Pictured: Sperm whale cow and calf [hr]

Mankind has had a rather curious relationship with whales throughout history. For years, all information on whales came from fishermen who killed them for their meat and their fat; only if a whale became beached, which was a rare occurrence, would the average landlubber lay eyes upon one.

In the past, these gigantic creatures had a reputation as monsters, as a careless captain could find his ship destroyed by whales. Indeed, the famous story of Moby Dick was inspired by the sinking of the 28m long Essex in 1820 after it was rammed by a sperm whale.

Today, most people would tell you that whales are really rather intelligent. We now know them to be mammals and not fish, and they could probably tell you that whales can be trained to perform tricks. Some of the more well-known species include the giant blue whale, the humpback whale and the sperm whale. Orcas, commonly called killer whales, are actually not whales at all, but are dolphins – the largest dolphin species in fact. However, since the general perception of them is that they are whales, they are being treated as such for this article.

The call of the humpback whale can be as low as 20Hz and travel as far as 10,000 km. Songs of the Humpback Whale is an album made entirely of humpback whale vocalisation, published in 1970. It is the bestselling environmental album of all time, having been certified triple platinum. It was the first album to feature the whales on lead vocals, and sparked huge interest in “Save the Whales” movements.

The blue whale’s song can be inaudible to humans as it can be as low as 10Hz, whereas the normal lower limit of human hearing is approximately 20Hz. It is believed that whales learn to sing early in their development, as their songs may play a part in the courtship and mating process. Whales develop a sound that is unique to each individual, a sound that identifies who they are. Every single pod of whales has a unique style of singing; this strengthens the group and serves to identify them against outsiders.

Whales can travel phenomenal distances each year. The humpback whale migrates approximately 5000km each year with virtually no break, travelling at 5-14km/h, whereas the killer whale does not travel as far, but can move up to 48km/h for short bursts.

“SeaWorld critics maintain that the living conditions at SeaWorld for the whales have been inappropriate and have literally driven several whales mad, resulting in whales injuring and killing humans, as well as each other.”

Since it was founded in 1964, SeaWorld has credited itself with the world falling in love with whales. However, the conditions at SeaWorld have fallen under heavy scrutiny in recent years, largely due to the documentary Blackfish. SeaWorld critics maintain that the living conditions at SeaWorld for the whales have been inappropriate and have literally driven several whales mad, resulting in whales injuring and killing humans, as well as each other. While parks such as SeaWorld have inspired many people about the beauty of whales, and have led many people to fall in love with them, the overwhelming opinion nowadays is that we do not have the facilities nor the right to raise such creatures in captivity, as they would have a better quality of life in their natural habitats. In one day in the wild, orcas can travel up to 160 kilometres. In captivity, orcas are not able to travel these distances, and are confined to the same surroundings. When confined to one area, animals will often exhibit signs of boredom, including biting and other anxious behaviours.

Whale watching is a popular tourist attraction, particularly in countries with many whales such as Iceland. The group hops onto a boat and are brought to a known location and can see the whales. In recent years however, experts have raised concerns about such activities. It is an unregulated activity, so anyone can take people out on tours, and if proper care isn’t taken, whales can be struck by the boats causing injury. Secondly, groups are typically brought to areas with high concentrations of whales, and the disturbance can lead to some groups leaving the area. This can mean a loss of food and extra energy spent to find new feeding grounds for the animals, both of which are detrimental to their wellbeing.

Indigenous tribes in many parts of the world have held great respect for whales. The Maori people of New Zealand believed whales to be sacred and whales play important roles as messengers of gods and as symbols of hope in many Maori legends.

Whale hunting has been an integral part of Inuit culture for centuries. Indeed, up around the Arctic circle, whale hunting has proven necessary to their survival. Traditional whaling is of a very different nature to commercial whaling.

In Canada, commercial whaling is outlawed, and at the turn of the 20th century, the population of bowhead whales had fallen almost to extinction. Inuits are provided with strict quotas to ensure appropriate herd levels are maintained. In 2014, an Inuit tribe successfully hunted a bowhead whale for the first time in roughly 100 years bringing great pride to the tribe. Perhaps surprisingly, Greenpeace supported this hunt, as they support sustainable and traditional hunting.

“The Maori people of New Zealand believed whales to be sacred and whales play important roles as messengers of gods and as symbols of hope in many Maori legends.”

 

Japan remains the most notorious country for commercial whaling. Archaeological evidence suggests the Japanese have consumed whales since 12,000 BC. Early methods of hunting were primitive, and included the use of harpoons. It has only been in the past 200 years that whaling has been modernised. Modern Japanese whaling was modelled on Norwegian methods, using cannons, exploding harpoons and engine ships. Controversy surrounds Japanese whaling nowadays as it is generally believed that the whalers do not stick to their quotas.

The modernised hunting techniques led to a dramatic decrease in whale populations around Japan, leading to the necessity of factory ships to allow the Japanese commence whaling near the Antarctic. For many years, Japanese officials refused to sign agreements to place quotas on whale hunting. A large problem was that for millennia whaling had been ingrained in Japanese culture. As committees were set up to place order on whaling, to ensure sustainable whale populations and continuation of the whaling industry, quotas were implemented, and on many occasions throughout the 20th century, Japan blatantly ignored these quotas. During the 80s Japan came up with a method by which they would continue whaling unimpeded, by launching research expeditions to take the whales for “scientific purposes”, the validity of which is highly disputed.

So what is the human opinion of the whale? It seems to be largely dependent on culture. Where whale hunting has been traditional, whales are viewed in a more economic light. In cultures where whales caused damage and cost lives, they were seen fearfully, and nowadays, in western culture, whales are generally seen romantically, as gentle giants. But, maybe the question we should really be asking is not how do we view the whales, but in what light do the whales see mankind?