A Call for Saving Leviathan, for Saving the Whales

July 27, 2015 Updated: May 26, 2017

“From Hell’s Heart I stab at thee” decried Melville in “Moby Dick.” In the heyday of whaling, tens of thousands of sperm whales were destroyed for oil every year to light the cities of modern civilization. Advancing as the dominant force on earth, man slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the great mind of the oceans, the whales.

Is humanity capable of saving the seas? The ways the seas and the whales go, so does civilization. The seas are acidifying. Whales are key not just for their fecundation of the phytoplankton on which we depend for oxygen, but also for the entire immune system of the oceans. The oceans are being asked a reprieve. Without the life it sustains, humanity will drown. As Laurens van der Post wrote in “The Hunter and the Whale,” “Killing disproportionately was the last unforgiveable depravity.”

It was pity not for itself, but for the entire human race!
— Cyril Christo

“Thinking Like a Dolphin,” National Geographic’s May issue cover story, confirms the urgency of the issue and underscores the supreme importance of cetaceans to humanity. I once heard Paul Watson speaking out for the cetaceans. He shared an anecdote from several decades ago, when he tried to stop a Russian whaler from harpooning a sperm whale. His words carried all the power of a fury decrying the modern Ahabs as he maneuvered with his zodiac trying to position himself between the long steel blade and the brain of one of the most remarkable beings on earth. Eventually the harpoon found its way into the body of the sperm whale causing untold agony.

In the depths of its pain, surrounded by pools of blood, as the ocean turned crimson, the whale’s eye, reflecting the earth in miniature, shot a glance of what seemed like a depth charge of pity at Watson and his men. It was pity, full of loss of an enormous warrior who has battled giant squid and the ferocious crushing solitude of the fathoms below. It was pity not for itself, but for the entire human race! When Watson discovered that the whale oil of exceptional quality was being used to lubricate Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles by the Soviet Union, his voice rose and trembled because he felt the human species had gone completely mad.

Grey whale in the Pacific Ocean by Baja California, March 2015. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)
Grey whale in the Pacific Ocean by Baja California, March 2015. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)

The peak days of whaling are over, most whale populations have survived, but some like the southern right whales are exceptionally vulnerable. The ignominy of hundreds of years of slaughter and now industrial pollution is crucifying the cetacean mind.

In ancient Greece and even more recently off the coast of India there are many stories of dolphins saving humans from drowning. Arion who invented the dithyramb (a wild ancient Greek choral hymn) tells the story of the dolphin that saved the life of a singer who was thrown from a ship into the sea. Pliny the Elder, Cicero, Oppian in his long poem “Halieutica,” and the great historian Herodotus tell similar tales of the incomparable human cetacean bond.

Korianos’ story as told by Plutarch is perhaps the most inspired. Some fishermen in Byzantium were to kill a group of dolphins. Korianos interceded, paid the fishermen and freed the dolphins from their net. The dolphins gave a long look at Korianos and then departed. A few weeks later, a storm raging off the coast capsized a boat on which Korianos was onboard. He alone survived and was saved by a dolphin that carried him to shore. Plutarch mentions that when Korianos died, a group of dolphins appeared before his funeral pyre with heads above water to mourn, as his human companions had done. When the smoke cleared, the dolphins disappeared and were never seen again! (from “The Dolphin, Cousin to Man by Robert Stenuit 1968).

We have become humans by our relationship with the other. Frederic Cuvier, the French naturalist wrote, “Dolphins, for modern seamen, are nothing but animals covered with thick layers of blubber, and sought after for commerce. For the Greeks, they were, in certain cases, almost sacred beings, and sometimes messengers of the gods. Apollo took the form of a dolphin. When dolphins were met by the sailors of old, they were respected as harbingers of good fortune, and it was almost a sacrilege to kill them.”

By contrast the horror and continued slaughter of dolphins and pilot whales in Taiji, Japan and their whaling industry should galvanize the International community not just to condemn their so called scientific research but encourage outright international sanctions from the international community, and the International Court of Justice. It was on March 31, 2014 that the Court ordered Japan to stop whaling. While Tokyo may have called off its 2014–2015 “research program” and hunting in Antarctica, Japan still seeks to resume hunts by scrambling for ways to make their massacre of the innocent animals more scientific!

The answer to whether we hold onto the life force will come through an emotional commitment to life, to the greater poetry of existence.
— Cyril Christo

Even Aboriginal groups have allied themselves with Iceland, Norway, Japan and the Faroese as apologists for whaling interests. After a pause of two years, Iceland resumed its fin whale hunting and lately tried what many conservationists decried as barbaric “whale beer.” That whales have been shipped to Japan and ended up in dog food products, should give humanity absolute pause as to our place on this planet.

In March 2009, 90 pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins were beached in Hamelin Bay Australia. In January 2005, 33 pilot whales were beached on Oregon’s coast. Stranding continues. Sonic blasts from the US Navy continue to destroy the ears of whales worldwide. In the process, humanity has become deaf to the song of the earth. The whales and elephants, the two biggest bookends of life on earth uphold a large measure of the planet as we know it. Without them, we will cease to be anything recognizably human.

