Monday, 22 October 2012

The Whale Who Talked

This has been getting quite a bit of coverage today - a white whale who, with incredible difficulty given the absence of a larynx, attempted to impersonate his human keepers. Humans have been known often enough to impersonate animals, usually either as a means of endearment to a pet or unpleasant mockery in less kind circumstances. It is a somewhat rarer phenomenon, outside the world of parrot-keepers, for animals to seek to return the gesture by impersonating us for whatever reason.

The whale in question was press-ganged into the service of the US Navy and after several years in captivity at its San Diego research facility, he came up with this speech to his captors, and continued to do so for four years before giving up in his attempts to make sense to them.

Who knows what he was trying to say? Given humans' willing slaughter of all manner of sentient animals in the course of man-made conflict (and apart from Boudicca and Thatcher, it nearly always is "man" made), perhaps his was a plea for peace, or at least to be left alone. Whales and other highly intelligent marine mammals, especially dolphins, have been dreadfully abused by the military around the world.

- the US Navy, as well as keeping these creatures in long term captivity, have sought to use them, amongst other things, as mine-detectors and even trained dolphins and sea-lions to catch enemy divers - this programme stretches back to the First World War, and the Soviet Union ran its own until the 1990s. Even more appallingly sinister have been unsubstantiated reports to use them as substitutes for torpedoes by teaching them to respond to directional signals and then strapping bombs to them to send them towards enemy vessels with no chance of a return swim.

She's in the programme; but who asked her?
- in other circumstances, there has been much evidence to suggest that sonar signals from submarines frequently confuses the signals whales send each other, often over hundreds of miles. This appears in at least some cases to have led to them getting lost and beaching themselves - or, in one tragic case, becoming disoriented and swimming up the River Thames into central London, where it died. There is also evidence that sonar, especially the increasingly powerful and long range systems used by the British Royal Navy, damage whales eardrums, potentially disabling them and causing slow, lingering deaths.

- and more generally, both military and civilian human activities are both emptying the seas of the fish that whales eat and poisoning the plankton that might substitute for them. Slowly, with the seas turning acidic and "dead zones" stretching for hundreds and even thousands of square miles in the seas, our species is threatening not only its own survival but the habitat of the whale as well. And all this is before we even begin to discuss the so-called "scientific research " carried out by some countries involving harpooning whales and eating their meat as an allegedly accidental by-product of the research. Or of the apparent desire of some American citizens to sail out into the Gulf to shoot or even, remarkably, pipe-bomb bottlenose dolphins, using their friendly curiosity as the perfect bait for their cruel "sport".

These are magnificent beasts - their longevity is attested to by an example from 2007 of a whale being killed and, buried in its flesh, was the remains of a harpoon that was last used in the 1890s. They have been here much longer than we have; we can only hope that if we don't save ourselves perhaps at least we can spare them the extinction we have lined up for all too many of our companions on the planet.

Listen to the whales. Whatever he was saying, his song is older and deeper than ours, and deserves our respect.

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