In early July, graphic images of a huge, pale blue blotch-patterned baleen whale being butchered on a flensing deck in Iceland went viral globally on news and social media sites. The death of this 80-feet-long leviathan, with the distinct appearance of a blue whale, by Icelandic whaling company Hvalur hf, caused immediate and heated furore over this modern-day hunt.
If we were to explain this brutality to a twenty-first century child, it would be an unusual predicament and a distressing blight on our humanity and even a terrifying indication of our own plight. How did we become so short-sighted and why are a handful of nations, including Iceland, able to kill whales?
In short, they are allowed to.
In discussing the how and why of this inhumane and unnecessary practice of whaling but considering the sustainable alternative, whale-watching, we’ll see the important role whales play as they help us monitor the health of the oceans by the health of their populations.
A Difficult Explanation
The answer to the questioning child entails explaining a little background and the process of international governance of whaling as a fishery, which is to be managed and exploited. The International Whaling Commission (IWC), a body of whaling nations, gather several times annually to discuss and decide on the number of whales and species of whales to be whaled. This institution of 89 members dates back to 1949 and has covered a timeframe when whaling ceased, simply due to the crash of all of the great whale populations including blue whales, fin whales, sei whales, right whales and humpback whales, making whaling uneconomical. Despite this, evidence in the last ten years points to rogue whaling operations for humpback and blue whales continuing rampantly outside the quota system. Greed has dominated for years. Inside and outside the IWC quota system, member nations of a whaling regulatory body decimated these great whale species by whaling. ‘Poor practice’, a novice might say.
Despite this less-than-perfect background, there is some good news brewing. Since the 1960s when humpback whales were protected internationally by the IWC, this institution has slowly transformed from outright membership of staunchly commercially oriented whaling nations to include a mix of ferociously zealous, anti-whaling member countries. Australia has joined ranks with New Zealand, USA and South Africa, a few of the once-whaling but now fiercely conservation-minded members currently pushing to uphold the 1985 moratorium on commercial whaling. Recently, Japan proposed to lift this commercial whaling moratorium but in a positive step, this was defeated in a 41:27 vote in the city of Florianopolis in Brazil. Now known as the Florianopolis Declaration, non-whaling nations are hopeful that the IWC will reflect the more modern conservation principles of the majority of members, as total preservation of the worlds’ ocean inhabitants should be sought.
In the 1985–86 season an international commercial whaling moratorium was put in place by the IWC, meaning just that—zero take limits—and thus no whaling to occur on a commercial scale worldwide. Since then, ‘under rejection’ of the moratorium, Russia, Japan, Norway and Iceland have ‘taken’, meaning killed 25 225 whales including sperm, fin, Bryde’s and minke whales. With ‘special permits’ granted by the IWC, Japan, Norway, Iceland and South Korea have whaled 16 755 sperm, fin, Bryde’s and sei whales. Over 42 000 animals have been killed under this moratorium protection.
By the late 1980s, the general public was aware of a loophole (Article VIII) in the IWC schedule that allowed these countries to undertake whaling for ‘scientific research’. Alarmingly, the number of whales harvested for science is an order of magnitude greater during a moratorium on commercial whaling than during the previous thirty years of a non-moratorium period. What? Again, how do you explain this to your children?
The debate around the whale killed in Iceland is centred on the genetic make-up of the animal. The whaling company claims it is a hybrid blue-fin whale and because fin whales are cleared for whaling, then they deem this kill as acceptable. The other side of the story presents the facts that it looks like a blue whale (as agreed by the leading blue whale biologists of the world) and thus this is an illegal act. If it was a hybrid, then only half of that animal is allowed to be taken. However, the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) prohibits killing of hybrid whales, so this is an illegal act. Being tardy in supplying the results of the genetic sampling and deliberately mixing that whale with other animals in the processing was a ploy by Havalur hf to sully the results and divert attention from the truth.
Whales are at the top of the oceanic food chain as secondary carnivores. Killer whales, in particular are described as the ‘wolves of the sea’. As apex predators, they have no natural predators, excepting humans. Sadly, our influence is becoming more evident, especially as we compete for Chinook salmon with the fish-eating Southern resident pods of J, K and L in the San Juan Islands, USA. In a revolutionary move Chinook has been taken off the menu in that local area, but sadly it may be too little too late.
