Humans And Whales46:07

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Once monsters, now majesties – we go deep with the history of humans and whales.

A sperm whale calf swims next to its mother and a pod of sperm whales June 15, 2001, about four miles off the coast of the Agat Marina in Guam. Sperm whales have learned to pluck sablefish from fishing lines being hauled from the depths of the Gulf of Alaska, showing a dexterity that belies their enormous size and toothy, underslung jaws. (AP)
A sperm whale calf swims next to its mother and a pod of sperm whales June 15, 2001, about four miles off the coast of the Agat Marina in Guam. Sperm whales have learned to pluck sablefish from fishing lines being hauled from the depths of the Gulf of Alaska, showing a dexterity that belies their enormous size and toothy, underslung jaws. (AP)

Today, most people see the great whales of the sea as something quite extraordinary.  Intelligent, majestic, beloved, even cosmic.

A century ago - still on the eve of the greatest whale slaughter ever, in the Antarctic – whales were just great blimps of meat and oil in most people’s minds.  Factory ships dragged a staggering number from the seas, and chopped and boiled them into almost anything.  Margarine.  That transition, from meat bag to majesty, says a lot about us.  How we see the world.  Nature.

This hour, On Point:  We’re going deep on the human learning curve, and whales.
-Tom Ashbrook


D. Graham Burnett, science historian and professor of history at Princeton University. Author of The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century.

Joe Roman, marine ecologist, conservation biologist, and professor at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School for the Environment and Natural Resources.

From Tom's Reading List

The Telegraph "Rather, this leviathanic version of an Airfix model, hanging from the roof of the Whale Hall, commemorated the fact that in the Twenties and Thirties, Britain, with Norway, was the world’s greatest whaling nation. In fact, it was commissioned by Sidney Harmer, director of the museum, to publicise the work of the Discovery expeditions being undertaken in the South Atlantic – the dramatic starting point for D Graham Burnett’s revelatory book, itself an epic work. "

Huffington Post "Quiet oceans make for calmer right whales, new research suggests. When fewer ships sail the Bay of Fundy, the big baleen whales are less stressed — as evidenced by hormone levels in their poop."


“The Greenland Whale Fisheries” by Paul Clayton
“The Last Leviathan” by The Revels

Excerpt: The Sounding Of The Whale


The End is Nigh

In the summer of 1980, my parents, then junior professors of French literature at neighboring universities in the Midwest, rented a cottage on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, not far from Hatteras, where Remington Kellogg and his Hopkins collaborators quietly opened an era of American research on cetaceans back in 1928. I had just turned ten, and the Tursiopsthat (still) moved in arcing pods though the surf in the evening were the first marine mammals I had ever seen. It was the summer of one of the greatest tennis matches of all time: the Wimbledon final that pitted ritually grizzled Bjorn Borg against a mop-topped and emotionally incontinent John McEnroe in what would became a legendary five-set marathon. We watched it unfold in the peak-ceilinged living room with a visitor who dropped by, some older friend or colleague of my mother’s who pulled up in a convertible looking tanned and comfortable and spoke volubly about politics while drinking a beer. His subject was Ronald Reagan, I recall, and the importance of a strong national defense, but I remember him most clearly because he had a bumper sticker on his car that read “Nuke the Whales.” This made an impression on me. Nuke the whales? Why?

I must confess that when I first began thinking about this book, there were moments when I imagined the whole project as a kind of Borgesian effort to trace every thread in the history of the twentieth century that could be understood to be wound up into the tight knot of this sloganeering provocation. In those daydreams I wondered what would happen if one went about treating this paper-thin cultural residue as nothing less than the culmination of all the forces and preoccupations, the technologies and anxieties, the illicit pleasures and the licit violence of the last hundred years. After all, that little irruption of savage Dada hyperbole seemed, as I rotated it in a mind still largely free of whale knowledge, to shiver with the presence (or was it the absence?) of the gravest questions of the age: nuclear war, the end of nature, the politics of nihilism, that peculiar train wreck of hysterical apocalypticism and insouciant ironizing that one could call modernity. And then, too, there was the way those three words (commandment? exhortation? prophecy?) could be read as a kind of three-syllable ultra-haiku on some central and perennial problems in American literature and culture: here was the machine in the garden projected to planetary scale; here was mad Ahab at the helm of a Trident submarine; here was Swiftian satire reborn on our shores as Hollywood excess; here was the hortatory sublime played as a burlesque that was neither quite serious nor quite in jest—and that right there seemed to be a plausible epitome of this wonderful and deranged country.

