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Hunting the blues
Slow Views

Hunting the blues

Tuesday 23 November 2021

Human action, or inaction, is helping blue whales recover. Our treatment of our biggest neighbour is hugely symbolic


In 1982 humanity did something it had never done before. We are coming up to the 40th anniversary of the occasion when humanity deliberately and knowingly acted against its own material interests. The planet’s dominant species was in control of a useful and profitable asset that had been exploited for many years. Then, all at once, they – we – decided to stop doing so.

It was the year the International Whaling Commission (IWC) agreed to a moratorium on whaling. It was not without its refuseniks and dissenters but, essentially, a society that had got used to the bounty and profit that came from hunting the great whales decided that the world would be a better place if we kept the whales and ditched the profits. 

We came to this decision because we like whales. The more we learnt about them, the more we liked them, mixing thrilling scientific discoveries with new-minted mythologies about the wise and gentle giants of the deep. Humans had fallen in love with both the realities and the fantasies of whales, and so we decided to put the welfare of non-human species ahead of our own. The moratorium came into force in 1986.

Humans have a special liking for all the species of great whale. It’s about their size, their mystery, their existence in the inaccessible oceans and their closeness to ourselves; we are, of course, all mammals who breathe air and suckle our young. To see a great whale is to savour the most colossal paradox: an alien being with whom we have profound affinity. 

The blue whale is special among the great whales, just as Everest is special among the peaks of the Himalaya. The IWC had taken measures in favour of this one species even earlier. In 1965 the blue whale was, in theory, no longer quarry. This was not the great sacrifice it seemed. By then blue whales were already commercially extinct; there weren’t enough left to bother looking for.

Many scientists thought they were functionally extinct as well; that there weren’t enough left to ensure the continued existence of the species. There’s a grim term for such a condition: blue whales were members of the living dead. Or so it seemed.

I first encountered a blue whale before I was ten. It was a life-size model that hung from the ceiling of the mammals gallery in the Natural History Museum in London. It’s still there. I have taken my children to see it and they were as delighted and amazed as I was. How could they not be? Blue whales are big. There’s now a real blue whale skeleton swimming through the air of the museum’s great entrance hall.

Let’s savour their bigness. The tongue of a blue whale weighs as much as an elephant. The heart of a blue whale is the size of a VW Beetle. A blue whale weighs as much as 2,000 people. A calf is about 25 feet long at birth and is weaned at 50 feet, in a single day drinking 100 gallons of milk, gaining 200lb in weight and an inch in length. 

The tail flukes – the lobes or fins – of an adult are as wide as a goal at Wembley. Their blow – the visible exhalation – can reach 30 feet above the sea, as high as a three-storey house. The sounds they make for communication have been measured at 188 decibels; a jet aircraft is 140 decibels. They feed on crustaceans called krill. Each individual is about the size of your little finger and at peak times blue whales consume four tonnes in a day. The biggest blue whales – the females are bigger than the males – are about 100 feet long, measured from the front of the head to the top of the tail without the flukes. A whale that size weighs 180 tonnes. 

But when you see a living blue whale, the devastating size – the biggest creatures that ever lived on Earth, creatures that make dinosaurs look like runts – you are astonished by its grace. As the whale rose from the sea to breathe – right by the boat I was travelling in off the coast of Sri Lanka – the breadth of the head amazed, and so did the unfathomable length of time it took to pass. But in the last few moments, as it flicked its flukes clear of the water, I was aware of the slenderness of the body just before the junction with the tail. Its streamlining is a thing of perfection, allowing the blue whale to accelerate to 30 knots and cruise for days at 12 knots. 

When you see a blue whale you realise that this is not the supremely unlikely creature you had always imagined. It is lithe, graceful, swift and quite obviously viable. Real blue whales are even better than the blue whales of the imagination.

They were not sought after by the pioneer whalers in Moby-Dick. Herman Melville wrote: “He is never chased; he would run away with ropewalks of line.” What’s more he would sink, making the whole exercise a waste of time. Early whalers mostly pursued right whales, so called because they were the right whales to catch: slow-moving surface-feeders that float when killed. 

Whaling was revolutionised by Svend Foyn of Norway, where he is greatly admired as a philanthropist. He designed and built the first steam-powered whaling ship, piously named Spes et Fides (Hope and Faith). It was launched in 1864, equipped with seven swivel-mounted cannons that fired exploding harpoons. The device was on a time delay so that it would explode inside the whale. He also came up with a technique for filling dead whales with compressed air and making them float.

In short, he brought the blue whale – the biggest prize of all – within reach of whalers. By the 20th century the chasing boats were accompanied by huge factory ships that could process the whales at speed. Norway took the lead in this, followed by the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and Japan. 

