Some folks says as whales is only fish. No, bye! They’s too smart for fish. I don’t say as what they’s not the smartest creatures in God’s ocean. […] Aye… and maybe out of it as well.
—Uncle Art, in Farley Mowat’s A Whale for the Killing
No sooner does man discover intelligence than he tries to involve it with his own stupidity.
In January 1967 Farley Mowat found himself the key figure, or perhaps more appropriately, the key human figure, at the centre of an international news story when an eighty-tonne pregnant fin whale got trapped in Aldridges Pond in Burgeo, a small fishing village on the south coast of Newfoundland, part of Canada’s remote northeastern territories. The whale’s sudden presence turned the small town on its ear, and the overwhelming media coverage that followed made Burgeo spin like a top.
Mowat’s work as a journalist, in conjunction with the fact that the community in which he lived consisted of 14 families when he first arrived in 1961, had already made the writer well-known by most if not all of Burgeo’s townsfolk. Even Mowat, who was born in Ontario yet always considered himself more of the earth than the urban world, couldn’t help but feel himself an outsider in awe of a town and its people whose existence has, for better or for worse, moved like clockwork or, perhaps more aptly, like the repetition of the tide. ‘They continued to live in their own time and their own way,’ Mowat wrote. ‘And their rhythm was the rhythm of the natural world.’
Mowat’s immediate reaction to the news that a great whale was swimming in Burgeo’s own Aldridges Pond was an exuberance akin to a child getting a puppy for Christmas. While the whale still holds much mystery today, even less was known about the species in 1967. Mowat included:
I have always been fascinated by the mysterious lives of the non-human animals who share this world with us, but until I went to live on the Sou’west Coast [of Newfoundland] the mystery of the whale had scarcely come my way, although it is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. Burgeo had given me the chance to approach that mystery when, each winter, a little group of fin whales took up seasonal residence for a few months in the waters of the archipelago.
But there was nothing seasonally ordinary about a fin whale in Aldridges Pond. Mowat saw an overflow of opportunities. He envisioned cetologists and marine biologists from all over the world travelling to Burgeo to study the whale. He envisioned the whale putting his good town on the map, garnering it a reputation as a significant setting of natural history and, perhaps through windfall, boosting the small town’s stagnant economy. And most importantly, he envisioned the wide gap of understanding between humans and whales cinched just a tiny bit.
To Mowat’s shock and dismay, none of these visions came to fruition. He caught wind of the whale’s presence only after a group of Burgeo sportsmen who, for reasons almost universally impossible to justify, began using the large animal’s faraway body as target practice, shooting at her with rifles from the pond’s edge. After Mowat rallied a few friends and later, the Mountie, to help him protect the whale, the gunners grew hostile and more aggressive in their tactics to torment the whale, who was now stranded due to the shallow shoals that made up the perimeter of Aldridges Pond.
That the man-whale relationship is foremost rooted in violence should not come as a surprise. Men have hunted whales for a very long time, as petroglyphs depicting men in boats harpooning whales, believed to date all the way back to 6000 BCE, suggest. In his book Whale, conservation biologist Joe Roman writes that ‘whale carvings from 2000 [BCE] have been found in the rock of Rødødy, an island off the northern Norwegian coast.’ Roman also writes:
The transition from subsistence to commercial use meant that the hunters and consumers were often unconnected to the ecosystems of the whaling grounds. Unlike the Inuit, who had elaborate rituals and a strong dependence on the survival of the species, whalers intent on profit had no such motivation.
Whaling got so out of hand that several different species of whale experienced a sharp decline in number. Many species have already reached endangered status. Some, like the Atlantic grey whale, are believed to have been whaled to extinction in the 18th century. And unfortunately, the profit-making fishermen of Mowat’s era have continued the same tradition, and not only with whales. Mowat bemoans the existence of a herring-reduction plant in Burgeo, a ‘highly mechanized, low-cost, low-employment [operation] […] intensely profitable, and the owners expect to continue making a big profit, even after the herring have been destroyed,’ by targeting capelin, a small fish found only in northern waters.
‘One of the executives,’ Mowat writes, ‘of an international fisheries corporation happily told me he expects the capelin supply will “hold up for as long as five or ten years.” What happens after that is something for which the fishing industry, apparently, has no great concern.’