Well, it was always an absurd notion, and thus to have failed in the execution of such a work may perhaps be accounted a credit. Still, there is a way in which this book has indeed tugged on at least one of the taut cords that gave this slogan its strange resonance in the early 1980s—a resonance I could not feel at the time, but which, in the course of this research, I have come to sense quite keenly. We have seen, in the last chapter, the peculiar way in which, for a growing cohort of activists, reformers, and visionaries in the 1960s and 1970s, cetaceans came to represent—even to embody—an alternative mode of intelligent being, and thus an aspirational ideal for humans, who were in these years in several respects (sociobiology, science fiction, primatology) reimagining themselves as the violent ape-kings of creation. Homo insapiens dissembled and escalated; cetaceans saw through each other in a perpetual detente of transparency. We used our hands to make tools and weapons; they used endless play to build relationships and communities. We fought wars and pillaged; they made love and music. We bit the dust that was the residue of death; they stayed in the watery womb that was the cradle of life. We were territorial cave dwellers, born to tribalism; they used the deep sea for long-range communication, reifying the fantasy of a global village. And there was, moreover, a specifically military dimension to all this, as I have also tried to demonstrate. The story of John Lilly, CRI, Forrest G. Wood, and the navy Marine Mammal Program—and the leakage of that story into the larger cultural preoccupation with thermonuclear Armageddon via best seller and silver screen—must go some way toward accounting for that bumper sticker’s bizarre juxtaposition of thermonuclear weaponry and lumbering sea creature. But does it go all the way? Clearly not. The harder one looks, the more perfectly overdetermined that juxtaposition begins to feel. Leo Szilard’s improbable 1961 Lilly-inspired marriage of cetacean intelligence and nuclear war (in “The Voice of the Dolphins”) yoked the mindful whales to the problem of the bomb in a way that proved oddly durable. Perhaps not so strange, then, that Scott McVay headed off to the Pugwash Conference of 1970 to pontificate on whale conservation in a (Melvillean) presentation that would headline in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—the community of nuclear intellectuals representing, as they did, the dominant scientific statesmen of the day. And maybe not so odd that Joan McIntyre could be quoted in the Washington Post in 1973 likening the moratorium on whaling to the nuclear test ban treaty; her larger claim was that “if we can save the whales we can save ourselves,” and doing so would require “a win on the international level.” And one cannot really be all that surprised to read in The Whale Problem of 1974 a cohort of genuine hip-booted cetologists positing that (assuming adequate samples of whale tissue kept coming in) the cosmopolitan cetaceans, giant bioaccumulating filter systems, could serve as very useful monitors of “radio-nuclides and other fallout products” in the world’s oceans. Aft er all, everyone was interested in radioisotopes in those years, why not the whale biologists? Especially the old guard, not quite ready to hang up their flensing knives.

And there was also the way, of course, that Greenpeace transformed itself, in the early 1970s, from a loose aggregation of antinuke agitators into the shock troops of the “Save the Whales” campaign, leaping to international prominence in the process. But could they have asked for a more perfect convergence of their preoccupations than the emergence of the rumor that one of the privileged uses of sperm whale oil lay in the lubrication of precision mechanisms in the rockets and missiles of the United States and the Soviet Union? It is not clear to me exactly when this notion first emerged in the whaling debates, but it would appear to have been around 1971 and to have been closely linked to the controversy surrounding the listing of the large whales as endangered species under US law. Walter Hickel gave himself a starring role in a conversation along these lines that purportedly occurred in his office with a pro-whaling visitor from the State Department, who is supposed to have blurted out, as a last-ditch effort to derail the listing, “We have to have whale oil for the space program.” To which Hickel quoted himself retorting, “What are you going to use when the whale is extinct?”

