Why should we protect whales?

by Jörn Selling

Text: Jörn Selling Fotos: firmm

In spring I was contacted by a documentary film maker who wants to make a movie about the yearly massacre of pilot whales on the Faroe Islands (Denmark). His goal is to show that the animals are suffering despite the claim of the local fishers that their hunting and killing methods are “humane”. So he asked me a few question and they reminded me that our life is made of the death of other living creatures, whether it is a plant or an animal.  We also tend to push the death of the “others” to the back of our minds or to deny that the animals amongst them have anything in common with us. So it is easier to kill them more or less brutally without feeling guilty.

During the Grind, as the hunt of the pilot whales in the waters around the Faroe Islands is also called, the fishermen produce an enormous amount of underwater noise to drive the whales to the beach.  Apparently,  the pilot whales calmly swim towards their death.  But they probably only seem that calm as long as they can swim together in their relatively save group.  Do they suspect what awaits them? Scientists are still in the beginning stages of finding out about the acoustic communication between the whales that try to escape the source of noise that disturbs their communication. I strongly suspect that if we could understand what they are telling each other, we would perceive their total panic.

How much are whales and humans alike?

Science discovers more and more skills of whales, most often of dolphins because they are the most researched. Those skills make us realize how complex these animals are.

- Dolphins have self-awareness - they recognize themselves in a mirror - and sometimes they suffer that much in captivity that they commit suicide in dolphinariums.

- They use their intelligence to devise new processes (both as an individual and as a social being), for example new hunting techniques which are passed on to other members of the group so that a cultural development takes place in their population unit. Their memory is excellent; even after centuries they recognize the signature whistles of separated friends or relatives. They even use those signature whistles of missing individuals as if they were still talking about them.

- They grieve for their dead family members. At least the mothers do sometimes for their stillborn calves which they carry with them for days up to their beginning decay.

- They like to play (for example bowriding) and not always has it to do with learning important behaviour patterns. In captivity dolphins tend to invent new games to make their life more bearable.

- They help members of the same species and sometimes even of other species, not only in misery. In the Brazilian village Laguna they help the fishermen locating shoals of fish in the murky waters.

- They have different personalities and can act selflessly, so that complex social systems may arise-

- They develop speech. Toothed whales (which include dolphins) are producing not only sounds in their larynx, but also click sounds from their sonar system. A dolphin is able to imitate the sonar echo of a shark exactly as he had heard it, which enables other dolphins to see the very same picture. The pulses include a semi-holographic image of an object, which assumedly is three-dimensional, because dolphins are able to send out two clicks of different frequencies simultaneously in diverse directions. Thus, a stereo effect can be achieved, like you have it in a three dimensional cinema, for which is filmed with two objectives of different polarization simultaneously. Researchers come to the conclusion that dolphins use a universal sono pictorial language, which already has been used in a first attempt to communicate with dolphins.

- They use tools like snail shells and sea sponges for hunting. This enables them to exploit new resources, using new food.

Splashing Pilote Whale Calf Also Orcas express their joy of life like Pilot Whales This is called tailslapping 

Should they get the same rights as we have?

30 times as long as humans even exist, whales already belonged to the most intelligent creatures.Life on our planet is old; humankind in contrast with its science is quite young. Unfortunately knowledge doesn’t mean wisdom. We humans treated these peaceful creatures of our oceans anything but nice. Possibly their fate is lying in our hands.

When we get the chance to observe whales, to look right into their eyes, they seem strangely familiar to us. Who is not amazed or touched the moment they are coming voluntarily to the boat to observe us?

Shouldn’t we grant them the right for a healthy and self-determined life in freedom instead of poisoning their environment and hunting them?

Bottlenose Dolphin Calf next to protecting mother Pilotwhale Calf observes us Orcas observe us through the water surface 

Peter Wohlleben has written a book about “The soul life of animals” and “The secret life of trees”. By no means is it kitsch, but the result of serious research and long-lasting observations. He has described how trees in a forest are connected with each other, how they communicate in a network. He has described the inner life of pigs, whose treatment by us is still a good example for our industrial way of thinking that is detached from nature.

We humans are living in a network which we are cutting more and more. If we can’t find the way back to respect all life, we could harm this network so much that it probably one day won’t be able to support us anymore.  

Are these necessary changes of morale and legislation possible at all?

One century ago certainly only a few people would have imagined that wild animals one day will be protected for their own sake. Nowadays the necessity of such ideas is accepted generally, although the realisation leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe one day there will be a generation saying:  “It is amazing that our grandparents didn’t realize that whales have rights as well.”  Times are changing fast, hopefully for the better, for man is the only species that is aware that it could become extinct.

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