Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling

On 19 January 2006, staff at the Thames Barrier, the flood defence structure a few miles downstream of central London, reported a possible sighting of a whale swimming toward the city. The next day, the sighting was confirmed and Thames Whale, as she became known, gained huge public interest.

Within sight of London’s most familiar landmarks, media teams and spectators lined the river banks, hoping for a glimpse. Far removed from her normal habitat, and suffering a lot of stress, things for the whale didn’t look good. In spite of the best efforts from rescuers, she died two days later of internal damage.

The novelty factor was a significant part of the interest generated. For many, this was the first time they had seen a whale, and the last place they expected to see one. But there was much more at play here. Subliminally or otherwise, the Thames Whale invoked the environmental protection mantras so many grew up with.

The 1980s’ Save the Whale movement was a turning point in environmental campaigning, marking the beginnings of contemporary global, issues led, protest. The whale, hunted near to extinction, became a Barthes-esque mythology, encapsulating an idea synecdochical for the damage we humans are doing to the world around us.

In Harpoon into the Heart of Whaling, environmental reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald Andrew Darby examines the history of industrial whaling, from its emergence, through its heyday, and into the present. The text’s structure is broadly chronological, though broken up in an innovative fashion with each of the five sections named after a different species of whale. “When I looked back from the 21st century, it just so happened that each [species] stood as an allegory for a whaling era of the past, and its consequences now,” Darby explains.

Darby’s experience as a reporter is visible in his writing. The text is analytical yet clear, packed with valuable supporting quotes from authorities in every area. From international diplomats to whalers themselves, Darby has sought the right people to speak with. To be sure, Darby is fervently anti-whaling, so at times the narrative is as much personal as it is scientific. Including personal anecdotes is a risky business, but Darby gets it right — successfully negotiating the fine balance between a dull, depersonalised and detached copy, and a self-obsessed journo for whom any subject matter is just a great excuse to talk about himself.

The meat of Darby’s story begins in Adventure Bay, Tasmania, in 1833. Or, more accurately it starts aboard the whaling vessel Caroline which, like others before and since, would scour the Southern Ocean in the hunt Right whales. The Right, suggests Darby, was ‘a casualty of the industrial revolution.’ Oil, distilled from whale blubber, fuelled miners’ headlamps and lubricated machinery. The hunting of the Right whale to near extinction was intrinsic to the development of the industrial economy on which our comfortable 21st century lifestyle is based.

As Right numbers declined and whaling technology developed, so hunters moved onto the Blue. With speedy petrol engined boats, and exploding harpoons the commercial whaling industry came of age. Any illusions that whaling was about bravery and sportsmanship were thoroughly effaced, hunting success was an inevitability and whale stock levels plummeted faster than ever. Whale oil remained a valuable industrial commodity, finding a place in consumer culture in the form of soap and margarine.

The 1930s, however, saw the first attempts to control whaling and prevent extinctions. The Geneva Convention on Whaling was conceived as an attempt to protect females with calves, and the calves themselves from the harpoon operators’ crosshair. But several countries, including the Soviet Union and Japan, refused to sign up. World War II provided a brief respite for whales, as sailors were enlisted to their country’s navies, but the end of hostilities marked a rapid resumption.

And so begins the story of contemporary whaling. This is a story of international political wranglings, of inflexible economic development models, of deeply held cultural and moral conventions (and their expedient reinterpretation), and of a plethora of scientific and pseudoscientific literature. It’s a story which tells of flaccid international agreements, of stubborn disagreements, tit for tat squabbles, and of allegations of cultural imperialism. Finally, it’s a story of media and publicity, and a green movement waking up to the potential of such vectors.

Its characters are campaigners, diplomats, business-people and politicians. From those governments in power on the anti-whaling side, we see a turgid talk of the anti-whaling talk, with an inability, or perhaps a refusal to, walk the walk. From the pro-whaling side, we hear rehashed arguments, twisted statistics, and vociferous denials that there is a problem.

Sound familiar? As well as being a wonderful and comprehensive analysis of whaling from its inception to the present, the text can be regarded as a parable of people’s inability to respond to environmental crises as they unfold. Though the population of many whale species is low, bar catastrophe, extinction is not imminent. This is a result of luck, rather than the good management of the decision makers. But how much have we learned from this?

Nothing, seemingly: CO2; Climate change; Kyoto… anyone listening?

RATING 8 / 10