We can trace the beginning of a so-called ‘modern’ history of man’s relationship to whales to the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, published in 1851 only to be mired in such obscurity that the book was even out of print by the time Melville died forty years later. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the leading writers of the day praised the novel back to life. Moby-Dick was not only celebrated for its literary techniques and innovations, but it was the first written account, fictional or otherwise, that introduced the world of whaling to a large, general audience. Before long, scholars and readers alike would recognise Captain Ahab’s obsession with the whale as something closer to human than just mere peculiarity, and today you’d be hard-pressed to find books on whales that didn’t contain at least one reference to Melville’s once obscure tale. Since 1851, our collective fascination with whales has gone from relatively nonexistent to something that has now permeated literature, science, world economics, and global politics.
True to form, the fin whale’s presence seemed to permeate the daily routines of Burgeo’s people. Tensions began to escalate as the fate of the fin whale in Aldridges Pond hung in the balance. After Mowat disseminated news of the whale to various media outlets in hopes of bringing scientific, biological, and medical professionals to Burgeo to tend to the animal, the small pond was soon transformed into centre stage of a full-blown media circus. Newfoundland’s opportunist Premier, Joseph Smallwood, went so far as to name the whale after himself (‘Moby Joe,’ even though the whale was female), despite never once visiting Burgeo the entire time the whale was in the pond. Instead, he appointed Mowat, the resident naturalist, ‘keeper’ of the whale.
Mowat’s whale most likely got herself stranded in Aldridges Pond by following a school of herring over the shoals that distinguished the pond from the larger opening into the North Atlantic waters. Her ability to breach the shoals may have been due to both a ravenous hunger on account of her pregnancy as well as an unusual rise in tide, which unfortunately lowered before she could escape. During Mowat’s frequent trips to the pond, he noticed another fin whale on the outside of the shoals who didn’t appear to be going anywhere but instead appeared to be swimming in wait. Mowat then noticed that whenever the whale in the pond sounded through her blowhole, the whale outside of the pond sounded back. It became apparent to Mowat not only that the whale outside of the pond was the same whale each time but that they were communicating. One time, when Mowat noticed more herring in the pond than usual, he conjectured that the whale on the outside had driven schools of herring into the pond so that the stranded whale had enough to eat. Mowat referred to the whale on the outside as the Guardian, who never left the pond’s edge so long as the other whale was still inside.
Outside of the Guardian, however, the concern that Mowat held for the health and safety of the whale felt largely unmatched. The cetologists and marine biologists whom Mowat thought would give an arm and a leg to study a live fin whale instead couldn’t be bothered, informing him that the whale would be dead within days, and a dead specimen wasn’t worth the complicated travel route to Burgeo. The few professionals that were interested in seeing the whale and offered assistance had difficulty actually getting there. The town, which had no airport, was only accessible by ferry or helicopter, and an untimely blizzard kept Burgeo unreachable.
But most of all, the initial shootings by some of his townsfolk, as well as their escalated episodes of aggression, appalled Mowat. Having to physically defend the whale, along with frantically trying to figure out how to keep her fed and from dying, rose to a mounting frustration in him, one that oftentimes verged on anger and retribution. Mowat even came close to sending the media a detailed account of his townsfolk’s behaviour, only to be talked out of it by his wife at the last moment. These events were particularly upsetting to Mowat because he resisted all he could in accepting the notion that his fellow townspeople were behaving like ‘savages.’ Additionally, he wrestled with the notion that man will always be savage, that savagery needn’t suggest anachronism because it still existed in the human heart, which he possessed, and in the human race, of which he belonged.
A Whale for the Killing is Mowat’s firsthand account of the events surrounding the whale in the pond. He laments the troubling history of man’s relationship to whales with a retrospective tone that suggests perhaps he himself felt foolish to believe what he initially envisioned, in addition to being surprised about what ended up happening:
…whales and men diverged from the common ancestry, one to become the most lordly form of life in the oceans, and the other to become the dominant animal on the land. The day came when the two would meet. The meeting was not a peaceful one, in mutual recognition of each other’s worth. As usual, it was man who set the terms—and he chose battle. It was a one-sided battle where man wielded the weapons, and the whales did the dying.
For meat, for oil, for blubber, or for sport. Of the times men have come into contact with whales, the results have mostly been covered in whale’s blood. How such an animal, one for whom man has held such fascination for centuries, has also inspired such violence, is perhaps a mystery as big as the whales themselves.