifies the suffering.

Imagery of eyes and ears emerges throughout Fathoms, helping us to relate to whales which otherwise inhabit a world unimaginable to us. Despite being a sea swimmer who spends up to nine months of the year at sea monitoring hydrophones (underwater microphones towed behind a ship), I struggle to imagine how a whale perceives its world and our invasion of it. Hearings whales allows us to sense their enormous size even when they are obscured by murky waters. The echoes of their calls trace the vastness of the sea in ways that we cannot seem to comprehend visually. ‘Hearing the whale song, we’re hearing the shape of the ocean’, writes Giggs. She evokes humpback whale song with the most sonically satisfying description: ‘ululating bow-wows’.

As sound helps us begin to perceive whales, it also helps whales to make sense of each other. Consider the beaked whales, for example – obscure creatures like oversized dolphins, remarkable for being the deepest and longest diving mammals: almost three kilometers for up to three hours and 42 minutes. Only the mature males have teeth, with a baffling variety among the 22 species. Used to settle disputes, it seems, these paired adornments are more tusk than tooth. Being extremely dense and sometimes barely erupted, they are nonetheless ‘visible’ to other whales through echolocation. Life in the dark abyss seems to require acoustic antlers. Giggs presents an early twentieth century dictionary definition of the word ‘sounding’, revealing it to be remarkably pliable when used in relation to whales. It captures their allure: ‘to discover or endeavour to discover’. Sounding also signals their reliance on sound as a primary sense with which to construct an audible picture of their surroundings or even to gauge the distance to the seabed.

Given the centrality of sound to whale lifeworlds, anthropogenic noise in the sea is corrosive or even fatal. The cacophony emitted by ships or seismic detonations used to scan the earth’s crust for oil and gas are relentless and pervasive. Even near my home in the comparatively pristine Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, the unremitting din of acoustic deterrent devices can be heard in vast swathes of coastal waters. These are used by most salmon farms in an effort to deter seals from raiding salmon pens. The consequence of this unregulated noise pollution is to reduce the habitat available to whales, dolphins and porpoises. Despite no convincing evidence that it deters seals, we continue to shrink the world of marine mammals with noise pollution, even in areas designated to protect them.

Giggs’ narrative is buoyed by the theme of biophilia but anchored in a focus on defaunation. She presents the gravity of our environmental destruction while staving off hopelessness, in part by evoking the blissful pleasure of whale worlds. For most people, their first view of a whale will be a museum specimen like Hope – the mighty blue whale skeleton that has adorned the central Hintze Hall of the Natural History Museum in London since 2017. Although she stranded in Ireland back in 1891 her skeleton only recently usurped Dippy the Diplodocus as the museum’s centrepiece. Prior to Dippy going on display, a sperm whale filled this space until 1903. Does Hope’s new prominence symbolise an appeal for exoneration? Since Hope took her current position, two hybrid blue x fin whales were killed by commercial whaling operations in Iceland in 2018. Replacing an extinct giant with the extant blue whale seems to reflect a shift in our relationship with whales, a recognition perhaps that this moment in evolutionary time is special and fraught. Given that some baleen whales are larger than the titanosaurs in both weight and length, we might well take to heart Nick Pyenson’s observation in Spying on Whales that ‘we are actually living in the time of giants right now’.

The longest blue whale ever known was a female harpooned and landed in 1909 at Grytviken, South Georgia. From the tip of her chin to the notch in her tail she measured 33.5 m (110 ft). From my boat, not far from Grytviken, I can see that the island is scattered with weathered, chalky blue whale bones. Jaws like boughs of an ancient elm tree and vertebrae like slices of its trunk. Among rusted hulks of abandoned whaling stations, fur seals nurse their pups. Some are cradled from the elements by giant whale jaw bones, while penguins nest in the lee of ribs, scattered like giant matchsticks. The plight of the whales appears to have been a boon for fur seals. With less competition for food, they have made a full recovery to pre-sealing population sizes. Now Antarctic blue whales too are showing signs of recovery. This was the epicentre of the most brutal and sustained over-exploitation of blue whales, which reduced the Southern Ocean population to just 0.15% of its pre-whaling numbers. We almost traded the largest animal ever to have lived for explosives, soap and margarine. Giggs’ description of the infrasonic blue whale call helps us to grasp their size ‘If gravity had an audible noise, this would be it’.

Conor Ryan, October 2020

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