Breaching Whale

Cetacean Society International

Working for Whales Worldwide



Presentation by CSI Director Emeritus Dr. Robbins Barstow
at the Fourth Annual "Whales Alive Conference",
Four Seasons Resort, Wailea, Maui, Hawaii,
Thursday, 25 January 1996.

"Because of whales, more people now care about all life on earth."

Introduction: Creation and Dominion

I'd like to start out by asking how many of you remember the Bible story of creation. After God had created the firmament, and the waters, and the dry land, the Book of Genesis says: "AND GOD CREATED GREAT WHALES!"

That's right! Whales are the very first living creatures mentioned in the Bible. After them, in the biblical account, God created every other living thing that moveth -- in the waters, in the air, and on the land. Human beings came last.

But today, as humans, we are gathered here to celebrate that first creation and to examine the special status of whales as the preeminent species of life in the oceans of our planet.

We do so as part of a continuing and far-reaching evolution in human consciousness, which during the past third of a century, in particular, has brought about a profound transformation in the way an increasing number of humans are viewing our relationship to other living creatures.

In the biblical story of creation, after finally creating human beings, male and female, God blesses them and tells them they shall "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28)

The evolution in awareness and attitudes which we are all part of today has to do with the meaning humans give to the concept of "dominion." Throughout our recorded history, the mainstream meaning of dominion has been exploitation for the material benefit of humankind. There is now occurring, however, a significant change in this concept, wherein human stewardship is becoming more and more to be understood as meaning peaceful coexistence and mutual enrichment. And whales, both in actuality and symbolically, are proving to be the breakthrough species in this growth of consciousness and values.

Why Whales?

At previous "Whales Alive" Conferences here, as some of you may remember, I spoke about the "Global Tide of Whale Protection" as exemplifying this new and broader ethic, and I traced the "Ebb and Flow of the Movement for Global Whale Protection" over the last 25 years. Today I wish to examine briefly with you the basic question of "Why Whales?"

Why are whales, and their smaller cousins, the dolphins and porpoises -- cetaceans -- so uniquely instrumental in bringing about this change? Why are they the key to opening human sensitivity to a broader ethic of caring for other non-human species? Why is the newly promulgated goal of total and permanent protection of whales from consumptive, commercial exploitation so significant as a potential breakthrough for other animals as well?

Historical Perspective

To put this in historical perspective, let us remember that for a thousand years or more whales, like any other form of wildlife, were all but universally considered to be proper and legitimate sources of whatever natural products could be utilized from their dead bodies. Humans were believed to have every right to profit in whatever way they could from the killing of whales. This was the prevailing ethic when the International Whaling Commission was formed in 1946 to maximize the consumptive, commercial exploitation of whales worldwide.

The IWC was aimed at regulating the most massive, continuing slaughter of wild animals in global history. This killing reached its all time peak in the year 1962, just 34 years ago, with the recorded total take, including a number of different species, of 62,000 great whales.

It was at about this time, however, near the beginning of the new information revolution, that the transforming change in mass human consciousness began. During the 1970's and 1980's the world witnessed a veritable explosion of new knowledge about whales and other cetaceans.

Let's not forget that prior to 1976, just 20 years ago, when Jim Hudnall took an underwater movie camera beneath the ocean's surface right here off Maui to photograph live whales from undersea, no one had ever taken or seen moving images of humpback whales swimming underwater. Flip Nicklin's first ever underwater photos of sperm whales were published in the December 1984 National Geographic, just 12 short years ago. Now we take for granted movies like "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," and "Free Willy" I and II.

I believe that as much as any other factor, it has been this incredible proliferation of films, television programs, aquarium shows, videos, books, magazines, records, paintings, sculptures, and last but not least whale watching over the past twenty years that has propelled whales and dolphins to the forefront of human consciousness and given them a unique status as attitudinal change agents.

What is there about cetaceans that places them in this special niche in the evolution of relations between humans and non-human life forms?

Six Major Ways

I would like to suggest that whales are uniquely special in at least six major ways.

First, whales are biologically special. They are the largest animals on earth. They include the biggest creature ever to have lived on our planet, the 100-foot long female blue whale. Their sheer size commands extreme respect. And whales and dolphins have large and complex brains. The sperm whale's brain is the largest of any ever to exist, weighing four or five times as much as our human brain and being at least as fissured and convoluted. The humpback whale creates the most complex, long-lasting, repetitive sound patterns of any non-human animal. Noted marine veterinarian Sam Ridgeway has reported findings that the bottlenose dolphin, by a variety of measurements (encephalization quotient, volume of cortex, ratio of brain weight to spinal cord weight, etc.) ranks just below humans and considerably above other higher primates, including gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans.

These are some of the characteristics that make cetaceans biologically special.

Second, whales are ecologically special. Whales have evolved as marine mammals over millions of years, with both baleen and toothed whales probably appearing more than 25 million years ago, long before the development of human beings and the latter's intrusion into the ocean ecosystem.

