The Thames Whale and the Killers in Eden

Whenever there is news of whales, I think of a documentary I caught not long ago about the "Killers of Eden," a group of orca off the coast of Eden in southern Australia who helped local fishermen hunt and kill migrating baleen whales in the late 19th century. By flapping their tails against the water outside one family's house, the orca would notify the fisherman when the large migrants were coming through, and the humans and orca would hunt together. After a successful kill, the carcass remained in the water for a few days so that the orca pod could eat the tongue. The fisherman then retrieved and used the rest of the whale. Crazy, huh? It's a stunning, well-documented story of cooperation between species.As my own concern for environmental issues emerged, it had little connection to whales. I had never seen one when, at Jr. High Drama Camp I was voted "Most Likely to Save a Whale." The acknowledgment was, rather, a snarky nod to the recycling regimen and youthful vegetarian evangelism I imposed on my fellow, reluctant thespians. By the time of my late 80s adolescence, whale saving had morphed into a bumper sticker slogan joke. Distanced from the PR-savvy, heroic imagery of Greenpeace activists risking their lives under the rain of Soviet harpoons, years later in suburban Denver, "save the whales" like "treehugging" or "Spotted Owl loving," had become a successful rhetorical repository for the freakish, irrational, and anti-industry.

Last week, whale saving became concrete, again, on an international stage. A Greenpeace activist nearly bit it at the hands of a Japanese whaler. Then, the Greenpeace Southern Ocean campaign came to smelly, blubbery end, when a twenty ton carcass was dumped on the steps of the Japanese Embassy in Berlin. Pretty ballsy. Now an endangered Right Whale has washed up on the coast of Florida, and others have been seen out of range off of Texas. And, of course, the bottlenose whale made its famous Thames diversion. We seem to have reached a sort of whale tipping point, an opportunity to raise awareness about how their condition relates to the health of our oceans, human health, rising sea levels ...

By Wednesday we should know from the necropsy why the Northern bottlenose left its pod for an ill-fated London visit. Sonar from Navy ships? Illness? Odd word, necropsy. Until looking it up, I didn't know that it refers to the animal version of an autopsy. According to Wikipedia, both words derive from Greek: autopsy, to see oneself, and necropsy, to see a dead body. Apparently calling a human autopsy a necropsy is considered an insult.

This human/animal division takes me back to the Killers of Eden, and the history of inter-species trust that made the later whaling symbiosis possible. The Yuin people that preceded European-origin fisherpeople on the shores of Eden believed that the orca were reincarnations of their departed, and thus made no such distinction between themselves and the animals, between the types of dead. They apparently left their hunted carcasses as offerings for the orca. Generations of this interaction seem to have led to the possibility for the partnership called the "law of the tongue."

The Eden tale does have a sad ending, as most whale stories inevitably do, with the history of over-whaling (though I haven't seen Free Willy or Whale Rider!). But you should read about it for yourself, or see the documentary, just because the potential is so extraordinary. I'm not suggesting some sort of kitschy romanticizing of the Yuin (about whom I know nothing beyond the documentary). But as we do our part to help the whales out, while simultaneously watching entities beyond our control destroy life on a scale as massive as the oceans, it's nice to hold on to those little bits of wonder and potential. If all of the people who wanted to see the whale escape from the Thames alive became actively concerned about the fate of whales in general, as much as thirty years ago, who knows? ::

NRDC and Sonar
Sea Shepard Conservation Society
World Wildlife Federation
Animal Planet Marine Mammal Guide
Killers of Eden
Nature Documentary: Killers in Eden