Endangered Species Handbook

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The Cruelty of Whaling

     Added to the decimation of entire species, whaling involves great cruelty.  An eyewitness on an Australian whaler in 1977 described the long death of a great whale: 

The harpoon seemed to pass right through it, which can happen and the second explosion took longer. The whole event this time seemed in slow motion. The whale dived, and a great green cloud burst up to the surface. Blood turns green underwater at 50 feet...or was this some of its intestines? It came up on the starboard side, its huge head, a third of its total body size, shaking itself, and then it gave out a most terrible cry, half in protest, half in pain, and then it dived again. They loaded the next harpoon, the killer, but could not get a shot at it as it twisted and turned, hurting itself all the more.  Finally, the lookout in the crow's nest shouted down that it was coming up dying. Its mouth was opening.

       Australian Government Printing Office. Whales and Whaling. 1979. 

       No method exists to kill whales instantly.  The cold harpoons used by some native peoples and by other whalers to kill thousands of Minke Whales are cruel, sometimes taking an hour to kill.  Native whaling methods are not regulated. The trauma and rage experienced by stricken whales was documented by Greenpeace activists who sailed to the North Pacific in 1975 in order to place themselves between Russian whalers and their prey, the Sperm Whale.  One of the first observations was a small whale, well under the 30-foot limit, floating dead on the water.  The Greenpeace crew positioned their rubber raft between the killer boat and the whales, believing that the harpooner would not shoot the 250-pound harpoon with the possibility of killing their crew, but they were mistaken (Ellis 1991).  The harpooner fired over their heads, scoring a direct hit on a large Sperm whale; the whale died in a sea of its own blood and guts.  Then another whale in the pod charged at the Greenpeacers (Ellis 1991).  As soon as the huge Sperm Whale perceived they were not the harpooners, it headed instead for the Soviet whaler, with its powerful jaw clapping; "this whale charged the harpoon boat and seemed to leap out of the water in an attempt to get to the gunner" (Ellis 1991).  When the whale was close to the whaling boat, the gunner pointed his cannon almost straight down and shot the whale, killing it (Ellis 1991). 

      The whale filmed by Greenpeace had made a valiant attempt to destroy the gunner who had killed its fellow whale, perhaps its mate, and had also realized that the Greenpeacers were not at fault.  Killing such an intelligent and courageous animal for commercial profit is absolutely unjustifiable.  Sperm Whales have, in fact, the largest brains of any animal, weighing 20 pounds (Ellis 1991).  Yet we know little of their intelligence, habits and biology.  Some scientists have theorized that Sperm Whales stun their prey with sonic blasts; they descend to depths up to 2 miles and are known to feed on Giant Squid, perhaps after stunning and holding the squids’ slippery bodies in their sharp teeth (Ellis 1991).  There is oil in the whales’ heads, which may play a role in such acoustical feats.

      In 1981, a major humane victory was won.  The cold harpoon was banned for all commercial whaling effective at the end of 1982.  The decision was a precedent-setting event.  Humaneness became an issue to be considered, and the IWC undertook the responsibility to insure that methods are not unnecessarily cruel.  This is a relative term, however, since all existing methods are intrinsically painful and inhumane.  At the 1995 IWC meeting, a Workshop on Whale Killing Methods heard a research paper on the killing of Minke Whales.  These whales are first mutilated by an explosive grenade then, several minutes later, shot with rifles or prodded with an electric lance.  Although some have considered these methods to result in a quick death for the whales, researchers have maintained through examination of physiological evidence that breathing and heartbeat continue even when the body is immobilized.  The limp and dying Minke Whale may be sensitive and capable of experiencing both fear and physical distress for significant amounts of time.  In fact, the IWC tacitly acknowledged at its 1995 meeting that the electric lance was inhumane by passing a Resolution calling for a suspension of its use.  At the 1996 IWC meeting, a United Kingdom/New Zealand proposal to ban the use of the electric lance failed.

      During a recent investigation of the killing of Minke Whales by Norway for National Geographic, a whale already struck by a lance carrying a thermal grenade revived as it was being reeled on board (Chadwick 2001).  It rammed the ship, causing the mast to break and sending two crew members into the sea; it then escaped (Chadwick 2001).  Its fate is unknown, but its survival is unlikely.

      Another cruel aspect of whaling is the killing of female whales, leaving their calves to starve.  Some whalers in the past killed calves first, knowing their mothers would not desert them.  In 1935, the killing of mothers and calves was finally prohibited by the IWC, but some whalers did not abide by the prohibition.  Moreover, the rule may be impossible to enforce.  The harpooner who fires into a pod of whales can hardly be sure that the whale he hits is not a female with calf.

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