Whales are at the top of the vast food chains of the sea. Because of their size, widespread distribution, and variety of feeding patterns, cetaceans affect the ocean in special ways with global impact. Almost everything is still unknown about their role, but in many ways it appears to be ecologically unique. They fulfill a special and necessary function in the marine environment.

Third, whales, dolphins, and porpoises are aesthetically special. They have a beauty and grace all their own which is of surpassing quality. Throughout human history, cetaceans have been the subjects of exceptional artistic creations. They are supremely photogenic. This is magnificently evident in the superb new National Geographic Book, "Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises," for which Flip Nicklin was chief photographer and creative consultant.

Whales even serve as special keys for education. Cetaceans have such a unique fascination and such widespread interest for persons of all ages and backgrounds that they become breakthrough educational motivators.

Fourth, whales are culturally special. Living cetaceans have an almost unbelievable capacity for enriching the lives of human beings with whom they come in peaceful contact. You all know this from your own experience. They have a uniquely universal appeal to the human spirit. They are unmatched invokers of awe. There is a mystique about them that inspires a sense of wonder and exhilaration among persons from all races and nations, in ways no other, non-human species has equaled so widely.

Furthermore, whales appear to have a special affinity for human beings. Despite their overwhelming size and power, and despite the centuries of their being victimized by human predation, whales in the wild are proving to be uniquely tolerant of the peaceful proximity of human beings and indeed are increasingly demonstrating not merely passive coping, but deliberate initiation of positive interactions. This adds significantly to their cultural uniqueness.

Fifth, whales are politically special. The vast majority of cetacean species are non-national in range. Their living space, unlike that of land animals, does not fall within clearly defined national boundaries. Their dwelling place is largely the global commons, the seas of the world, which do not belong to any one nation. More than any other marine mammal, whales are pelagic in their habitat, and thus they constitute a unique global resource.

Moreover, whales are uniquely subject to international control. Because they are not legally an exclusive resource of any one nation, no one nation can claim a moral right to kill them. The exploitation or protection of whales is logically and legally a determination to be made on an international basis, through the specially established agency of the International Whaling Commission. In this way too, whales are unique.

Finally, sixth, whales are symbolically special. More than any other form of non-human life, whales have come to symbolize concern for the environment. At least in Western society, protection of whales has become a touchstone for caring about the inter-relatedness of all life on this water planet. There is widespread support for not killing whales because they are such a special symbol of sharing the earth.

Two Significant Developments

I have suggested six ways in which whales are uniquely special: biologically, ecologically, aesthetically, culturally, politically, and symbolically.

As a consequence of all these unique, and in most cases only recently realized, factors, two significant and far-reaching developments have taken place during the past two decades.

First, a global consensus has begun to emerge that it is no longer justifiable for whales to be killed for commercial purposes. As noted at two previous "Whales Alive" Conferences here in Maui, a tide has risen calling for global whale protection. This movement has made whales the first species of wild animals for which permanent protection from consumptive, commercial exploitation has been sought, on a global basis, not just to prevent extinction, but on ongoing moral and ethical grounds. Whales have provided a significantly widespread breakthrough to a broader ethic extending the concept of the right to life to a non-human species of animal.

This is by no means universally accepted today, but it has already achieved mainstream status in much of the world. In 1979 Australia, which had long been one of the leading whaling nations, committed itself to a "vigorous and active policy of protection of whales." In 1982, the International Whaling Commission itself adopted by a three-quarters vote an indefinite moratorium on commercial whale killing. Although currently this is not being respected by Norway and Japan, nevertheless it remains on the books in international law. And in 1993, by a vote of 382 to 0, the United States House of Representatives adopted a resolution, subsequently concurred in by the U.S. Senate, unequivocally opposing "any resumption of commercial whaling."

The second consequence of the new global consciousness concerning whales is that once having made the breakthrough change in attitude and values affirming the right of whales to have their lives respected and protected, people begin to think in similar terms about other non-human animals.

Dr. Victor Scheffer has written: "If the whales now alive in the world ocean were to serve only as models in the shaping of a new ethic towards animals, that would be reason enough to save them. ... As we reflect on man's maltreatment of whales, we are moved to think about his maltreatment of other forms of wildlife and of domestic, laboratory, and exhibit animals. Certain widely condoned practices are manifestly immoral. Witness the steel-trapping of fur-bearers, the bow-and-arrow hunting of deer for sport, the abuse of livestock in factory lines, and the handling of horses in rodeos. These cruelties, whether unintended or unexamined, are nonetheless hurtful. And when television portrays red blood flowing in the waters of Iki Island and the Faeroes, we see not only dying whales but the destruction of life itself."

History of Struggle for Higher Standards

Throughout human history the struggle to establish new and higher moral and ethical standards has not been an easy one. Through the inspiration and example of enlightened secular leaders and prophetic religious leaders, there have been times and places on this earth where relatively high levels of human conduct have been attained. But the record reveals a long and uneven journey over the millennia of human evolution.

The uniqueness of our own time and place lies in the extent to which the world has now become one village, even though populated by over 5 billion vastly different villagers. The inter-connectedness of peoples all around the world through instantaneous electronic networks means that the potential now exists, as never before in history, for universal standards and a common, global set of values.