It is not just a question of whaling, it is not merely an issue of conservation and wildlife that is at stake, we are facing an ontological crisis of whether humanity can hold onto the last vestige of itself.
— Cyril Christo

One of the most radical and sentient experiences on earth comes through the body of the grey whale. They too were almost exterminated in the middle 19th century, but with the whaling ban in 1946 the greys came back from the brink and now number over 20,000. Climate change may challenge them up north in the Bering Sea where they feed, but for now humankind has allowed a new lease on life. It is why Chevron’s attempt to drill in the Chukchi Sea should be banned. It is why Greenpeace activists’ attempts to stop any drilling in the Arctic should be remembered, applauded and supported in every way possible.

Grey whale in the Pacific Ocean by Baja California, March 2015. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)
Grey whale in the Pacific Ocean by Baja California, March 2015. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) just celebrated the 15th anniversary of saving San Ignacio Bay in Baja. The greatest calving ground for grey whales could have become an industrial site for the Japanese and their salt factory. Instead, the greys, after the longest mammalian migration on earth, come to marvel at the human enigma and look at us in the eye from a few inches away. We can reach out to 30-ton behemoths in a sacred communion like no other species on earth—to think we could have lost them forever!  

Roger Payne, who knew the whales as few have ever known, wrote in his book Among Whales” that no Shakespeare, Beethoven or Van Gogh can ever atone for what humans have done to Nature. In this critical time when nations hide behind a false science for hunting quotas, when statistics and facts and algorithms cloud our relationship to life, we should remember what an elephant researcher in South Africa once told me; that the answer to whether we hold onto the life force will come through an emotional commitment to life, to the greater poetry of existence.

Sonic blasts from the US Navy continue to destroy the ears of whales worldwide. In the process, humanity has become deaf to the song of the earth.
— Cyril Christo

As an ice free summer looms just over the horizon, our relationship to life has reached an impasse. The horrors humanity does to itself it does to Creation. His wayward being is reflected in every corner of the world, from the Amazonian dams threatening the largest rainforest on earth, to the pollution of the seas and overfishing, to the seemingly irreparable loss of the ice-sheets, to the slaughter of the innocent. On top of this barrage of challenges looms climate change.

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Yachtsman Ian Macfadyen recently journeyed from Melbourne to Osaka and met with an eerie silence on his journey. Ten years before he could survive by dropping a line to catch a fish, this time nothing, and no birds. And on his voyage from Japan to California, he was met by almost no life, no dolphins, no sharks, little that could remind him of what life exists, or existed in the seas. Instead of life abounding everywhere, as Thor Heyerdahl may have met on his Kon Tiki expedition, a nauseous silence pervaded his journey. He did meet with one lone whale that seemed to have a tumor on its back. Vast amounts of garbage pervaded the ocean, modern man’s legacy to the future of this big blue marble and only life-giving planet we know of in the entire universe. He has asked ministers if the garbage could somehow be picked up. They responded the amount of oil needed to cover that expanse would be worse than the actual garbage itself. And yet there must be a way.

Grey whale in the Pacific Ocean by Baja California, March 2015. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)
Grey whale in the Pacific Ocean by Baja California, March 2015. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)

Lyall Watson, the South African writer gave us the “Gift of Unknown Things” and “Elephantoms.” At the end of his dedication to the African elephant he eloquently described a lone elephant in South Africa who was poised over the edge of a cliff. He wondered what he was doing? He mused about the future of elephants and where these majestic, irreplaceable monarchs of Africa were heading in this enormously fragile time. He looked down the escarpment and noticed a whale. And then it hit him. What the elephant saw in the distance was a single whale, both monarchs of Creation, facing each other like the two great pillars of existence. Could they possibly have been communicating with one another? Humanity stands between these two imponderable orders of sentience like a humble, not yet fully evolved order. If the whale and the elephant were somehow able to converse or at least acknowledge each other’s presence in the universe, then surely we ought to be able to pause and listen to different magnitudes of being, before we have converted the entire planet to a high tech slum as Edward Abbey so aptly proclaimed. If we care anything about why we have children and the life of coming generations, then we need to reverse course now.

Last summer in the Antarctic was the first season in over 100 years that no whales were butchered. It is not just a question of whaling, it is not merely an issue of conservation and wildlife that is at stake, we are facing an ontological crisis of whether humanity can hold onto the last vestige of itself. The whales are the greatest single sentinels of their kind. The greys, the dolphins and the other whales of their great order are the greatest mass of revelation on earth. They represent and incarnate the perfection of coherence with Creation. They are necessary sentinels on the path to our own redemption. We need them now more than ever. We cannot fail them.

Cyril Christo is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He and his wife, Marie Wilkinson, have travelled extensively around the world. They have published several photography books exploring ecological and man-made challenges and endangered bioregions and species. The couple is currently working on a documentary film, “Walking Thunder: The Last Stand of the African Elephant,” which weaves a family’s personal journey in East Africa with indigenous people’s stories. 

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.