The listing went forward, with the understanding that stockpiled product would suffice for some time. “Space program” may well have been understood euphemistically, since Rex Weyler reports a conversation in Vancouver in December 1972 between Farley Mowat and Paul Spong in which the former told the latter, “The Russians lubricate their ICBMs with whale oil.

So do the Yankees. It’s a disgrace.” While the vast majority of the sperm-derived lubricants were in fact going into much more innocuous industrial uses (such as automotive transmissions), the link between the transcendent mind in the waters and the transcendent mechanism of destruction was a gift for those promoting whale conservation as one half of a pincer movement against the masters of war. Thus, with “brainwashed” dolphins doing duty in the mangrove swamps of Vietnam and military ordnance being used to slay their larger cousins on the high seas, the conditions were set for a community of true believers to raise a rainbow fl ag over the cetaceans and declare themselves the party of peace and life, standing (in a bobbing Zodiac) against the culture of death. “For a long time now,” wrote one of the activists in 1977 in the New York Review of Books, “man’s awe has been confined to his own capacity for self destruction”; the whales, by contrast, were giving us an opportunity to learn “to revere life.” And by 1980, one of the early Greenpeace members could state this position in its most extravagantly dialectical form: “Cetaceans,” Michael M’Gonigle would claim boldly, “stand in poetic contrast to human history.” That history was the history of war.

Every dialectic, of course, is a contrapuntal conflict waiting to be aufgehoben, and that brings us to the Junior Common Room of Kirkland House at Harvard University on 13 April 1979, where a Ramones-inspired punk band called Supreme Pontiff (descendants of The European Liquidators, succeeded by Kid Sonic and the Boom), under the leadership of a Harvard senior who played bass as Tod Venice (he was Robert A. Falk, born in Brooklyn), ground out their new one-minute-and-thirty-nine-second anti-paean “Nuke the Whales,” composed by Falk the previous autumn. He and a bandmate (lead singer John Cole, aka “Jean Baptiste”), sensing they had a dance-party sensation on their hands, had gone so far as to buy asilk-screen kit and make up several dozen T-shirts for the gig, emblazoned with the refrain of their kick-over-the-speaker-tower frontal attack on the world of good intentions:

If grapes aren’t union picked don’t eat ’em
Boycott J. P. Stevens, we can’t beat ’em
Water causes cancer, and cancer causes death.
Jesus Christ, I’m scared to take another breath.
Everybody’s got their favorite cause,
Tryin’ to pass restrictive laws.
I say can your sad old tales,
And **** it! nuke the whales.

Sophomoric? To be sure. But generational? Yes, also. Falk—a major in visual and environmental studies—had hit a nerve, and his catchphrase indictment of the suffocating righteousness of left -liberal orthodoxy, delivered as Frye boot in the ass of the Woodstockers, moved with electrical speed across North America. That very summer it could be found as a bumper sticker in the Deep South as well as on the lips of a quirky non-whale-hugging bluegrass musician named Duck Donald playing the Canadian summer folk circuit (to spasms of dismay). By the following year—when the Pontiff s were no more, but their successor band was finetuning another Reaganite non-parody (the underground classic “Nancy Packs a Piece”)—there was an actual “Nuke the Whales” country-rock band lighting up the stage in Huntsville, Alabama, and the phrase could be found as a graffi to on bathroom walls at UC Berkeley. And that was also the summer I saw it, while standing in the saw grass dunes of a mid-Atlantic barrier island. Which is to say, the viral phrase had quite literally gone coast to coast. It would not be all that crazy to say that Robert A. Falk, sitting in his dorm room in Kirkland, wrote the epitaph for the two decades that get called “the sixties,” and that he did so by writing a bumper sticker for America in the Age of Reagan.

Reprinted with permission from The Sounding of the Whale, by D. Graham Burnett, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2012 D. Graham Burnett. All rights reserved.

This program aired on February 13, 2012.