United Nations Declaration of Human Rights

Just three months ago, on October 24, 1995, the world celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. An unprecedented gathering of nearly 200 heads of state, representing virtually every independent national entity in the world, assembled in New York City and had their photo taken together. The photographer took a few practice shots, and then yelled "Ready!" and suddenly held up a huge gold disk with a smile painted on it in black. Everyone laughed, and he got his historic photo!

All of these nations rarely agree, but just three years after its founding, the General Assembly of the United Nations, on December 10, 1948, adopted and proclaimed a "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." On behalf of all the peoples of the earth, this declaration for the first time ever, sets forth and spells out certain basic rights to which all human beings everywhere are entitled, "without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."

This declaration establishes a common moral and ethical standard for human conduct which it proclaims every organ of society "shall strive by teaching and education to promote." Listen to just a few of its specific declarations:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." (Article 1)
"Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person." (Article 3)
"No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms." (Article 4)
"No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." (Article 5)

Now, think back for a moment about the cruel and bitter history over thousands of preceding years of man's inhumanity to man. Think of the horrendous crimes and tortures committed throughout the ages in the name of religion and on the basis of widely accepted moral and ethical standards which were almost unbelievably inhumane. Remember that as recently as 135 years ago in the United States, and even more recently in some other countries, human slavery was vehemently supported and defended as being not only economically but also ethically justified.

Humankind as a whole has made significant moral progress during the past century. It took three years of intensive arguing, cajoling, bargaining, and intricate negotiating for a UN committee led by Eleanor Roosevelt to achieve consensus on the wording of this Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And even today, nearly 50 years later, it is by no means universally accepted and honored. There are scores of places in today's world, as we know from every day's headlines, where the declaration's provisions and proclaimed human rights are continually being violated in the extreme. And it must be noted, further, that the United States itself has not even yet formally ratified the declaration.

But the point is, the standard has been raised. The goal has been set. We have clear-cut ethical and moral principles which continue to be held up for all persons and all nations on earth to adhere to in their relations with one another. We have an established target by which to measure progress everyplace in the world toward the realization of human rights.

International Whaling Commission

By the same token, as we have already noted, one year after the founding of the United Nations, a group of 15 whaling nations got together and established in 1946 the International Whaling Commission to represent "the interest of the nations of the world in safeguarding for future generations the great natural resources represented by the whale stocks."

Now for some 50 years, the IWC has wrestled with the changing and competing interests of its member states in seeking to determine for all what scientific and ethical standards will best provide in the future for "the conservation, development, and optimum utilization of the whale resources."

This was tied in with the United Nations in 1982, when the UN adopted the extremely long and complex Law of the Sea Convention. This new treaty, after ten years of concerted efforts by whale conservationists, reaffirmed in Article 65 dealing with Marine Mammals, that all states have the obligation, "in the case of cetaceans in particular, to work through the appropriate international organizations for their conservation, management, and study."

And today the IWC, whose nearly forty member states now directly represent the overwhelming majority of the world's people, is all but universally recognized as the appropriate international body to set global standards regarding human utilization of whales.

Present Dark Days

In many ways, we are presently living in very dark days. The United States in particular appears to be moving backward today in terms of marine mammal protection and concern for animal rights, and the extension of ethical standards in relation to whales, dolphins, and porpoises, and to other animals as well.

But we must certainly not abandon the struggle now. In fact, it is time for us to renew our efforts even more urgently. If we can keep the IWC moratorium on commercial whale killing in effect indefinitely, and maintain zero quotas into the next century, we will indeed have taken advantage of the unique status of whales to achieve for the future a broader global ethic.

The world, at least for the time being, will have set as the standard for this one group of exploitable wild animals, that their optimum utilization must involve not sustainable harvesting but rather non-consumptive, non-lethal research, recreational, and educational activities such as those connected with benign whale watching.

This is not a case of the unilateral imposition of one country's values and ethics upon people in other countries who have the right to live by different standards if they so choose. It is a determination made by the prevalence of world opinion and belief regarding a resource which is a common responsibility. Local custom and culture which contravene the global interest and concern eventually must give way to change.

It may actually take many years for this standard to become universally accepted and adhered to. But because whales are a unique part of the common heritage of all humankind, it is up to us to see that this new ethic is established and maintained through the existing international machinery, on behalf of all.

New View Will Ultimately Prevail

I deeply believe that the new global view of whales deserving, from now on, to live forever in peaceful coexistence with humans, and to the mutual enrichment of both species, will ultimately prevail, and that this conquest of the spirit over the harpoon will help to usher in a new era of more benign relationships with other forms of life on earth as well.

"Because of whales, more people will care about all life on earth."

Why am I so confident? Because of T.O.D. - the Tide of Destiny! I believe that we here today, like surfers catching the right wave, have caught the flow of history. It certainly won't be smooth going in the immediate future, but if we do keep our balance and do keep the faith, I know that generations yet to come will join in celebrating down the years: WHALES ALIVE FOREVER!

© Copyright 1999, Cetacean Society International, Inc.
P.O. Box 953
Georgetown, CT 06829