By Roger Payne
Scribner, 431 pp

Among Whales is the summation of a lifetime of study by one of the world’s foremost authorities on whales. Above all, it drives home two points. First, we know next to nothing about whales. Second, we know enough to know that killing them is unforgivable.

We certainly don’t kill them out of self-defence. Whales are among the most benign, peaceable creatures on Earth. And not even whalers would say we kill them for sport. Whale hunting consists of chasing the quarry down in 100-tonne catcher boats, sailing close enough to fire an explosive harpoon into exposed flesh from a high-powered cannon, then butchering the carcass on the deck of a factory ship while immense open vats boil the meat down for its oil. There’s no honour in that.

There is no morally defensible reason why Japanese, Norwegian or Icelandic vessels should still be slaughtering these animals. There isn’t one product rendered from the carcass of a whale that cannot be manufactured by other means. The days of whale-oil margarine and whale-bone corsets are long gone.

Yet despite an international moratorium declared in 1986, the whalers are still out there. The whaling nations contend their reasons are benign, that the whale hunt is essential to the livelihoods and cultures of entire sea-faring communities. Roger Payne, who has been an adviser to the International Whaling Commission for more than 20 years, tells a different story.

The IWC is not a body uniformly devoted to the protection of whales. Like any international caucus, it seethes with competing interests. Nor is it called the Anti-Whaling Commission. Divided though it may be, its membership tends to represent the sector of the global economy that depends on the sea. Despite the advice of scientists and the protests of activists, the IWC is a diplomatic apparatus for deciding how much they can all get away with. The fact remains that there is still a market for whale products, and money speaks louder than morals.

The most callous of the offenders, in Payne’s view, are the Japanese. He loves them as a people, but they happen to have a taste for whale “belly meat” – a strip of muscle that runs down to the navel. Their proud isolationism also means they’ll be damned if they’re going to let other countries tell them how to conduct their business.

In the name of tiny coastal communities, then, the Japanese are not above buying the IWC votes of Caribbean nations with enormous development projects, or using a loophole that permits whaling for “scientific” purposes, or gumming up IWC meetings with petty points of protocol. Payne cites the example of a conference in Brighton, England, at which the Japanese power play consisted of attempting to have him ejected on the grounds that his credentials had been faxed rather than mailed, as the regulations clearly stipulated.

The incident couldn’t have been more absurd, except that the hotel was hosting a convention of Elvis impersonators at the same time. The chapter on the IWC alone is recommended reading for students of international relations.

But this makes it sound as though the book is about bureaucracy, when it’s really about whales and what we know about them. If anyone is well placed to tell this story, it is Payne, currently president of the Whale Conservation Institute in Lincoln, Mass. In the sixties, he was the one who noticed that the calls of whales conformed to the formal structure of human songs. In the seventies, he suggested that these vocalizations might carry across entire oceans, over distances of perhaps 4,800 kilometres. At the time, conventional wisdom scoffed, but the latest studies indicate he was on to something.

For all his expertise, though, at every turn he confesses ignorance. Whales are the largest animals alive, the blue whale far bigger than any dinosaur. But unlike the dinosaurs, whales have these enormous brains. Why? What do they use them for? How smart are they?

There are a host of theories, and Payne arrays them all, but he also stresses there is not a shred of evidence one way or another. He himself spent years on a windswept crag in Patagonia, observing the same population of right whales; he studied whales the way Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees. But while Goodall has been able to get close enough, regularly enough, to map the social structure of her chimps, humans cannot swim with whales through the depths where they spend much of their time.

Those studying whale populations are limited to sightings at the surface. Even identifying individuals in a pod is a tricky business dependent on identifiable scars and patterns of parasite infestation.

The most interesting questions about whales, therefore, remain unanswered. What’s their kinship structure? What do their songs mean? What are their migratory patterns? Why do they migrate? If anything, the fact that the answers to these questions are up for grabs makes Among Whales the more tantalizing. The theories are often brilliantly inventive, but what’s really needed is more research.

This is a fine book, brimming with facts and ideas, not to mention passionately, literately written. There is only one caveat: The manuscript could have used a more steely-eyed editor. It is too often meandering and repetitive. The chapters aren’t in the right order. The fact checking isn’t what it might be. At one point, the book asserts that whales are 95 per cent water. Almost 50 pages later, the figure has dropped to 65 per cent.

Quibble, quibble. eg

  • Globe and Mail July 1, 1995