The blue whale, once feared and avoided, was now the prime target. In the whaling season of 1930–31 there were 41 factory ships in operation. There was no thought of restraint. It was widely accepted even then that nature’s supplies were bottomless, and besides, if we didn’t catch them somebody else would: the theory that’s known as the tragedy of the commons. In that season 29,000 blue whales were killed.

The early whalers were mostly seeking whale oil, which was obtained by rendering the vast quantities of blubber that whales use for insulation. This was used in lamps: the use of artificial light changed the possibilities of human life. Spermaceti oil from the head of sperm whales (like Moby Dick) made premium products like candles and cosmetic creams. In the 20th century whale oil was used to make margarine, so most people born before the mid-60s have eaten blue whale. 

It’s been estimated that 350,000 blue whales were killed in less than a century, but precise figures are hard to come by. Quotas were established by the IWC in 1946, but the Soviet Union killed 100,000 more whales in the southern hemisphere than it reported between 1948 and 1972, including 8,000 blue whales. 

Sane and sober estimates put the loss of blue whales at about 99 per cent of the global population. The remaining 1 per cent of a species with a range across all the world’s oceans was faced with problems many thought would never be overcome. 

This sense of devastation – of the awful profligacy of it all – began to stir people. The post-war years, the 50s and 60s, were a second renaissance, a time of great change. Ideas about human values and behaviour were questioned on a global scale as never before. There are surely more important things in life than money; at least there are when you’ve got enough. Did we really want to be responsible for wiping out the largest species that has ever lived on Earth? 

Thus the environment movement began. It is based on the idea that relentless human development is not an unmixed good; that it is not even, in the end, in humanity’s best interests. In Britain it’s often dated back to pioneers of the 1950s; like Peter Scott, with his successful campaign to save the Hawaiian goose or nene. Americans point to Rachel Carson’s devastating book about pesticide pollution, Silent Spring, of 1962. The movement’s icon became the “blue marble”, the 1972 image of the Earth viewed from the Apollo 17 spacecraft. For the first time in human consciousness, the Earth looked small and vulnerable. 

Greenpeace was founded in 1971, initially campaigning against nuclear power, but broadening its remit to take on whaling. Save the blue whale! It became a global cry. Eventually the moratorium on commercial whaling was established.

It was not a universal decision. The holdouts were Japan, Norway and Iceland. In Iceland, the industry caters for tourists in pursuit of an exotic meal; Norway hunts minke whales commercially; Japan resumed commercial whaling in 2019. Japan had previously been involved in “scientific whaling”, claiming – without convincing a soul – that whaling was necessary for the future of global whale populations. Japan now hunts whales in its own waters and in its exclusive economic zone.

All in all, it’s remarkable that blue whales are still with us. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the blue whale only as endangered, one step up from critically endangered. 

Blue whales, perhaps even more than most whales, are hard to study. It’s been said that we know more about the backside of the moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean. The pre-whaling global population of blue whales was about 350,000. The IUCN puts the current population at between 5,000 and 15,000 – which is a fair old margin for error.

But then, how do you count them? Individuals have been tagged and monitored. It is also possible to recognise individuals by their markings. With this skill, a 2020 expedition to South Georgia – once one of the world’s most important whaling locations – identified 55 individuals in 21 days, a considerable improvement from just two, seen during a similar expedition in 2018.

Certainly some kind of recovery has taken place, and continues to do so. Inevitably it’s been slow: a female blue whale gives birth about once in three years. These hints of recovery have inevitably prompted calls to resume commercial whaling, but it won’t be safe to do so even if the global population gets back to 350,000. 

Even without whaling, life is perilous for blue whales. There are more ships in the oceans than ever before; ship strikes are increasingly common and a great killer of whales. Whales, as mentioned before, are air-breathers. They can drown in their own home. That happens when they get tangled up in fishing nets.

The oceans are increasingly polluted. Changing climate is affecting the nature and abundance of plankton. This is what krill feed on: if we run short of krill we will run out of blue whales. The oceans are also polluted with noise. Most of us have had the experience of swimming under water and hearing an engine frighteningly close. We race to the surface and see the boat miles away.

Water magnifies sound and in today’s noisy oceans all whale species are finding their long-distance communication method less effective, obscured by the background din. It’s harder for whales to get together, harder to maintain their social system and therefore harder for blue whales to make more blue whales.

Their continued existence is down to human choice. Blue whales represent our decisions about the sort of planet we choose to live on and the kind of species we want to be. The survival of the blue whale is a clear sign that we are not entirely comfortable with our history of ever-accelerating destruction. We demonstrated the might of humanity by wiping out 99 per cent of the biggest creatures that ever lived. We show ourselves still greater by continuing to share the planet with the blue whale. 

This piece appears in Giants, the new Tortoise short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can buy a physical copy here.

Simon Barnes is a journalist and author, previously working at the Times both as its chief sports writer and as a wildlife columnist.