Where once we slaughtered whales, now we grieve for them

Tourists gather around a whale in a attempt to return it to the ocean from Popoyo beach, Nicaragua 

The stranding of 80 pilot whales on an Indian beach is a physical confrontation. It addresses the chasm between ourselves and the natural world. On one hand a sleek, beautiful animal is driven, by loyalty, to follow its fellow whales on to land in a seeming act of mass suicide. On the other, humans make desperate attempts to return these creatures to the sea.

No one can give an adequate explanation for these events. Bad weather, changing shorelines and physiological infection may play their part. But so too do we, by pumping anthropogenic noise into their world. As idyllic as the Indian Ocean may seem, it is throbbing beneath the surface with the sound of constant trafficcarrying the consumer goods that fuel our world.

On an anthropomorphic – even metaphysical – level, it is hard not to see these natural disasters as some kind of omen. Next week, 20 January marks the 10th anniversary of the whale swimming up the Thames, in 2006. That one lost animal, which tried to strand on the muddy shores of Westminster and Chelsea, benefited from the attention of the world’s media, the shutting down of the river and a £1m rescue attempt.

Yet nothing, in the end, could be done to help it. It too seemed an emblem of our age: the focus of helicopter-borne cameras and global news, when its predecessors would have been harpooned to death. Indeed, it swam past the site of another whale that met exactly that fate in 1658, and was taken as an augury of the death of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.

When the 2006 whale died – of exhaustion and, ironically, dehydration – on the banks of the Thames, it prompted almost as much coverage as the death of David Bowie.

When we witness these events, we grieve for ourselves, as much as for the helplessness of the animals. A foreign shore and a different tongue separate us. Yet these same whales – this same species – are dying, in their hundreds, at the hands of our fellow Europeans, in waters only to the north of our archipelago.

The annual grind, or whale cull, of the Faroe Islands, took at least 250 whales this past summer. The animals, so highly social that they will not leave their pod, are driven ashore and slaughtered on the beach. They die because of a social and cultural disconnection: between themselves and the islands’ culture; between ourselves and the traditions of those remote islands.

Confrontation will not settle this matter. This week, in the Faroes, a remarkable new film narrated by David Attenborough and produced by Andrew Sutton will be shown to the Faroese people. In it, Attenborough makes clear the absolute beauty of the pilot whale – as represented in Sutton’s exquisite film footage and still photographs of the animals.

But what follows is a unique series of interviews with the islanders themselves, coming to terms with the fact that their whale hunt not only takes the lives of hundreds of sentient creatures, but exposes anyone eating their meat to toxinsthat have gathered in the whales’ bodies (as a consequence of our pollution of the seas), and which are at such high levels that consumers face damage to their immune systems, organ dysfunction, sterility and premature senility.

“We account the whale immortal,” Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick. A century later, Bowie sang that he wished he could swim like a dolphin. Wherever they appear in our culture, these signs and wonders feed our aspirations. Whether we grieve for a pop star – a mere man who was not a mere man at all – or for dozens of dead whales on a faraway shore, we invest external events with our internal lives. That is a celebration of the human spirit. To feel helpless is itself empowering. It is part of the process of repair, and reparation.



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