LIFE ON THE PLANET earth commenced around three billion years ago in the fertile, seething seas. Eventually creatures left the water to try to survive on land. One form of life that evolved was a child-bearing, milk-suckling mammal. But about 50 million years ago some of the mammals that had formed the habit of eating fish returned to the seas. They were the ancient ancestors of the modern Cetacea--dolphins, porpoises and whales.
The land mammal, man, has been waging war on the sea mammals, Cetacea, for centuries. Archeologists believe Alaskan Eskimos have been whaling for over 2000 years. But some groups have been working to even the odds for the whales. In recent years controversy has arisen over whether the Eskimos should be allowed to continue killing the bowhead whale.
Last year the 17-nation International Whaling Commission (IWC) decided to ban bowhead hunting effective this year. A decade ago 10,000 of these sea-giants roamed the waters of the world; the IWC estimates that today there are only about 1000 remaining. But last Wednesday the IWC compromised its position just before the ban was to take effect. At the request of the U.S. government the IWC voted to allow the Eskimos a quota of 12 whales. Eskimo leaders promptly responded that they would "be forced to break a quota that small," according to The New York Times.
Consequently, this is an unfortunate reversal. Not only will this measure speed up the extinction of whales, it will not help the Eskimos. The quota is too low to meet the needs of the Eskimos, who have relied heavily on the whale for food. The Eskimos are finding it increasingly difficult to live apart from the rest of the world. Dr. Robert Coles, who has studied the dilemma, said the Eskimos are protesting the abolition of whale hunting because it is one of "the last gasps of their culture." Coles noted that the Eskimos are becoming more dependent on the federal government and the village store for their survival. And some are moving to the cities where the invidious, plastic Safeway replaces man in hand-crafted, walrus-skinned boats as the provider of food.
IF THE ESKIMOS were allowed to whale without restrictions, the bowhead might well be extinct within a decade or two. Time-whitened bones and Eskimo legends would be the lonely legacy of the 60-foot-long, 20-ton leviathan. And both the whale and the Eskimo would lose in the long run. On the other hand, a complete ban on bowhead whaling would hasten the erosion of a once vital way of life.
In searching for a way to solve the dilemma, the IWC and the U.S. have adopted a strategy that has the disadvantages of both possibilities and the advantages of neither. By tossing the Eskimos a few crumbs (whales), the IWC insults their dignity and fails to halt the decline of their culture. And given the likelihood that the Eskimos will kill more than 12 whales anyway, the compromise will contribute to the extinction of the bowhead. Though the drawbacks of a total ban on bowhead whaling should not be glossed over, it is the best solution.
IN THE DEBATE over bans, quotas and saving the whales, the intriguing possibility that these creatures may be highly intelligent is being overlooked. The cerebral cortex, the part of the brain thought to be responsible for intelligence and sense perception, is well-developed in the whale and resembles man's cortex in several ways. (For more information on this subject see Mind in the Waters, ed. by Joan McIntyre.) The size and complexity of the Cetacean's brain, though not yet undeniably linked to an ability to reason and feel, raises tantalizing questions. Can whales live? Do they have an oral history? Are they happier than the acquisitive human being? Will we ever be able to communicate verbally with the bowhead? Have they ever read Camus?
Why are whales and dolphins such friendly and seemingly sensitive creatures, never known to attack a human being unless harpooned? It may be that echolocation, an adaptation to the eternal darkness of the ocean's depths, accounts for the unique personality of the whale. In echolocation, the whale projects high frequency sounds forwards. The sound waves bounce off objects, then return to the sound chamber in his forehead. He can tell the distance of the object by the strength of the returning sound wave. But these high frequency sound waves penetrate skin as well as water. Dr. John Sutphen, interested in diagnosing illnesses with sonar, conjectures that
It is reasonable to assume that Cetaceans are aware of each other's health. Cancers and tumors must be self-evident...they could be constantly aware of a considerable portion of each other's emotional states. The psychophysiological alterations of sexual arousal, fear, depression and excitement may be impossible to hide....What sort of candor might exist between individuals where feelings are instantly and constantly bared?
There has been some striking speculation that whales may have a language. Cetaceans have a highly developed sense of hearing that evolved--as did echolocution--to compensate for an inability to see underwater. The noises they make sound like clicks and whistles and meaningless barks to the human ear. However, some observers have noticed that whales put these sounds together in startling ways. Cummings and Philippi, who worked on the Navy's marine mammal research program, found that in the right whale, "Low frequency sounds occurred in similar stanzas lasting 11 to 14 minutes...These phonetic components...were so orderly that listeners could predict the appearance of the next type of signal." Carl Sagan noticed that the same phenomenon occurs in the humpback whale who is known to sing "songs" that are up to 30 minutes long, and then to repeat them a little later "phoneme for phoneme." He asks, "Is it possible that the intelligence of Cetaceans is channeled into the equivalent of epic poetry, history and elaborate codes of social interaction?"
IN A SENSE, if the whales die we will be all alone. An old fisherman with a poetic soul put it well. "They was t'ousands of the big whales on the coast them times...They whales never hurted we, and we never hurted they...And I'll tell you one quare thing. So long as they was on the fishing grounds along of we, I never was afeard of anything, no, nor never felt lonely neither. But after times, when the whales was all done to death...I'd get a lonely feeling in my belly, like the world was all empty. I missed them whales when they were gone. 'Tis strange. Some folks say as whales are only fish. No, bye! They's too smart for fish. I don't say as what they's not the smartest creatures in God's ocean. Aye and maybe out of it as well."
Aye, and maybe.