Some time ago on Twitter, I heard of a series being filmed called Ocean Giants. It’s coming was given a great deal of publicity through that and other social networks and publications such as BBC Wildlife magazine. It was hotly anticipated by our wildlife celebrities who buzzed about the beautiful photography and the amazing grace of the leviathan creatures that the programme would encounter. When I caught the short advert for it on the BBC, I couldn’t wait, as like many cosy-chair conservationists, I yearned for a televisual bridge between Springwatch and Autumnwatch.
For the last two Sundays I have sat glued to the box, a cup of tea in hand and a deep feeling of satisfaction that this was exactly what the last day of the weekend was meant for. Throw in that at the same time, Monty Hall is back on the beeb too with his Irish adventure, working for a whale and dolphin conservation charity and I find myself leaving the flat only out of necessity to forage. But late on Sunday evening, something began to niggle me. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I felt uncomfortable. Surely, there couldn’t be anything about this programme to dislike? This programme that I had been waiting months for?
It couldn’t be good old Stephen Fry’s narration. Having Stephen Fry narrate this series is like going for a walk in the park with a knowledgable and enthusiastic uncle who points out the wonders of the world as you stroll along, or spending time with a teacher you actually like and therefore might just learn something from. His soothing charm and good manners are as effective as hot milky drinks in making the world seem endlessly right and cheerful before you are off to bed. No, it can’t be that.
It can’t be the animals and stars themselves either. Surely they must be directly responsible for all the good vibes and feelings. They can’t be making me feel uncomfortable.
Maybe it’s something outside of the programme itself, some external influence. Maybe it’s that e-mail I got a few days ago from Ric O’ Barry. You know Ric, he was the animal trainer for the original TV series ‘Flipper’. He went a bit screwy when one of his charges died in his arms one night for no reason other than seeming to no longer wish to swim in circles in a 60 foot pool. The contents of the e-mail were I admit, a little contrary to the feel good factor of Ocean Giants. On the 1st of September, in a small cove on the East coast of Japan, a six month annual slaughter of dolphins and porpoises will begin. Don’t worry though, the best and most beautiful won’t be killed. They are saved for the world’s animal trainers and keepers who come to pick them out for their zoos and aquariums. They gather at the water’s edge and walk the nets of animals that are thrashing and crying out in fear and pain. They eye the animals over, like eager bachelors in a street of prostitutes. Like the bachelors, they wear rimmed hats and dark glasses, should they be seen or recognised. Those who aren’t picked and are left behind aren’t just beaten and punished by their pimps, they are hacked to pieces, along with 2,000 brothers and sisters during the season. Ric’s e-mail was about celebrating Japanese dolphin day on the 1st September. He’ll be in Japan, facing arrest, violent confrontation, harassment, death threats and apparently throwing a party. I don’t think we’ll see it on Ocean Giants though and Monty Hall is unlikely to spend six months in Taijii next year. Certainly not those six months anyway.
But I’ve known about the cove and Japanese whaling for that matter, for years. Maybe it’s not just that. Maybe its how the niggling sensation made me walk over to the bookcase after last Sunday’s episode and pick up Farley Mowat’s book ‘A Whale For The Killing’. On the last episode of Ocean Giants, recent research was explored of how we now know that whale’s brains contain spindle neurons and that they are directly linked to social organisation, empathy, speech, intuitive feelings about how other beings feel and what we refer to as ‘gut’ reactions. For a long time we thought that these cells were characteristic of just us. Then we found that some of the great apes had them. Then we discovered that some dolphins had them. Then we realised that toothed whales like dolphins were further down the evolutionary tree than ocean giants like the rorquals and baleen whales. When we eventually got round to checking some of them for spindle cells, we found congregations 30 times more dense than in a human brain.
