Why Did We “Save the Whales”?

It’s more complicated than you think

Paul Greenberg

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“Ban Whaling: people sign Japanese flag to stop whaling” by John Englart (Takver) is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse

“Whale Carpaccio — 130 Kroner.”

Thus read an appetizer on a menu at a restaurant in Bergen, Norway, when I dined there a few years back. I wanted to sample this odd dish. What would the experience be like? Would the meat be chewy like pork, or flaky like fish?

These were my thoughts when the waitress approached and asked (maybe a little sadistically?) if I’d like to “try the whale.” But before I could signal my assent, somewhere in the back of my mind a fuzzy ’70s-era television memory arose — the image of a Greenpeace Zodiac bobbing on the high seas defensively poised between a breaching whale and a Soviet harpoon cannon. “No,” I said, “I’ll have the mussels.”

I reprise this anecdote here not to show how evolved I am, but rather to juxtapose my hazy whale-belief structure with the much more nuanced understanding of a man who has immersed himself in the subtleties, trickeries, scandals and science of cetaceans. D. Graham Burnett, the author of “The Sounding of the Whale,” a sweeping, important study of cetacean science and policy, has quite literally “tried the whale” and could probably describe for you whale meat’s precise consistency. But he has also been tried by the whale in the deepest sense, because he spent a decade poring over thousands upon thousands of pages scattered in far-flung archives. If the whale swallowed Jonah whole, then Burnett has made a considerable effort to get as much of the whale as possible down his voluminous intellectual gullet.

“Whales and dolphins quite naturally go in the directions we call spiritual, in that they get into meditative states quite simply and easily.”

A reviewer pressed for time could, in lieu of an essay, put together a very respectable (or at least very weird) collage of all the “you’re kidding me, right?” facts about whales and whaling that appear on almost every one of Burnett’s information-soaked pages. That the waxy plug in a whale’s ear might work as a sound lens focusing song from miles away. That the Japanese World War II pilots who spotted submarines were retrained, postwar, to find whales. That whale scientists were seriously…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org