Living alongside humans

Humans and whales and dolphins have had a mixed relationship over the years, and our impact on their lives has been considerable. Today, however, the relationship is evolving to be one where more and more people want to see whales and dolphins protected.

Whaling before the ban

Long before electricity was first harnessed, before the industrial revolution changed everything, and even before agriculture was fully developed, mankind turned to the animal kingdom to find ways of surviving. Unfortunately for many of those other species, we became rather good at it.

Because of their immense size, whales were among the many creatures of this planet to be harvested for human sustenance. Coastal communities, many of them in cold regions, became expert in stripping the mighty mammals of their meat, their oils, and their fat, all used to provide food or heat. As the centuries passed, whaling became better organised and even more successful, and by the 20th century, demand was such that some species were heading for extinction. Perversely, even though mankind no longer needed the food and fuel that the whales provided thanks to a host of alternative food and heat sources, the whaling continued.

scrimsaw, sperm whale teeth

Alongside these increasingly redundant reasons for whaling had arisen a number of, sometimes literally, cosmetic industries, too. Ambergris, made from secretions within sperm whale intestines, was harvested as a fixative for perfumes. The tusks of narwhals had become highly prized alternatives to elephant ivory. Even the baleen, the filter plates that large whales use to feed on tiny animals, was being converted into those 'essential' everyday items - collar-stiffeners and parasol ribs.

By the 1930s, it was estimated that at least 50,000 whales were being slaughtered ever year, an unsustainable level. At that rate, the world's parasols would have continued in good nick, but the seas would be soon be empty of whales. Soon after World War II, the International Whaling Commission was set up to protect 'whale stocks' and 'make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry'. By the 1980s, the whaling industry was showing no signs of being brought to order, and so there was only one solution left: a moratorium on all commercial whaling. This was brought into force in 1986.

Whaling after the ban

Never underestimate the force of popular opinion. In the 1970s, a growing international sense that whaling was not just depleting numbers of these mighty animals in the seas, but was actually morally wrong, began to take shape. By 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted to implement a moratorium on the practice, and this ban came to pass four years later. There was only one exemption to the ban, the hunting by aboriginal communities that could still claim that they depended upon this traditional practice. Some countries were, however, able to exploit loopholes in the original ban, by claiming they were hunting under the guise of scientific permits or because they rejected the ban outright.

Japanese whaling, dead minke whale

The initial thinking was that commercial whaling was far outstripping the number of whales that remained, and that the pause would allow populations of whales to rebuild once more. As the years passed, however, more and more nations, and their peoples, began to feel that whaling had become unacceptable, no matter how many whales there might be.

The governments of some nations opposed the ban, Japan perhaps the most significant among them. Each year, the country allows its whalers to hunt a maximum number of whales in the so-called interests of 'scientific research', although many people believe that this ‘research’ is in fact a guise for commercial whaling. Today, all these years later, even though the IWC is attended voluntarily, and there are no penalties for leaving it and ignoring its advice, only Norway's and Iceland's whalers have taken up commercial whaling once more… and in all three countries there is growing public opinion against the practice.

Other ways to die

When most people think of threats to whales and dolphins, it’s whaling that generally comes first to mind. Yet, tragically, mankind has found many other ways to destroy them, some through negligence, others deliberate.

Of them all, drive hunts could be considered the most sinister. This is a practice conducted mainly in Japan whereby dolphins are herded by boats into a bay or onto a beach. In their fear and confusion, the dolphins frequently damage themselves, while the hunters simply gather round and slaughter them for their meat or take them to sell to the captivity industry. Within minutes, the waters are red with the animals’ blood.

Ganges River dolphin and net

Other threats are not necessarily as deliberate as drive hunts, but can be just as damaging and distressing for whales and dolphins. Bycatch, for example, is the term used to describe the entanglement of the mammals in large fishing nets, which leads to distress, injury, and frequently death from suffocation or drowning. Some steps are being taken to try to avoid bycatch – such as the use of ‘trapdoors’ within nets – but there’s still a long way to go. Excessive fishing could also destroy the natural food sources of many whales and dolphins, forcing them away from usual habitats to avoid starvation.

Another threat involves one of these marine mammals’ most notable skills – underwater echolocation, or sonar. Many whales and dolphins rely heavily on sonar, emitting calls beneath the surface which, when they bounce back, help them to locate predators, prey, and migratory routes. The human use of sonar, as well as other underwater sounds, can confuse whales and dolphins, sending them off into alien waters.

Add in marine pollution, and collisions with boats, and it’s clear there are still many threats to whales and dolphins yet to be fully tackled.

Whales and dolphins in culture

Whales and dolphins have been held in the highest of esteem by mankind for millennia. Dolphins often appear in Greek mythology, almost always helping lost heroes back to shore. They were sacred to some of the gods, and in some cases, were gods or supernatural beings themselves. The Ganges River dolphin, for example, heralded the descent of Ganga from heaven, while the Amazon river dolphins were believed to be shapeshifters.

Amazon River dolphin parade, Colombia

The great whales were once even more mysterious, rarely encountered by early humans. Chinese mythology includes a whale with a man's hands and feet that ruled the ocean. Some cultures, such as in Ghana and Vietnam, have associated whales with divinity, holding ceremonies for them when they beach.

Yet with admiration can often come a desire to destroy, with dire repercussions. An Icelandic myth tells of a man who killed a fin whale, and who as punishment was not to revisit the sea for 20 years. With one year left to go, he broke the ban and returned to the waters, whereupon he was instantly killed by a whale. In more modern times, the famous American novel Moby-Dick explores similar psychological traits of obsession and the self-destruction that this lack of wisdom brings about.

Destroy a whale or dolphin, and you will destroy yourself, is the subtext. By the second half of the 20th century, the animals had become quasi-spiritual symbols once more in western new age culture, while films ranging from Free Willy to Whale Rider and Big Miracle had them representing our own inner desires for freedom and self-expression. Whales and dolphins, even today, are seen as seagoing expressions of our own loves and fears. Their role in human culture shows just how strongly we feel associated with them.