In ‘A Whale For The Killing’, Mowat tells the tale of a female ‘finner’, or fin whale that during a night-time, pregnancy induced craving chased a school of herring into a channelled pond and became trapped there as the tide fell in a remote Newfoundland fishing village. This was in the late 1960’s and whales were not protected and were only studied in order to make killing methods more effective. I say again, this is 1969. Not 1869, just 40 odd years ago. A number of things stand out from the book, but the thing that most haunted me since I first read it was the presence of ‘the guardian’, her mate. He took up a post in the channel and sound outside of the pond and never left. When she began to starve, he chased herring into the pond for her. Even when he could not see her and they were over half a mile apart in distance, he would surface when she did and sound when she did. He watched her starving to death over the course of a fortnight. He heard her mad thrashing and cries of pain when over 150 bullets peppered her hide as some men from the village used her for target practice. He could smell the infection and her vomit in the water as the bullet wounds became sceptic. He no doubt heard her last mournful cry, which was said to echo round the pond like an underwater volcano. He probably heard and felt the vibrations of her body hitting the bottom of the pond in nine fathoms of water. When she had become too weak to swim, she had rested in shallow water with her head on the rocky shore. When even this became too much, she most likely let herself roll out to deeper water where she sank and drowned. The guardian at his post probably listened to his life mate die in agony. If you are reading this, you are probably moved, feeling some anguish, maybe even sorrow and empathy for the whale. Multiply what you are feeling by 30.
I think that my uncomfortable feeling is simply because I feel a little ashamed watching Ocean Giants and similar programmes. I have travelled the world in search of encounters with whales and dolphins, through the Bay of Biscay and the Med, to the Azores and from the Gulf of Mexico and along the western USA. But I know that there are also humans seeking whales to harm them, even today, and this isn’t something reflected in Ocean Giants. There’s an aspect of kidding ourselves that everything’s ok. I have seen and touched a Pacific grey whale and her calf as they openly sought human contact. I was in a 7 foot long kayak at the time and was approached by the 40 foot mother and her 15 foot calf. This was the whale the whalers called the devil-fish and feared almost as much as the sperm whale in terms of ferocity. My encounter, in contrast was with an animal that knew how gentle she had to be in order not to swamp or rock my tiny boat and wanted her tongue rubbed. Consider that in this same bay, fifty years ago, human beings gathered in order to kill the congregations of mothers and calves and that without a doubt, some older whales carry the memories of being hunted yet still seek us out for contact, and we begin to really get an insight into the depth of intelligence, compassion and empathy these creatures must have. And I was very happy to see that showcased on Ocean Giants.
I guess I’m just a little ill at ease at how quickly we seem to have forgiven ourselves for what we have done to the whales. They have only been protected, and not very well since 1989. 250 years ago, the eight species of great whale probably had a joint worldwide population of 4.5 million. By about 1930, we’d reduced that to about 1.5 million. By 2005, we were talking 350,000. It took the Ocean Giants team two years to find and film an appropriately sized Blue Whale. For the BBC series ‘Life’, a similar amount of time was spent finding a Bryde’s Whale on a herring run. Don’t get me wrong, I realise that filming conditions and other restrictions no doubt played their part, but at the same time lets not be fooled into thinking they turned up at the right time and right place and just set up camera. They searched the oceans for these animals with the best help available and had a great deal of luck, and worked tirelessly to bring us the programme.
And whaling has not ceased. Cetaceans are not free to wander the oceans without fear and they haven’t had time for their numbers to recover. The vast majority of the great whales are monogamous and mate for life. Blues and fins aren’t even sexually mature until into their early teens. That means that they’ve only had two successive generations since they became protected to get back on their feet. Some organisations estimate that between 30-50,000 animals are still killed by those nations still whaling and pirate whalers. The Faroes are already in their grinding months, where they will drive pods of pilot whales (one of my personal favourites) into the shallows and hack them to pieces with hooks, machetes, hunting knives or anything that comes to hand. As already mentioned, Japan is gearing up for their annual dolphin slaughter and after that they will set sail for the designated whale sanctuary of Antarctica to hunt and kill a further 1,000 whales, mainly Minkes, Seis and Fins. The pirate whalers, mainly made up of Japanese, Icelandic, Norwegian and South African vessels that just take their flags down are not so discriminating. Any species, regardless of age or sex will be taken. And then there are the ‘accidentals’. Whaling nations often take protected species ‘by accident’, but fear little repercussion and have to either admit to such killings or get caught in the first place for there to be any. This doesn’t happen often. In any case, it is clear that the whalers have not given up from the lack of great whales and have simply begun concentrating on the smaller ones too.
Unfortunately, it’s just not all sweetness and light bouncing off the waves out there in the oceans and that’s all I’m tasked to remember and what I ask you to consider. Ocean Giants is a breathtaking and beautiful programme about some of the most remarkable and amazing animals on Earth, but we have been equally remarkable and amazing in our slowness, even hesitancy, to recognise them as such.