On a global scale, with the foraging/digesting principle of ‘something in, something out’, whales are self-fertilisers as they enrich the oceans with their ‘something out’, their whale poo. Humpback whales that feed and defecate in polar seas during their several month-long summer feeding seasons effectively self-fertilise their own foraging grounds. Whale poo contains ten million times more iron than seawater, which provides nutrients for phytoplankton and zooplankton growth, with krill (zooplankton) being the keystone species of the Antarctic for seabirds, seals, whales and dolphins. As well as adding nutrients to the environment by travelling several hundred miles within feeding areas and diving frequently within the water column in those locations, humpback whales are mixers on horizontal and vertical axes, and on both localised and broad scales.
We need to change our mindset about whales, understand their important role in the environment and stop whaling operations. Imagine if all those 42 000 whales, killed since the moratorium in 1985, were still alive and contributing to the nutrient cycle or enriching the sea with their natural deaths. Each animal that falls to the ocean floor adds over fifty years of nutrients for foraging hagfish and polycheate worms, as well as decaying bacteria. Unfortunately we cannot undo the actions of those whale killings but we can help restore balance in the ecosystem with nutrients and mixing by simply ceasing whaling activity.
Despite promising increases in humpback populations around the globe, to the point where the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposes to categorise nine of the 14 populations as ‘Not At Risk’, one population is showing that humpback whales are still the ‘canary in the coalmine’. A recent study of resident population in Oman indicates a steady reduction that only 100 individuals remain. Despite appearing resilient and abundant, humpback whales, as a species, are still capable of being vulnerable. Their populations and the success of their life cycle of feeding and breeding seasonally are easily influenced by environmental factors such as climate change-related variables including sea surface temperature warming and prey abundance variations.
Having ruled the roost on earth, particularly in the industrial revolution of the last century, humans need to reset our own perception and consider ourselves in a non-centric role on a global scale. We must understand that nature, and our own lives, is not sustainable with our ‘grab, use up and throw away’ mentality. Whales are more valuable, on ecological and commercial scales, in the sea than on the flensing deck and on a curious tourist’s plate. These iconic and engaging members of our coastal and oceanic ecosystems are crucial to healthy oceans. Out of respect we must afford whale populations the highest protection possible by ceasing needless whaling activities and setting aside critical habitats where they feed, migrate, breed and rest. As whale populations flourish, the health of the oceans also gets better.
In this day and age, we do not need to catch whales for consumption. The alternative is plainly obvious. Just as the ‘photographic safari culture’ captured the Africa in the 1980s with the realisation that the Big Five, the Ugly Five and other highly recognisable animals often represented in children’s ABC friezes are worth more alive to shoot with a camera than for village bushmeat, whale-watching is now very popular.
In Australian seaboard cities and small coastal towns alike, colourful signs proudly decorating ferry terminals and boat harbours point the way to morning and afternoon trips to see whales on commercial whale-watching ventures. Armed with cameras and even binoculars (for the keen and more seasoned whale-watcher) with jackets, sunhats and even seasick pills, depending on the locale, while plying high seas or coastal bays on charter boats, people can enjoy several hours with whales.
The experience, sometimes including the odd rough and cold blustery day, is of course worth it. Why not be excited when a 40 000-kilogram wild humpback whale takes an interest in your drifting whale-watching vessel, especially when they swim around and around, ‘mugging’ the boat, often less than a metre away? You cannot help but be affected.
In 2009 the global worth of nature-based ecotourism was estimated at $2.4 billion with 13 million people in 119 countries enjoying experiences, which employ 13 000. The Australian whale-watching industry was estimated at $31 million in 2008, attracting 1.6 million whale-watchers annually. With probable increases this could rise to $400 million. These are huge numbers. Currently the general public has an insatiable appetite for knowledge about nature. Such experiences are important for people to reconnect with nature, even for only a couple of hours. During this time, this is also a perfect platform for environmental awareness education where people can learn how they can make a difference. We protect what we love. Having been smitten by a curious humpback whale in gorgeous bays along the east and west coasts of Australia and in stunning fiords of Iceland, or blown away by the sheer size of a feeding blue whale in Monterey Bay, California, or thrilled at a killer whale sighting in the bouncy offshore Bremer Canyon, whale-watching patrons can become new converts for the environment. This is a good thing but we must make sure we do it correctly.
