Spying On Whales, For Our Sake As Well As Theirs



Whales are a powerful oceanographic force in their own right, one that begets even more life; many ecosystems are still straining to equilibrate from the effects of twentieth-century whaling. Photograph by Francois Gohier / VWPics / Redux

x400.jpgIt may be too late, but this is too important to pretend it does not matter. It is not too late to learn from our mistakes. Peter Brannen, a science journalist and the author of “The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions” gets our thanks for this review in the New Yorker, titled We May Never Understand the Ocean-Wide Damage Done by Industrial Whaling:

A few months ago I learned that, as recently as 1972, General Motors was using sperm-whale oil in transmission fluid in its cars. I’m not sure why I was surprised to learn this. It took nearly another decade for much of the world to agree to ban commercial whaling, in 1982. (A handful of countries still ignore the ban.) But the detail about G.M. still struck me as anachronistic. The global pursuit of whales inescapably connotes the romance of nineteenth-century New Bedford and Nantucket: delicately embossed scrimshaw, Melville, oil paintings of stately twilit schooners setting out on the main. Not puke-green Chevy El Caminos.In his new book, “Spying on Whales,” the Smithsonian paleontologist Nick Pyenson illuminates just how mistaken this popular conception is. He invites the reader to consider the almost satanic landscape of twentieth-century whaling, when it took on the guise of a mechanized, diesel-powered, global killing machine that hit its crescendo after the Second World War. Though whales might represent for humanity “a dream of alien life: approachable, sophisticated and unscrutable,” in Pyenson’s words, that didn’t stop us from killing three million of them last century. The not-so-invisible hand of the free market plucked three hundred and twenty-five thousand blue whales from the Southern Ocean alone, where the animals have all but disappeared; this decades-long death march played out under the supervision of a largely toothless (or perhaps indifferent) International Whaling Commission, which functioned in its early decades “more like an international hunting club” than conservation body, Pyenson writes.

As a result, we now live on the shores of a strange ocean, nearly stripped of its giants during the past century and transformed in ways we may never understand. “The scale of this loss of biomass in the oceans has no historical precedent,” Pyenson writes. Even a nominal success story like the recovery of the humpback whale isn’t all it seems: genetic studies suggest there were once six times as many humpbacks in the ocean as there are today. Whales haul tons of nutrients to the surface, excreting above as waste the nourishment they’ve eaten at depth. This plume of nutrients ignites a food chain that sunbathes under the waves, and, in this way, whales are a powerful oceanographic force in their own right—a critical valve in the biological pump of the ocean that, when present in great abundance, begets even more life. Many of the ecosystems we see today, then—even in what some might consider relatively pristine environments, such as the kelp forests of the Pacific—are teetering and unstable, straining to equilibrate from the effects of the still-smoking crater of industrial whaling.

Despite the grim legacy of whaling, “Spying on Whales” is not an environmental screed. Pyenson even argues that some species, such as gray whales and orcas, might be well-suited to take advantage of the warm new world that’s coming. Whales have a long and absorbing evolutionary story, and their collision with humans has taken place only in the last frame in the tape of their history; as a whale paleontologist, Pyenson has more than six hundred other species to study, beyond the eighty or so that exist in modern oceans. It’s with these bones that he draws out one of the most fascinating stories in the history of life: how it was that a small, doglike creature that haunted the streams and woodlands of a Pakistani archipelago more than fifty million years ago eventually transformed into Leviathan—the largest animal in the Earth’s history, and perhaps even the largest possible in theory…

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