Why Whales Are People Too

The science proves it, but are humans ready to see them as equals? Get ready for a new world order.

By Jeff Warren (Reader's Digest Canada, July 2012)

Photo: Jonathan Bird/Getty

A few hundred years ago, whales were feared—the stuff of myth and legend.
Artist engravings from the 16th century depict great fanged monsters with wings at their ears and horns along their belly. This began to change in the 18th century with the rise of whaling. European and American sailors came back with vivid tales of hardship and struggle. At the centre of their stories was the mighty sperm whale—scourge of the South Seas—who overturned the whaling boats and dragged harpooners to their deaths. From source material like this, Herman Melville spun his great American literature epic.

The first observations of whales came from whaler naturalists, who tagged along on hunting expeditions and kept extensive notes. In 1939, Thomas Beale remarked on the strong sociality of female sperm whales. He was one of the few naturalists who characterized sperm whales as actually being quite gentle (“timid and inoffensive,” in his words). But such accounts were rare. For the most part, the whale was seen as a moving field of blubber, which could be melted for candle wax, soap and, most precious of all, oil. The whale kick started civilization’s first oil addiction, a nonrenewable resource that fired the industrial revolution and was exploited almost to extinction.  

Through the late 19th century, whaling technologies improved greatly and hundreds of thousands of whales were “harvested” a year, leading to a crash in their global numbers. The population of blue whales in the South Seas, for example, went from 350,000 at the turn of the 20th century to just over 2,000 today. Sperm whales, prized for their precious spermaceti oil—the bright, sweet-smelling candles produced from the oil were luxury items—somehow fared considerably better. Their total population is thought to have dropped from over a million to a third of that. Whales were described in terms of “units”—a mechanization of life that was reflected in the dominant scientific view of animals at the time, known as behaviourism, which considered all animals to be stimulus-response machines devoid of inner life.

By the middle of the 20th century, all of this started to change. Biologists began to show up at meetings of the newly established International Whaling Commission (IWC), warning that whales were on the brink of extinction. In the public imagination, whales shifted from Moby Dick to Jacques Cousteau’s gentle giants. The hyperintrepid dolphin Flipper entertained millions of television viewers during the late ’60s, while the haunting Songs of the Humpback Whale, released in 1970, became a smash hit for Capitol Records.

The most influential, and polarizing, figure in this new reassessment was a brilliant medical doctor and neurophysiologist named John Lilly. One of the first scientists to promote dolphin problem-solving abilities, Lilly was also a natural showman who, among other stunts, taught dolphins to mimic high-pitched versions of English-language phrases. 

The media loved it. Lilly’s books were bestsellers and inspired a generation of future marine biologists. Buoyed by his research data and well-received scientific papers, he began making bold claims. “Individual dolphins and whales,” Lilly wrote, “are to be given the legal rights of human individuals.” Research into cetacean communication, he argued, was a matter of importance to all of human civilization. “We must learn their needs, their ethics, their philosophy,” he wrote. “The extraterrestrials are here—in the sea.”

Lilly’s vivid depiction of dolphins and whales as intelligent, peace-loving ETs was exactly what the youth wanted to hear. The Save the Whales movement was born. Canadian naturalist Farley Mowat’s 1972 A Whale for the Killing helped to rouse public outrage, and Greenpeace—also Canadian—began sending out inflatable Zodiacs between whalers and their prey. In 1986, after years of heated debate, a moratorium on commercial whaling was passed, respected by all member countries in the IWC except Norway, Iceland and Japan, who take advantage of loopholes in the IWC treaty in order to hunt thousands of whales a year.

Today, although some whale populations have begun to recover, the danger is far from over. Seven of the 13 species of great whales remain endangered, and several populations—the Western Northern Pacific grey whale, the Western North Atlantic whale, and the Antarctic blue whale—have only a few hundred remaining. In addition, over 300,000 cetaceans are killed a year in ship collisions and fisheries “bycatch.” What’s more, the IWC treaty does not apply directly to other small whales and dolphins; over 20,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed annually off the coast of Japan alone, including in the shallow coves of Taiji, made infamous in the recent Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove.

According to Marino, a recognition of whale personhood and rights could pressure the IWC to close the remaining loopholes and make it far more difficult for any country to slaughter cetaceans. It might also end dolphin and whale captivity, a challenge for SeaWorld and other aquariums, but a boon for the rapidly expanding global whale-watching industry, which rakes in more than two billion tourist dollars a year and employs more than 13,000 people.

But whale personhood also represents the latest revolution in human sensitivity. For 50 years the idea of whale consciousness has waited for a crossover moment—to go from a fringe belief passionately held by the few to an idea accepted by many. A number of cetacean researchers—declaration in hand—believe that moment has finally come.

Next: “Whales are arguably the most socially connected and
coordinated mammals on the planet, including humans."

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