Effective management by state wildlife departments is working and even animals like Migaloo, an east Australian hypo-pigmented white humpback whale, garners special rules and even a protective water police escort throughout NSW waters. Can we love the whales too much? The short answer is yes, but these protective measures, while appearing over-the-top for such animals such as Migaloo, are actually necessary and advantageous for the whales. Recent concerns have been raised over interrupted resting and sleeping periods for Hawaiian spinner dolphins caused by swim-with programs off the Big Island in Hawaii. Suggested changes in the approach times and length of interaction by charter boats will provide the necessary rest periods for these Hawaiian spinner dolphins. With research we can best know how to protect these precious animals, while at the same time gathering important data. Much of the data collected on up to ten species of cetaceans congregating at offshore feeding areas such as Stellwagen Banks off the east coast of America is from whale-watching vessels. These regularly visiting vessels are learning more about the very animals the operators wish to show to whale-watching patrons.
Non-lethal techniques for studying cetaceans have been used for decades and new techniques are being employed each year. Taking individual identification photographs (known as photo-ID) of cetaceans for computer storage and matching within and between seasons and regions remains an effective technique for population size estimation and understanding migration paths and patterns. Collecting biopsy skin samples reveals the genetics of cetacean populations as well as fine-scale details such as gender, hormone levels and toxicity loading within individual animals. Collecting whale blow for analysis of their vibrant internal microbiome can also lead to understanding the health of different parts of the population, perhaps varying according to age and gender classes. Much more can be learnt from studying live creatures than from the thousands of animals that have been killed needlessly.
Whale-watching as we noted is a global phenomenon but remarkably and uniquely, Iceland makes the news with whale-watching and whale kills simultaneously. Whale-watchers on boats can see the whaling vessels alongside in Reykjavik Harbour as they leave the port to enjoy the sights and the sounds of live animals. There is even a belief that Icelanders consume whale meat as it appears on local restaurant menus that tourists are encouraged to try. This was disputed last year by a social media campaign with data that 98.5 per cent of Icelanders do not eat whale meat. The campaign also outlined that much of the whale meat is caught and fed to tourists, the very tourists who want to see these beautiful animals frolicking in the stunning scenery. Fortunately, Icelanders are proposing to create a sanctuary, the Faxafloi Bay Whale Sanctuary, which would provide protection for the minke whales in the bay where they are caught. Whale-watching as a profitable business venture is happening in Iceland. From the northern area to the southern tip of Faxafloi Bay, you can see sperm whales, killer whales, humpback whales, pilot whales, minke whales and white-beaked dolphins feeding in the productive icy waters surrounded by stunning coastal and mountainous vistas. In another poll last year, Iceland reported that only 35 per cent of lcelanders support fin whaling and only 46 per cent support minke whaling. This is the first occasion that approval of whaling by Icelanders has fallen below the 50 per cent mark. This is a very good sign.
If governments are incapable of making ‘heart’ decisions then hopefully ‘pocket’ decisions will suffice. Just like Africa, Iceland needs to understand that these whales are worth more alive than dead. May the sanctuary protect these animals and whale-watching businesses thrive while sharing pertinent environmental information, and turning Iceland into a nation renowned for their whale-watching rather than their whale slaughter.
The Choice Is Ours
Given the choice to engage in brutal whaling or go on a thrilling whale-watch, the answer of course, is absolutely simple. Around Australia right now, thousands of people are whale-watching—along the eastern seaboard from Cairns and Townsville to the Whitsundays to Eden, on the south and south-east coast of Tasmania, on Port Phillip Bay and on the west coast from the Kimberleys to Augusta and Albany where humpback whales are making their annual northern and southern migrations. Southern right whales are filling the calm, shallow south coast embayment and from the cliffs at the Head of the Bight, viewers can see the mothers carefully nursing, protecting and teaching the next generation the intricacies of being a southern right whale. Currently at all places on the east, west and south coasts, humpback whales are migrating southward—they have left their northern ‘bedrooms’, so to speak, and are making their way back to the Antarctic, their ‘kitchen’. With effective management of whale-watching such as we have in Australia, you can hop on a whale-watch boat on your patch of the coast and go see these wonderful, wild animals for yourself. Recently in Hervey Bay, a curious humpback whale gently nudged the hull of a stationary whale-watching vessel!
A marine biologist, master mariner, award-winning author, Explorers Club Lowell Thomas awardee (2010) and AGS Lifetime of Conservation recipient (2017), Micheline Jenner AM has conducted pioneering whale research in Western Australia with her husband Curt Jenner AM, contributing to 55 scientific papers over the last thirty years. Selected encounters experienced while researching cetaceans and raising their two daughters aboard three vessels, are recounted in The Secret Life of Whales (NewSouth Publishing) during three circumnavigations of Australia and a thrilling voyage to the Antarctic.