Category Archives: Inequality

On “Watching Whales Watching Us”

In an article called “Watching Whales Watching Us,” author Charles Siebert discusses the increasing concern humans have been developing for whales, particularly in the scientific community. It starts with a story about whales who were dying as a result of U.S. Navy sonar tests, which led to a Supreme Court case on behalf of the whales to protect them from sonar-related injuries, though it had to be framed in environmentalist language. The article then tells stories of whale-human interactions, highlighting behavior that seems puzzling, like the observation that some whales are most social when they are birthing and nursing, and “the question of why present-day gray-whale mothers, some of whom still bear harpoon scars, would take to seeking us out and gently shepherding their young into our arms is a mystery.”
Marine biologists also believe that whales learn to distinguish between areas where it’s safe to socialize with humans and areas where it’s not.
On my fourth and final day in Baja, I set out once more with Frohoff in Ranulfo Mayoral’s panga. We were well into Hour 2 of our watch that last day when a mother gray suddenly emerged from San Ignacio’s riled-up waters a short distance off our bow. Having trained my eye somewhat over the previous days, I knew straight off that this was the same mother from my first day’s encounter because of the telltale markings of her barnacles and orange sea lice, some 400 pounds of which gray whales typically bear upon their bodies all of their adult lives.
The mother gray let out a great exhale before sliding under again, only to re-emerge a moment later, this time with her male calf, who began treating us to such a rollicking display of playful turns and flips we soon dubbed him Little Nut. For the next 30 minutes or so, despite the choppy seas, mother and son repeatedly wove us and our boat into their designs, and then all at once Little Nut popped up directly alongside the boat again and held there. I reached over and touched him on the head, the smooth, shiny, melon-cask of him, dimpled everywhere with stubbles of hair.
Then, as spontaneously as the interaction had been initiated, it was deemed, by the mother at least, over; time to move on to other things. Not, however, before she abruptly decided to admit us into that exclusive club of unwitting whale riders, the many Sinbads and other, real-life seafarers of this world.“She’s coming under the boat,” Mayoral shouted, cutting the engine, and there we suddenly were, borne up on a swelling promontory of whale back, giddily airborne and helpless.
When Little Nut next emerged, the mother let us gently back down. She then thrust the whole of herself between her calf and our boat, and began to shepherd him away. For another 10 minutes or so, the two swam along about 50 yards off and parallel to us, the mother at one point going into a spectacular series of breaches, as if in both great relief and playful salutation, she and Little Nut fully off in their own element now, heading west toward the lagoon’s mouth and the open Pacific. “They’ll behave totally differently when they do decide to leave,” Mayoral said. “It’s all business out there. They know they’re going to be attacked and that they need food. There’s no time to be friendly.”
Here’s one excerpt where the author shows the connections both humans and whales felt for each other when they look in each other’s eyes.
The baby gray glided up to the boat’s edge, and then the whole of his long, hornbill-shaped head was rising up out of the water directly beside me, a huge, ovoid eye slowly opening to take me in. I’d never felt so beheld in my life.
The article also has some good examples of speciesism, as seen in the arguments of the U.S. Navy and the opinions of the majority of the Supreme Court justices. Another example is the suggestion that respecting whales means something different from respecting humans.
Human-whale relations have long been defined by this stark dualism: manic swings between mythologizing and massacre; between sublime awe and assiduous annihilation, the testimonies of their slayers often permeated with a deep sense of both remorse and respect for the victims.
This is very pretty language, but how can anyone say they respect someone when they are killing them? When do you ever hear a human talk about the deep respect they have for another human they killed? If what they were feeling was really remorse, wouldn’t they stop killing them? Neither mythologizing someone nor massacring them can be considered respect. Killing humans is vilified. Killing nonhuman animals is romanticized. This is speciesism.