Why Saving the Whales Means Saving Ourselves – InsideClimate News
In 2016, disturbing footage captured on a sunny beach in Argentina went viral. The video appeared in news outlets around the world under variations of a disquieting headline: “Baby dolphin dies after a mob of tourists pass it around to pose for selfies.”
Stills from the video show a man holding the dying dolphin aloft as dozens of beachgoers crowd in around them, some wielding smartphones, others hoisting their kids up for a better look. Several people are reaching with outstretched fingers for the dolphin, touching it or trying to, as if it were some kind of holy relic.
One of the most gripping chapters in “Fathoms: The World in the Whale,” Rebecca Giggs’ cultural history of whales, takes this scene as its impetus. Giggs is disgusted by the images from Buenos Aires, but she is also interested in what they reveal about the modern relationship between humans and nature—and the unique and enduring connection between humans and whales.
Giggs attempts to understand what could have caused people to keep a defenseless dolphin out of the water so long that it died, suffocated by heat and stress. “I am searching,” she writes, “for a dispassionate answer to the question: Why didn’t they stop?”
That question lies at the heart of Giggs’ book and another recent title, “How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication,” by Tom Mustill, which looks at a surge of sophisticated new technologies being deployed to study whales’ behavior and intelligence. We are fascinated by whales’ mysterious lives, and yet we know that human-driven climate change, industrial waste, ocean acidification, noise pollution and habitat loss endanger those lives. Whales’ bodies no longer power economies the way they did at the height of commercial whaling, when we relied on them for light, fuel, food and fertilizer, but we are learning now how much we still need them.
Commentators at the time decried the incident in Argentina as a straightforward example of animal cruelty. Giggs’ reading of the situation is more complicated. “What I see, there on the Santa Teresita beach is, I think, a tormented love,” she writes. “A need to connect, so dire, that it smothers the beloved.”
Giggs compares the 2016 pictures to “tableaus of devotion,” religious paintings of pilgrims clutching icons and praying over shrines. In the frustrated faces of the people reaching for the wild dolphin’s hot skin, she sees a particular kind of suffering. “This must be the agony of loving the disappearing,” she writes.
And we do love them: From ancient petroglyphs in Sydney Harbor and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” to the 1970s environmentalist cry to “Save the Whales,” whales have occupied an exalted place in human culture for millenia. A humpback whale song was included on NASA’s Golden Records, launched into space on the Voyager spacecrafts as a representation of life on earth. We name whales and celebrate them, like Migaloo, the white humpback whale protected by law in Australia. Whale watching is increasingly popular, generating billions in revenue worldwide. When whales end up stranded in beach towns and city harbors, they become tragic spectacles, with onlookers crying over them and praying for their survival. Somehow, we are desperate to rescue individual whales and blind to the fact of our participation in the demise of their kind.
Despite decades of conservation efforts, whales continue to disappear. Some populations have rebounded from historical lows since whaling was curtailed internationally in the 20th century, but 17 species of whales and dolphins are classified as endangered or critically endangered, including the North Atlantic right whale, the vaquita porpoise and the Yangtze River dolphin, which may already be functionally extinct. The baby dolphin killed on the beach in Argentina in 2016 was a member of a vulnerable species called the Franciscana dolphin, found only along certain coasts and saltwater estuaries in South America. Whaling is still practiced in Norway, Iceland and Japan, and 300,000 whales and dolphins die every year as bycatch.
Along with the existential threat climate change poses to their migration, reproduction and feeding patterns, whales are threatened by pollution. Giggs describes the body of a sperm whale found in Spain with an entire greenhouse inside its stomach. The compressed greenhouse contained the tarps, ropes, flowerpots and burlap used to grow tomatoes within its walls before the whale swallowed it whole.
In one chapter, Giggs lists items discovered lodged in the bellies of dead whales, from golf balls and shopping bags to netting, tape, wrappers, DVD cases and balloons. One whale had ingested so much plastic that scientists dubbed it the “plastic whale.” In the 21st century, there would be no room for Jonah.
More insidious than the litter that whales consume are the hazardous chemicals from run-off pesticides and fertilizers that their blubber can accumulate over many years. “The body of a whale,” Giggs writes, “is a magnifier,” in part because whales are long-lived and often at the top of the food chain.
“Some whales are more polluted than their environment,” Giggs writes, explaining that some beluga whales’ bodies have been labeled as “toxic waste” because of how contaminated they were.
Mustill’s book offers one possible means of altering whales’ fate: technology. With artificial intelligence, the photographs that tourists snap on whale watching trips have been turned into a database for identifying specific whales. Mustill accesses the database to track a humpback whale that once breached over his kayak in Monterey Bay. “The more I learned about this whale, the more it wasn’t just a ‘whale,’” he writes. “It was an individual. I felt connected to it. I cared about it.”
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.
Mustill explains the grand ambitions of Project CETI, which is using AI to analyze recordings of sperm whales’ voices, looking for clues about why they sing and what they might be saying. Roger Payne, the biologist who discovered humpback whale song in 1967, spoke to Mustill about the potential impact of Project CETI.
If CETI succeeds in its goals—to truly communicate with another animal—it would have profound implications for our relationship with nature, changing “our respect for the rest of life entirely.”
“It is this change that [Payne] believes could save us from destroying nature, and ourselves,” Mustill writes.
For all his hopes for the future, Mustill doesn’t deny the bleak reality we find ourselves in. “To be alive and explore nature now is to read by the light of a library as it burns,” he writes. “Could our discoveries prompt us to put out the flames?” The need to put out those flames has never been more urgent, because we now know that healthy whale populations are essential to combating climate change.
Whales are giant mobile carbon sinks, and they are also crucial to the cycling of nutrients through the layers of the ocean, a system by which whales’ feeding and excretion redistributes organic matter at lower water levels, driving the growth of plankton. “This mechanism, the circulation of plankton,” Giggs writes, “is thought to currently account for the absorption and displacement of roughly half the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels.”
When a whale dies and sinks to the ocean floor, “it takes some 33 tons of carbon with it,” Mustill writes. “We thought we were just killing whales, but we were killing the seas and skies as well.”
In 2019, researchers at the International Monetary Fund argued that whales should be included in the Paris Accords. “When it comes to saving the planet, one whale is worth thousands of trees,” the report said. Protecting whales “can limit greenhouse gases and global warming.”
Given all we know about whales—and how much we still don’t—you might apply Giggs’ question to human activities that harm whales on a global scale: If we truly love them, why haven’t we stopped?
Whales are (literally) the largest example of our tendency to fixate on “charismatic” creatures at the expense of species we find less compelling or cute, and our affection for them propelled international action to protect them from hunting. But both books suggest that we have so far failed to appreciate the complex interconnectedness of nature, the numberless threads of interdependence that link whales with their environments and with us.
We’ve only recently begun to fully understand that we can’t save the whales without saving the ecosystems they exist within. Saving the whales means saving the tiny krill they eat; the underwater quiet they need to communicate; the warming, acidifying oceans they’re swimming in; the polluted air they’re breathing. Saving the whales, it turns out, means saving ourselves.